Two West Australian epidemiologists are calling for the state’s border opening to be delayed to avoid a potential health “catastrophe” but, in a clear divide, key sectors of the economy warn any delay would be disastrous for jobs and businesses.
The emergence of Omicron has split opinion over Western Australia’s February 5 reopening
There is concern about the lack of fresh modelling at this point
But businesses fear what may happen if the date is pushed back
Premier Mark McGowan is sticking to February 5 as the date when Western Australia’s isolation ends, telling people to hurry up and get vaccinated against COVID-19.
That is despite the Premier acknowledging there has not yet been any health modelling on the impact of the Omicron variant in WA, although it is due “in coming weeks”.
The Australian Medical Association did not advocate for a delay in reopening, but said Omicron modelling should be intrinsic to any decision-making, “to make sure we’re not walking into an unmitigated disaster”.
With daily case numbers around Australia at more than 100,000, there is some public anxiety about the border coming down and whether Western Australia will experience similar numbers and pressures as states to the east, including South Australia and Queensland.
‘Potential for catastrophe’
Barbara Nattabi, a senior lecturer at the University of Western Australia’s school of population and global health, said it was time to reassess.
Dr Nattabi called for the opening to be pushed back by two months to increase vaccination rates among Aboriginal people, children and young people.
“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 needs their first dose, their second dose and their booster.”
UWA epidemiologist Zoe Hyde said the reopening should be delayed to give children more time to get vaccinated, and the 90 per cent vaccination target should be based on three doses, not two.
As part of a “vaccines-plus” strategy, Dr Hyde said, there should also be HEPA air filters in schools, free packs of KF94 or N95 masks for every household and grants for businesses to improve ventilation and install HEPA filters.
“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 a widespread outbreak of Omicron would present “a real danger for critical infrastructure”.
Business sector sounds warning
However, the business community was united in warning the danger would come if the McGowan government broke its promise and pushed back the state’s reopening date.
Tourism and other businesses have been preparing for a February 5 reopening by taking bookings and planning hiring and investment decisions around that date.
Tourism Council WA chief executive Evan Hall said it would be disastrous for operators if it now did not go ahead.
“Everyone has planned their family reunions, business bookings, recruited staff and ordered supplies, based on the government’s own safe-transition plan,” Mr 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.”
The state’s Chamber of Minerals and Energy remains strongly in support of a February 5 reopening, which it hopes will help ease labour shortages and pressures on production targets and development deadlines.
And the state’s peak business lobby, the WA Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said WA could not operate in isolation forever.
“Clarity and certainty on February 5 has been critical to enable businesses to plan their operations and investments, and to ease costly pressure [such as] skills shortages, lost bookings and competitive disadvantage,” CCI chief executive Chris Rodwell said.
Omicron hits eastern states businesses hard
However, in a sign of what may be coming for WA businesses, the Council of Small Business of Australia said conditions were the worst they had been since the pandemic began, with businesses in eastern states reporting a dramatic fall in turnover.
“The biggest problem is that they don’t have the workers to stay open. That is a result of the virus. They are essentially in lockdown as a result of that, and there is no support,” the council’s chief executive Alexi Boyd said.
Mr Rodwell said the CCI was helping the state’s businesses prepare for the reopening and consequent pressures.
“Businesses might limit the crossover between staff, split rosters up, rotate teams through working from home,” he said.
“They might hire overflow support staff in advance and determine alternative courier services, alternative suppliers.
“They will be preparing for delays within their own workforce, and impacts on their customers and suppliers.”
To help in that planning, the AMA’s state president, Mark Duncan-Smith, said it was vital the state government considered the impact of Omicron.
“I don’t know about delaying it, but I would have thought having proper Omicron modelling for Western Australia would be an intrinsic part of the decision-making process,” Dr Duncan-Smith said.
“Let’s get the modelling to make sure we’re not walking into an unmitigated disaster.”