The arrival of the Omicron variant in Australia could throw Western Australia’s border reopening plans into jeopardy, as experts warn of outdated health modelling and low vaccination rates in children and indigenous communities.
When the 5 February deadline was set for the reopening of WA’s state and international borders, the state government had relied on health modelling, such as anticipated case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths, based on data from the Delta variant – which is less transmissible than the newest variant, Omicron.
Despite this, WA Premier Mark McGowan has, so far, stuck to the original border reopening date, however he has ordered for updated modelling based on Omicron to be provided to the state government.
It comes after the WA government upgraded every single Australian state and territory to “extreme risk” under its state border restrictions categories, meaning nearly no exemptions will be provided for interstate travellers, and all exempt travellers will need to fully vaccinated, and complete 14 days of hotel quarantine.
Notably, the Australian Medical Association has not recommended that WA push back its reopening plans.
However, the association did recommend that modelling based on the Omicron variant be used in WA to better prepare for realistic outcomes, and to avoid an “unmitigated disaster”.
This modelling is expected to be available “in coming weeks”.
Meanwhile, two local epidemiologists in Western Australia have flagged that Omicron could catch WA by surprise, and that a delay to the border reopening is required.
Barbara Nattabi, a senior lecturer at the University of Western Australia’s school of population and global health, said a premature border opening has a “potential for catastrophe” in Western Australia, particularly its more remote regions.
As such, Dr Nattabi told ABC News that the reopening should be pushed back by two months, to allow for increased vaccination rates among Aboriginal people and children.
“In February, people will be going back to school, people will be coming together in large numbers again and that’s the same time at which the borders will open,” she said.
“It is a potential for catastrophe. So, the ultimate thing is two more months, to catch up all the populations which need their first dose, their second dose and their booster.”
Zoe Hyde, an epidemiologist from UWA, shared a similar insight, stating that the reopening of state borders should be delayed in order to give children under 12 more time to get vaccinated.
“I originally supported the plan to open on the 5th [of February],” Dr Hyde said. “It would have worked if we were still facing Delta, but double-dose vaccination just isn’t enough against the Omicron variant.
“We’ve known for a while [that] you need three doses to complete the primary course of these vaccines, and Omicron’s made that crystal clear. I think getting third doses out to the majority of people is essential before reopening.
“Western Australia would be making a huge mistake opening up with most people only having double-dose vaccination,” she said.
However, tourism operators and small businesses are calling out for the McGowan government to adhere to its 5 February reopening deadline.
Tourism Council WA chief executive Evan Hall said businesses would be significantly impacted if any changes were made to the reopening date.
“Everyone has planned their family reunions, business bookings, recruited staff and ordered supplies, based on the government’s own safe-transition plan,” Hall said.
“That was the purpose of the plan. People need confidence in that date.
“We are recommending businesses take bookings for the fifth, and we’re confident the state government is committed to their own planned opening date.”