Delta Surge Sees Split in Australian States’ Covid-Zero Strategy
(Bloomberg) -- Australia’s Covid-Zero strategy is under unprecedented pressure with some states seeking to remain isolated from Sydney and Melbourne, where attempts to eliminate the highly-contagious delta variant have largely been abandoned.
The surge of coronavirus cases in the nation’s most-populous southeastern region, including its largest cities Sydney and Melbourne, has seen some Labor Party-led states balk at conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s plan to remove ongoing lockdown restrictions. He also wants to reopen domestic and international borders when vaccination rates reach certain thresholds.
The outbreak continues to spread from Sydney, the capital of New South Wales, which is preparing to ease stay-at-home orders when 70% of people over 16 years are fully vaccinated. Meanwhile the leaders of Western Australia and Queensland states, which are keeping delta at bay by banning arrivals from southeastern Australia, are now indicating they want to keep isolated indefinitely. Or at least until the nation’s wave of delta infections is brought under control.
“During a pandemic, we can’t pretend that we’re separate nations within one nation,” New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who is from the same party as Morrison, told reporters in Sydney on Thursday. She said if all states and territories stick to Morrison’s plan, citizens both within the country and still stuck abroad due to border restrictions could “join their loved ones in Australia for a happy Christmas.”
The federal opposition, which leads in opinion polls ahead of elections that must be held by May, has criticized Morrison as well as Berejiklian for their handling of the pandemic. Labor leader Anthony Albanese said the prime minister has failed to secure enough vaccines from enough suppliers, contributing to the nation’s tardy vaccination rollout that’s one of the slowest in the developed world.
The schism shows the nation is splitting between states where the virus is becoming endemic, and others seeking to keep their Covid-Zero status intact. Before delta, Australia avoided the wave of infections that hit most other nations globally by relying on closed international borders, rigorous testing and snap lockdowns to eliminate community transmission. The strategy allowed for long periods of relatively normal life in Australia through 2020 and into this year, while the pandemic raged elsewhere.
But the approach -- also favored by China, New Zealand and other parts of the Asia-Pacific -- saw the rise of the nickname “Fortress Australia,” and raised questions about how long it could afford to remain isolated not just from the world but across state borders. While delta has eroded barricades in some states, others are re-fortifying.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told her state parliament on Wednesday that she needed to see more research on how Morrison’s re-opening plan would affect unvaccinated younger people. “If you’re going to let virus in and rip through, what is going to happen to the children?” she questioned.
Meanwhile, Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan, who’s arguably the nation’s most strident adherent to Covid Zero, rhetorically asked reporters in Perth why Morrison’s conservatives are “on this mission to bring Covid into Western Australia, to infect our public?”
“To ensure we shut down parts of the economy?,” said McGowan, who led his Labor government to a landslide election win in March on a Covid-Zero platform. “That we lose jobs? That people get sick and some people die? Haven’t they seen what’s happening in New South Wales?”
New South Wales has been forced to abandon elimination as a strategy after a single case of delta -- which originated from a limousine driver being infected by international flight crew -- exploded into infections now topping a seven-day average of 1,000 cases.
Premier Berejiklian is urging all eight state and territory leaders to commit to the federal government’s plan of easing restrictions once 70% of adults are fully vaccinated, and to allow international travel at 80%.
Berejiklian has also been criticized by some Labor-led state leaders who say she didn’t act swiftly and strongly enough in the early stages of Sydney’s outbreak to control it from spreading elsewhere, including to remote areas of her state, national capital Canberra and Melbourne, the country’s second-largest city.
Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews, who represents Labor, said Wednesday that attempts to eliminate delta would by abandoned in favor of suppression, with Melbourne now shifting toward a reopening that will see more than half the nation’s population learn to live with the virus.
Meanwhile, it’s yet to be seen whether other conservative-governed states such as South Australia and Tasmania, which are currently virus-free, will adhere to Morrison’s reopening plan amid the delta threat.
Along with the social impact on lockdown-weary Australians, the delta surge is taking a big toll on businesses. The economy is set to contract sharply in the current quarter as the nation’s two largest cities remain shuttered. Gross domestic product in the three months through September will decline 3% from the prior quarter, when it rose 0.7%, according to a Bloomberg survey of 16 economists.
“Australia should open up as one,” Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said on Wednesday. “It is a reality that we have to live with the virus,” he said, adding “whether you are in Western Australia, whether you are in Queensland, whether you are in the southern states, you should follow the plan.”
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