New Year’s dash triggers a border war of words

What better way to start 2021 than a mad rush to get home before the borders slam shut?

Bedlam hit the border between Victoria and New South Wales on New Year’s Day 2021. An announcement on the final day of 2020 from the Victorian Government proclaiming the border would be slammed shut at midnight on 1 January sent interstate Victorians into a panic, attempting to return home. Police living in army barracks and tents are patrolling the border between the two states in an attempt to hold back the horde of frightened people fleeing back to their home state, potentially carrying a pernicious and deadly coronavirus.

With concerns rising that the NSW Government failed to adequately contain the Northern Beaches coronavirus outbreak, with its origins still unknown, the announcement was made that the border would finally be shut. In a statement on 31 December—New Year’s Eve—acting Premier, Jacinta Allan, said that: “Any Victorian, regardless of where they’re arriving from in New South Wales, will need to get tested and then quarantine for 14 days upon arriving in our state.”

The permit system that was employed from 18 December is to be promptly thrown onto the discard pile, having already seen a major breach when eight people tested positive on the final two days of 2020, with two more cases added to the growing cluster in Victoria on 1 January. Lines of over 20 kilometres and six-hour-long traffic jams at the border further inflamed the situation for those potentially locked out of their home state. People are now being informed that there is no space in hotel quarantine in Victoria, and if they are on the other side of the border from 2 January, they must remain there until places becomes available.

In defence of the Victorian Government, they had been warning of the risk of a potential hard border closure for two weeks, as Premier Daniel Andrews told Victorians that “we cannot guarantee you’ll be able to come back” if they chose to travel to New South Wales after 18 December.

Since the announcement of new border restrictions on New Year’s Day, it seems government messaging has taken a confusing turn. If someone arrived before 12:59am on 1 January—the first hour of 2021—then, they simply needed to obtain a negative test before they could leave self-isolation according to Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) guidelines. If they arrived after this deadline, but before 12am on 2 January, then they are allowed to enter the state with the condition they isolate for 14 days. If arriving after that midnight guideline, these people are now being informed that as hotel quarantine is full, they can only enter Victoria once space becomes available. What is to happen to those people who were actually waiting in-line as deadline passed over to midnight, at this stage, is unknown.

There are already cases of the DHHS officials passing on incorrect information about testing sites and isolation. Henrietta Cook, a senior reporter at The Age, tweeted that officials told her that she would not need to isolate for 14 days, despite information telling her otherwise, before conceding that this was not correct.

Those exposed to coronavirus often don’t test positive immediately or show symptoms for several days and if someone was exposed to coronavirus a day or two before arrival into Victoria with a negative test, they can still become symptomatic days later and test positive. It’s unlikely the government is tracking all the returned travellers who successfully avoided hotel quarantine or self-isolation due to their arrival into Victoria before the 12:59am 1 January deadline. It’s also impossible to predict how many received the correct instructions to isolate at home for 14 days from police at the border and DHHS staff.

The potential ramifications of this failure in messaging are undeniable. If a single positive case is allowed to roam free in the community without isolating, then it could set off the third wave; after all, this global pandemic seemed to have emerged from a single case in Wuhan, China. There are already cases of DHHS officials passing on incorrect information about testing sites and isolation. A breakdown in messaging contributed to Victoria’s second wave of coronavirus cases in May and June, it would be a complete failure for it to once again be allowed to contribute to further outbreaks.

The Premier of Western Australia, Mark McGowan, ignored the criticisms of his fellow National Cabinet members when he closed off the borders to NSW and Victoria and, at this stage, would be relieved he made this call at that time, given what has occurred in those eastern states. McGowan’s pre-emptive move was both swift and decisive, the hallmarks of effective action during a global pandemic. His governments messaging was simple: ‘if you are coming from NSW or Victoria then you must isolate for 14 days.’

But it isn’t only the Victorian authorities with messaging problems. David Speers, journalist and host of the ABC’s Insiders, tweeted: “All Melbourne COVID testing sites temporarily suspended due to overwhelming number of folks who’ve returned from NSW. At least that’s according to the one I’ve just tried to access with the family after driving through the night.”

The public should expect that an established journalist such as Speers—whose message was amplified by other journalists such as the ABC’s Leigh Sales and Sophie Ellsworth from the Herald Sun—would have at least followed up and fact-checked this before sending it out to his over 145,000 Twitter followers. A quick internet search, or a phone call to the COVID-19 hotline would have revealed to him that many Melbourne COVID-19 testing sites remained open, and only four sites had been temporarily closed due to over-capacity. Two hours later, Speers followed up with another tweet with the corrected information and six hours later, after a barrage of criticism, he removed the original tweet. Who said journalism in the mainstream media is dead?

It does however highlight the breakdown in communication that seems to be plaguing this border crisis. Whether people agree on the need for border closures or not, a strong and unified message from the Victorian Government and its officials should be in place. Confusion and chaos will only increase the chances of a potential spread of the coronavirus.

A storm is brewing around not only through the outbreak in New South Wales, whose government has failed to limit the spread in areas such as the Northern Beaches, but also the border situation in Victoria. How these two state governments handle these building crises will define Australia’s ongoing success in handling the COVID-19 pandemic into 2021.

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This post was originally published on New Politics.