The New South Wales strategy of “living with COVID” has come under fire from a public health expert, who says the state is holding the rest of the country to ransom.
And amid ongoing concern over NSW’s handling of the virus, there are questions over why the March Grand Prix has been postponed while the Australian Open is still going ahead in January.
For Australia to successfully contain outbreaks until the vaccine arrives, it needs a nationally consistent approach, UNSW strategic health policy consultant Bill Bowtell said.
Professor Bowtell said there needed to be more consistency at borders, a better hotel quarantine system, and a national agreement on striving for zero new cases.
“The government of NSW has been letting the side down,” he told The New Daily.
Unlike the rest of the country, NSW has avoided large-scale, hard lockdowns when cases of community transmission have occurred.
Although the state has been effective in getting on top of outbreaks, it has created pandemonium in other parts of the country as state governments respond to their approach with a hotchpotch of restrictions and border closures.
Professor Bowtell said this had put the nation at risk.
“NSW has decided that it is inevitable the virus will come in. But that’s just not so, and the Australian people don’t support it. They support zero cases,” he said.
The country will continue to face outbreaks if issues in the hotel quarantine aren’t fixed and with the UK strain now on our doorstep, it could lead to widespread cases, Professor Bowtell said.
His comments come after the Queensland government revealed on Tuesday that a man in Queensland with the infectious UK strain was in the community for two days before entering isolation.
“We can never have suppression. But you can have zero cases. You just have to have strong hard borders. That is the lesson of the last year,” Professor Bowtell said.
“Living with COVID fails, hotspots fail, being proportionate fails.
“Hard, strong borders, total vigilance, contact tracing and a commitment to zero cases doesn’t fail.”
The NSW response has attracted criticism from other quarters, too.
WA Labor premier Mark McGowan reignited an ongoing border feud with the Berejiklian government on Monday.
“You need to eliminate the virus from Australia,” he said.
“The idea that you tick along with the virus and somehow that is a better model is wrong.”
But NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said on Tuesday that anyone who thought elimination was possible “doesn’t appreciate what the pandemic means”.
“I don’t want a situation in NSW that exists in other states where there’s a lack of certainty. Things are done very quickly without, perhaps, the same kind of consideration we give in NSW,” she said.
“That’s a matter for other state leaders, but I don’t want to subject our citizens in NSW to that.”
The snap border closures have created confusion and contradictory advice for travellers across the nation.
Albury Mayor Kevin Mack said all the border closures have amounted to is a “political spat” between the two parties.
“I think again the federal government should step in and control this particular issue,” Cr Mack said.
“The community are getting sick of this political spat that they are having. We just want this thing over and done with.”
Grand Prix moved to November
Meanwhile, Australia’s major events calendar remains under threat as Victoria found out it would not host the Grand Prix as planned and questions remained over the safety of the Australian Open.
Australia’s Formula 1 Grand Prix has been moved to November 21, shifting from its prime spot as the season-opening race to the third-last race.
Originally scheduled to be held at Melbourne’s Albert Park circuit from March 18-21, the race will instead be eight months later after an agreement reached by the Formula 1 organisation, Victorian government and the Australian Grand Prix Corporation.
The decision, announced on Tuesday night, comes amid uncertainty about quarantine and international travel disruptions caused by the coronavirus.
Calls to postpone Australian Open
On Tuesday, an Australian Open qualifier was halted mid-match after a player tested positive for COVID-19.
Yet it’s full steam ahead for plans for the Melbourne tournament, with Victorian government promising it would implement the “strictest” rules for tennis quarantine anywhere in the world.
But public health experts, including Professor Bowtell, have made an urgent call for the Australian Open, which would see 1200 players and staff descend on Melbourne, to be postponed.
Three major hotels – the Grand Hyatt, Pullman Albert Park and the View on St Kilda Road – will be home for the players and staff as they quarantine for two weeks before the tournament.
Two players competing in the Australian Open qualifying tournament in Doha have already tested positive to COVID-19, raising concerns for a related outbreak in Australia.
Professor Bowtell said it could “put spectators at risk” and potentially bring the UK strain into the community, as many players are coming from countries with high levels of outbreaks.
“We can’t have the sportspeople sending a message that things aren’t as serious as they are,” he said.
“Delay the open another year and those 1000 places for people to play tennis matches can be given to Australians who want to come home.”