Western Australia’s domestic and international borders will not be reopening on 5 February as planned, after the state government delayed the move indefinitely.
Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan called a late press conference on Thursday to announce the delay, and said the decision was made due to the Omicron variant being “a whole new ball game” to the previous less-transmissible Delta variant.
A new reopening date will be considered over the next month, however, no timeline has been set as of yet.
The move is a backflip on previous comments, made just last weekend, that McGowan would not be delaying the 5 February reopening plane.
The Premier noted that travelling into WA will become slightly easier as of February 5, as the state will extend the list of people allowed to cross the border, particularly for compassionate reasons, however, all new arrivals will be required to have three doses of the COVID vaccine and quarantine for 14 days.
The border reopening was previously thrown into question, due to the fact that WA’s reopening date was set based on health modelling – including anticipated case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths – based on data from the Delta variant, which is now known to be less transmissible than the newest variant, Omicron.
“Unfortunately, the world changed in December; Omicron arrived,” Premier McGowan said on Thursday evening.
“Omicron is a whole new ball game. We can’t just shut our eyes and hope that it is different.”
The Premier noted that the higher number of COVID infections expected to hit the Western state once Omicron arrives following the reopening of borders will overwhelm its health system, and so the government hopes to give Western Australians the opportunity to get their booster shot before border restrictions lift.
“The aim is to get it [the third dose vaccination rate] up above at least 80 per cent, perhaps 90 per cent,” he said.
“But what we are going to do is review the situation over February and watch what is occurring over east and work out what the best approach is for Western Australia.”
As it stands, 25.8 per cent of Western Australians aged 16 and over have received a third dose of the COVID vaccine.
McGowan recognised that the decision is “very disappointing” for families and businesses that were relying on the border’s reopening.
“For that, I am sorry, I understand exactly what that means for many people who had been hoping to reunite without any restrictions, but from February 5, there are enhanced compassionate exemptions,” he said.
“If we proceeded with the original plan, we would be deliberately seeding thousands upon thousands of COVID cases into WA and at this point in time that is not what I am going to do.
“Especially when the science says we need to boost third doses and so many young children still need to get their vaccine.
“It would be reckless and irresponsible to open up now, I can’t do it.”
Tourism Council WA chief executive Evan Hall said small businesses and tourism operators will be hard-hit by the news, with their homes and businesses now on the line.
“This is devastating for tourism businesses after two years of waiting to welcome back guests, we now have no date, no plan and no future for the tourism industry,” he said.
“Most tourism businesses rely on international and interstate guests and most businesses will pay for this delay.
“It is horrendous and there appears to be no end to it.”
Opposition health spokeswoman Libby Mettam said the decision had left WA “stuck in a holding pattern while the rest of the world moves on”.
“The Premier’s plan to lock WA up indefinitely points to a failure of leadership and a failure to prepare for COVID,” she tweeted.
However, despite the criticism, McGowan stands by the decision.
“If you have a look at the alternative, which is what is going on in the eastern states at the moment, they basically have hundreds of people dying, they have mass dislocation in the economy, in logistics, freight and all elements of the economy.” he said.
“They have huge numbers of people not going to work, kids not going to school, hospitals overflowing with patients, hospitals in meltdown — that is what is happening.
“It would be grossly irresponsible of me not to act on the basis of that because to do anything else without high levels of vaccination would basically mean we would be responsible for potentially lots of people dying.”