There is growing hope that families separated by state border closures will be able to reunite for Christmas this year, but the ongoing threat of COVID-19 means the 2020 festive season will be celebrated very differently.
Masks, QR codes and staggered shopping will need to go hand in hand with carols and candy sticks to ensure a safe (and merry) Christmas, leading health experts are warning.
Speaking after National Cabinet on Friday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the plan to open up state borders before Christmas was agreed to by all states, with the exception of Western Australia.
While the PM’s announcement will come as a relief to separated loved ones, no official date for nationwide reopening has been set.
WA has maintained its strict border closure to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the state, despite advice from the Chief Health Officer Andy Robertson, who has said the state could open to five of the seven Australian jurisdictions.
“By Christmas of this year, certainly seven of the eight states and territories will be open – and you never know, it might be eight,” Dr Robertson said.
Melburnian Stacie Lee is currently separated from her family who lives in Launceston.
Ms Lee said she had her “fingers and toes crossed” that she and her Tasmanian-born partner could go back to the state and see their families.
“I have a small family, but the partner has a big family, so we usually have a fun time trying to juggle seeing them all. Usually, we do just lunch at one, dinner at the other,” she said.
Hoping the national cabinet’s plan falls into place, Ms Lee has already booked her ticket home.
Ms Lee has not seen her family since Christmas 2019, and having to miss out on celebrating every big event and birthday since then has been difficult.
I’m feeling stressed, sad and incredibly homesick, more homesick than I think I could have possibly predicted,” she said.
There is increasing pressure on the PM and premiers to open state boarders before Christmas, with business leaders saying the lack of information was putting undue pressure on industries.
Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive James Pearson welcomed Friday’s plan, saying it was now “up to the states and territories” to follow the roadmap.
“If a state or territory government is not prepared to commit to the national roadmap, they owe it to the community to explain why not, given the detail in the plan and the proportionate approach proposed,” Mr Pearson said.
States and territories now need to provide businesses with a clear outline of dates to boost retail confidence, he said.
“If state and territory governments adopt this plan, which we strongly encourage them to do, it should go a long way to providing businesses with desperately needed certainty about the path to easing restrictions,” Mr Pearson said.
Deck the halls with QR codes
One of the nations most respected epidemiologists and World Health Organisation expert adviser Mary-Louise McLaws said Australia was well positioned to open up for the holiday season.
“A COVID-safe Christmas looks like having less than five cases per day on average over a 14-day period in Victoria and continued low levels in NSW,” Professor McLaws said.
This should allow “all borders to be opened up across the nation” and facilitate “people visiting their families”, she said.
But the festive season will look a little different, even with low transmission levels, Professor McLaws said.
Shoppers should be wearing masks at all times, especially if they are travelling on public transport, she warned.
“While you’re shopping you’re not thinking about COVID, you’re thinking about what you want to buy, you’re on a mission. It’s hard to keep your distance.”
In Victoria, the state government has drafted plans for retailers that will require them to have their own COVID safe protocols in place, including masks, adequate distancing, cleaning, and staff ‘bubbles’, before they open.
The Australian Retailers Association has proposed a similar plan for retail nationwide with added limits on shoppers per household, marshals to manage queues, and social distancing.
Professor McLaws said shoppers would also need to use QR codes at every store so contact tracers could do their jobs quickly in the event of an outbreak.
“I understand it’s all very annoying but we have to do it until the majority of Australians are vaccinated,” she said.