Australia's 'hermit kingdom' maintains controversial plan to 'crush' Covid-19 despite Omicron

A view of Elizabeth Quay in Perth, the state capital of Western Australia. As at Wednesday, Jan 26, WA had just 132 active Covid-19 cases. PHOTO: TOURISM WA

SYDNEY - In Australia, the state of Western Australia (WA) - dubbed the "hermit kingdom" in the country - is attempting an unusual experiment as it tries to remain one of the few places in the world with no Covid-19 cases.

But the state government's approach - and its decision to cancel long-awaited plans to open the state's borders - has sparked furious debate.

The premier, Mr Mark McGowan, announced last week that he would not reopen the borders on Feb 5 as planned and would instead keep the state indefinitely closed, due to surging outbreaks of the Omicron strain of the coronavirus in Australia and around the world.

Claiming that Omicron was "a whole new ball game", Mr McGowan said a new reopening date would be considered in February. He indicated that he wanted as many as 90 per cent of the state's residents to have had third vaccinations, up from a current rate of about 32 per cent of those aged 18 and over. This new target may not be reached until July.

The move has caused disappointment among families who have been torn apart by the border closures and are desperately hoping to reunite.

A Sydney resident, Mr Sean Matthews, said he had been forced to cancel plans to travel to Perth on Feb 5 to see his father, who has a deadly lung disease.

"I was outraged and sad (about the state's change of plans)," he told The Sydney Morning Herald.

"I still can't fly within this country - it's madness. Especially after I've taken all the necessary precautions."

The state government has eased its border restrictions slightly. From Feb 5, returning residents will be allowed to enter, as will students or those visiting sick family members. But anyone entering must undergo 14 days of self-quarantine. All arrivals must be fully vaccinated.

Last week, Singapore Airlines announced that flights for eligible passengers only from Singapore to Perth, the state capital, would not take off on Feb 5 as previously announced. But SIA noted that its vaccinated travel lane (VTL) flights from Perth to Singapore remained unaffected and would begin as planned on Feb 5.

WA's ruling Labor party has admitted that it may be impossible to keep Omicron out. Its health minister, Ms Amber-Jade Sanderson, revealed last Sunday that the state's chief medical officer had advised that Omicron "can't be eliminated because it's so transmissible".

Indeed, the state has been experiencing a minor outbreak, recording 10 new cases on Thursday (Jan 27), down from 24 on Wednesday. In contrast, New South Wales had 17,316 cases on Thursday, Victoria had 13,755, and Queensland had 11,600.

The decision to keep WA closed to outsiders has been heavily criticised by the business community.

Two leading employer and business groups, the Australian Industry Group and the Business Council of Australia, said the prolonged closure would reduce business certainty and could discourage investment.

The AI Group's chief executive, Mr Innes Willox, described WA as "an island within an island".

"The longer WA remains closed, the longer it will slip from consideration around investment, job creation and skills development," he said in a statement.

Economists said the state's effort to avoid a sudden Omicron wave could boost consumer confidence but the indefinite border closure would damage specific sectors, such as tourism. Some analysts said the state's economy could suffer because it would be unable to address a worker shortage that was already affecting small businesses such as cafes and shops. Unemployment in the state is 3.4 per cent, the lowest in the country.

But many residents strongly support the border closure and would prefer to try to keep Omicron at bay.

While most of the world battles Omicron, life in WA has largely continued as normal.

The state government has so far successfully attempted to "crush" Covid-19, including imposing a city-wide lockdown in Perth last year after just one case was discovered.

As at Wednesday, Australia had 353,566 active Covid-19 cases, including 195,701 in New South Wales and 76,417 in Queensland. But WA had just 132 active cases. During the pandemic, Australia, which has 25.7 million residents, recorded 1.8 million cases and 3,402 deaths. WA, which has 2.7 million residents, has had 1,454 cases and nine deaths.

A chef and business owner in Perth, Ms Melissa Palinkas, said she was relieved that the borders were remaining shut, noting that friends in the hospitality sector in other states were struggling.

"Nobody wants to go out, and all their staff are sick," she told ABC Radio. "They can't operate on full capacity and people are just dropping like flies."

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