West Australians will on Monday finally learn the date they can reconnect with the world and learn to live with COVID-19 after almost two years sealed behind a border.
But the long-awaited reopening is still about seven or eight weeks away, with the McGowan Government isolating WA from every State and Territory over the festive period.
From Monday, arrivals from Queensland in WA must self-quarantine for 14 days. By contrast, Queensland overnight opened its border to vaccinated travellers from NSW, Victoria and the ACT.
It leaves Tasmania as the only place on the planet which WA currently permits quarantine-free travel. That situation may only last a few days because Tasmania is set to drop its borders on Wednesday.
Mark McGowan has justified his decision to deviate from the national plan for reopening at 80 per cent double dose by pointing to WA Health modelling which suggests it would result in 200 fewer COVID deaths in the first year.
The Premier previously also said he didn’t want to impose restrictions, such as venue density limits and face mask mandates, during Christmas and the school holidays.
The recent reopening of South Australia and Northern Territory, both previously COVID-free, has been marred by chaotic changes to travel rules in the past week.
Despite the emergence of the fast-spreading Omicron variant of COVID-19, a WA Government spokeswoman last night said once WA’s border reopened it would stay open.
NSW on Sunday recorded that State’s first hospital admission of a person infected with the Omicron strain. Of the 485 new cases reported in NSW yesterday, ten had been confirmed to be Omicron.
Two unvaccinated men, aged in their 70s and 80s, died with the virus in Sydney hospitals. In Victoria, 1069 people tested positive and two people died, down from 1193 cases on Saturday.
Mr McGowan will on Monday morning finalise details of the “safe transition plan” at a meeting of his Emergency Management Team, which includes Vaccine Commander Chris Dawson and Chief Health Officer Andy Robertson.
The plan, which is headlined by a specific date for permanently banishing the border, will be rubber-stamped by Cabinet before being announced at a press conference later in the day.
Mr McGowan has said even if WA falls short of his ambitious target for 90 per cent fully vaccinated, the reopening date — slated for late January or early February — would stay “locked in”.
Failure to hit 90 per cent double dose could see heavy penalties for those who shunned the jab, including proof of vaccination to enter cafes, restaurants, bars, cinemas and gyms.
Unvaccinated West Australians living in regional areas with low jab rates also face being trapped by intrastate border closures in 2022.
Roads blocks guarded by police could be set up at the borders to the West Pilbara (which has a first dose rate of 56.2 per cent), East Pilbara (58.5 per cent) and the Kimberley (74.7 per cent).
Despite 80 per cent of West Australians aged 12 and over now fully vaccinated, as of last week only 61 per cent of the State’s Aboriginal population had received at least one dose and 43 per cent were fully vaccinated.
Convincing hundreds of thousands of people who received their second dose five or more months ago to role up their sleeves for a booster shot is another challenge.
Early data from overseas shows third doses were needed to protect against the Omicron variant, which appears more transmissible than Delta but maybe not as severe.
The State Government’s latest “roll up for WA” advertisement, released on Sunday, features local sports stars from the West Coast Eagles, Fremantle Dockers, Western Force and West Coast Fever.
Ironically, Perth Scorchers captain Ashton Turner also features in the 40 second clip, despite WA’s summer of cricket being ruined by the prolonged border closure.
Hobart will host the fifth Ashes Test after it was stripped from Optus Stadium due to WA’s border rules, while the Scorchers fear getting just two home games.
WA Liberal leader David Honey called for an urgent campaign to encourage West Australians eligible for a booster shot to roll up their sleeves again before the border opening.
He said experience overseas shows vaccine efficacy diminished after six months but the State Government had failed to get this message across to the public.
“We are now sitting on a COVID vaccine time bomb that will explode unless these people are actively encouraged to have a third vaccine over the coming weeks,” Mr Honey said.
“While achieving the 90 per double vaccination will be a positive development, the State Government needs to now urgently focus on delivering the third vaccination.”
He said with no data being released by the State Government on the take-up of the third dose, “we could have literally thousands of people who lives are being put at risk and no-one is aware of this impending human disaster”.
“If he does not act urgently on this matter, then he is playing Russian Roulette with the lives of Western Australians,” Mr Honey said.
A State Government spokeswoman said information about third doses was already part of WA’s public information campaigns and it would increase in the new year to supplement the Federal campaign.
She said this was expected to run in January to coincide with when a larger proportion of Australians would be eligible for their third dose. By the time the border reopens, close to 700,000 WA residents will be eligible for a booster.
“Everyone should get vaccinated and this includes third doses when they’re eligible. This will help protect themselves, their families and community,” she said.
“Staying the course and getting the recommended doses of the vaccine is crucial in combatting the pandemic and reduces the severity of this virus – which is even more prominent with the Omicron variant.
“The WA Liberals continue to undermine the vaccination program and over the past two years have continually undermined important communication and informational programs about the pandemic.”
She added that waiting to open at 90 per cent vaccination would reduce reduce hospitalisations and deaths, as well as allow WA to be one of the few places in the world to have a “soft landing”.