News Coronavirus Australia’s state borders are reopening. Here’s how we can do it safely

Australia’s state borders are reopening. Here’s how we can do it safely

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With a few more safety measures in place, Australia will be very close to eliminating the coronavirus, infectious diseases experts say.

But one last state is blocking our path to victory – and for once, it’s not Victoria.

It’s NSW.

The path to a COVID-normal Australia became clearer when Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced a slate of eased restrictions on Sunday.

Mr Andrews, however, remained firm on face masks remaining mandatory when out in public.

Among the changes was the removal of Melbourne’s 25-kilometre travel limit from Monday, and reuniting the city with regional Victoria following months of separation by a ‘ring of steel’.

On November 23, NSW will reopen its border with Victoria.

After 10 days straight of zero new coronavirus cases, it is now Victoria – not NSW – that should be worried about the threat of interstate travellers.

“Rather than being the place that lives with the virus, NSW is now the outlier in Australia and a threat to the rest of us,” said Associate Professor Ian Mackay, a virologist at the University of Queensland.

Former World Health Organisation epidemiologist Professor Adrian Esterman agreed, saying “Victoria is doing much better than NSW”.

“If they carry on with what they’re doing, they’ll end up like other jurisdictions that have basically eliminated COVID-19,” he said.

As of Sunday, there were 42 active coronavirus cases in NSW, compared with just four in Victoria.

NSW Police officers speak to drivers in Albury. NSW will open its border to Victorians from November 23.

What will it take to reopen Australia?

NSW needs to tighten restrictions and encourage more people to wear face masks, experts told TND.

“Australia has got the opportunity to eliminate COVID-19 completely,” Professor Esterman said.

“All it would take would be minor changes to what NSW is doing, which wouldn’t have a major impact on businesses.”

Such changes included mandating mask wearing and reducing the number of people allowed in a household at any one point in time, he said.

“They would impact people’s lifestyles, but they wouldn’t impact the economy and it would give us a chance of getting down to zero cases on a regular basis,” he said.

Professor Esterman acknowledged NSW had done a “great job” of stamping out coronavirus outbreaks, but said as long as the state remained the “only source of community transmission in the country” then it will continue to pose a small risk to other states and territories.

For this reason, it is crucial that coronavirus testing in NSW stays at “high levels” and sewerage systems are kept under surveillance, Associate Professor Mackay said.

“The virus is just ticking away in NSW and that’s a risk,” he said.

“At any point, it could be ticking away to a point that leads to a larger outbreak. That’s a threat to the rest of Australia and I don’t think that’s being talked about enough.”

On Sunday, NSW reported 13,721 tests in the past 24-hour period, compared to 16,865 in Victoria.

“We continue to urge anyone with even the mildest of symptoms to seek testing immediately, then remain in isolation until a negative result is received,” NSW Health’s Dr Michael Douglas said on Sunday.

Traces of SARS-CoV-2 have also been detected in samples taken on November 5 from the sewerage system that drains parts of Quakers Hill, Castle Hill, Annangrove, Kellyville, Box Hill, Kenthurst, Glenhaven, The Ponds, Rouse Hill, North Kellyville, Kellyville Ridge, Beaumont Hills, Stanhope Gardens, Baulkham Hills, Glenwood, Bella Vista, Parklea, Acacia Gardens and Norwest.

The positive sewage result can be due to shedding of the virus by someone who may have previously had the illness, with the virus ‘shedding’ through their system for up to six to eight weeks later, NSW Health said.

covidsafe app victoria
With state borders reopening, there might be a greater role for the much-maligned COVIDsafe app.

Calls for a national contact tracing system

One by one, state and territory border restrictions are gradually easing, raising hopes of a united Australia before Christmas.

On Friday, Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein said plans to reopen the state’s border to Victoria may be brought forward from December 1.

Before long, the gates will open and Australians will be allowed to move freely across the country once more.

But first, we need a national contact tracing centre, Professor Esterman said.

“That would allow us to keep track of people as they move across borders,” he said.

“There are methods like using QR codes, which appear to be very successful.

“If everything is based on QR codes, a national centre would make sure everyone is using the same software, getting the same training, and people could be tracked across each state’s borders.”

This is where the COVIDSafe app could come in handy, said Dr Ritesh Chugh, a senior lecturer in information systems at CQUniversity.

But not enough people are using it.

“Every time I ask people, how many of you have got the app, they laugh and say it doesn’t work,” he said.

“But it does work if you give it an opportunity.”

Dr Chugh said the federal government should invest in a mass media campaign to “encourage people to regularly use the COVIDSafe app” as cross-border travel opens.

“Like TAC and road safety advertising, COVIDSafe campaigns should also ‘upset, outrage and appall’ people into using the app,” he said.

“Emotive campaigns may encourage higher uptake.”