Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner says he will open the NT’s borders from July 17, as the Territory becomes the first Australian jurisdiction to have clinically eradicated coronavirus.
The decision to end mandatory quarantine means visitors will not need to self-isolate for 14 days after entering the NT.
The NT government eased the requirement for visitors to enter mandatory hotel quarantines, at a cost of $2500, earlier this week.
“Based on the evidence, our chief health officer recommends a 28-day assessment period before opening our borders – which is two COVID-19 replication cycles. That is why we are waiting until next month,” Mr Gunner said.
“This gives the rest of Australia four weeks’ notice, and it gives the Territory four weeks to get ready. It gives us time to market the Territory to visitors.”
“Twenty-eight days’ notice makes sure we that we don’t stuff this up. The safety of Territorians will always be my priority.”
The Chief Minister’s announcement came after the government said last week that it would monitor rates of community transmission around the country after thousands of people gathered for Black Lives Matter rallies.
Mr Gunner credited the NT’s policy of hard borders with saving thousands of lives.
“Territorians didn’t die. Everywhere else, people died. Not here, not in the Territory. But at the start, that was no sure thing, the worst-case scenario had 2000 people being killed from coronavirus,” he said.
“It had us needing hundreds of ICU beds which do not exist. Which is why we prepared more body bags in case the nightmare scenario became real.”
The NT is the first Australian jurisdiction to have eradicated the coronavirus and has recorded 28 days since the last case recovered.
The last case was a member of the Australian Defence Force who had tested positive after serving overseas and who was cleared of the virus on May 21.
It comes after a similar decision by South Australia to reopen to travellers from WA, the NT and Tasmania.
AMA against NT border decision
The decision goes against the wishes of the Australian Medical Association, who wanted the NT’s borders to remain closed until coronavirus was eradicated across Australia.
The NT’s AMA Branch President Dr Robert Parker said while he sympathised with people who had lost their livelihoods during the pandemic, the virus could still easily spread throughout the NT.
“If anyone comes to the Territory and goes to communities, we could have lots of really sick people,” he said.
“Aboriginal people have already got much higher rates of diseases – cardiac, respiratory – and a lot more very sick and dead people could come then from this transmission.”
But Mr Gunner said he was making the decision based on the medical advice of his chief health officer, Dr Hugh Heggie.
“Dr Heggie’s advice, based on the evidence, recommends a 28-day assessment cycle, two replication cycles, before making this major change.”
“We need this time to be absolutely certain that self-quarantine is safe before we move to no quarantine. I am not gambling, I am not rolling the dice, I am not playing poker with the lives of Territorians,” he said.
Defence and police to stay at border
The NT government confirmed that both local police and the Australian Defence Force would continue to staff border posts and all arrival areas for two weeks after the quarantine ends in July.
“For this period, people will still complete the arrival form, telling us where they have come from and where they intend to stay and this gives us an extra layer of protection,” Mr Gunner said.
Mr Gunner also said that a dedicated rapid response team was ready to manage any outbreaks across the NT, if they occurred.
“If there is ever an outbreak in the NT, this team will be on the ground straight away and the community will be quarantined while the situation is assessed and controlled,” he said.
The NT government will also keep its public health emergency declaration in place, giving it extra powers.