Pleas for premiers to be “compassionate” to Sydney residents over the holidays have fallen on deaf ears, with state governments further locking down their borders just days from Christmas.
New South Wales is now all but cut off from the rest of the country, an island within an island as Gladys Berejiklian’s government scrambles to choke off a growing COVID cluster and track down its elusive ‘patient zero’.
It comes as Prime Minister Scott Morrison appears to have all but given up on trying to persuade premiers to not close their doors in the face of every interstate outbreak.
In the biggest national coronavirus response since Victoria’s disastrous second wave, every state and territory has thrown up barriers to entry for those coming from Greater Sydney.
Despite just 15 new cases on Monday after a record day of 38,500 tests, and both Ms Berejiklian and federal chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly praising NSW’s contact tracers as the best in the world, the state now finds itself in the same position as Victoria only months ago – effectively cut off from the rest of the nation.
Ms Berejiklian used her daily COVID press conference to call on her fellow premiers to base their border rules on “facts”.
But barely hours later, Victoria and Queensland – the next most-populous states after NSW – went the other way, tightening their rules even more to reinstitute hard borders.
Barriers will return to the Queensland-New South Wales border by 6am tomorrow.
We’re concerned about people breaching the rules as they try to come into Queensland.
That’s why we’re treating this as a hard border closure with Greater Sydney. #covid19au
— Annastacia Palaszczuk (@AnnastaciaMP) December 21, 2020
With countless Christmas plans scuppered or in jeopardy due to the Avalon outbreak, Ms Berejiklian pleaded with her interstate peers to rethink their border plans.
“The various premiers have made various decisions about borders, but I ask people to think about things compassionately and base it on the facts,” she said.
The Premier noted NSW had only closed its border once to Victoria, and only when the state had started recording 140 cases per day.
“All I’m saying to colleagues around the country is, please think about the heartbreak and please think about the facts when you’re making these decisions, because it impacts so many people,” Ms Berejiklian said.
“We’ve all had a very difficult year and please make sure that your response is proportionate to what’s happening.”
But that request was flatly rejected by Annastacia Palaszczuk and Daniel Andrews, who enacted tougher border control measures on Monday.
Queensland has put back up its hard border restrictions, with police barricades and officers patrolling the area to check details of motorists.
Ms Palaszczuk said the hard border was needed because police had found many people travelling from Sydney and trying to enter Queensland without the proper permits.
“We want people to do the right thing, but people will be turned around … unfortunately people are doing the wrong thing and we cannot risk that,” she said.
Queensland Police said more than 200,000 applications for exemptions to cross the border had been received in just a few days.
“We’re trying to stop the spread of virus again into our state,” police deputy commissioner Steve Gollschewski said.
“It is disappointing we are seeing instances where we have tried to do a system where it relies on the integrity and honesty of the community coming in and some people are not doing the right thing.”
Victoria has also instituted a strict border permit system for NSW residents.
However, those living in Victorian border communities will not need to carry a permit.
— VicGovDHHS (@VicGovDHHS) December 21, 2020
Ms Berejiklian said her government would rethink the latest restrictions on Wednesday, deciding whether to extend or cancel them.
But other state premiers, who have enacted their rules based on the definitions and suburbs used by NSW, have not specified when and how they might change their restrictions.
Mr Morrison had previously tried to encourage premiers to not throw up border barriers to whichever state is experiencing the latest outbreak, but on Monday he appeared to have resigned himself to this latest round of restrictions.
“The ultimate decisions that states make our sovereign matters for them. As I have said to you before, the states, they determine their own definition of a hotspot and what restrictions they put in place,” he said at a press conference in Canberra.
“We have sought to get a national approach to that and the states and territories have chosen that they want to retain their flexibility to set those issues.”
Despite that, the PM said he still had hope of a nationally agreed hotspot definition and border response model, adding “my door is always open to have those discussions”.
“Where we can work together, we do, and where states want to exercise their responsibilities to have differing arrangements, well that is the federation of Australia,” Mr Morrison said.
“We will continue to make [it} as consistent as possible.”
Professor Kelly said people should prepare for a different Christmas period.
“We can have virtual Christmases. We have had it all through this year and we are very good at that,” he said alongside the PM in Canberra.
“So make sure you do keep in touch with your family and don’t be separated at this time, even though you physically cannot be there.”