Australia state border closures: Interstate travel is dead if we don't fix these eight issues

OPINION

We've come so far – and yet in many ways it feels like we're going nowhere. More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, and where are we, exactly?

We know much more about protecting ourselves. We know we have to go a little further than singing "Happy Birthday" while washing our hands. We also know that good governance and strong civil obedience can help keep the pandemic at bay with minimal impact on our day-to-day lives.

And yet still, state borders are closing and cities are being locked down as soon as there's the faintest hint of an outbreak. Events are being scrapped, flights are being cancelled, plans are being ruined. This is our lives now, is seems.

So where does this leave those of us who would like to travel within Australia, and those whose livelihoods rely on that industry?

International travel – that is, leisure travel without restrictions, without the threat of border closures leaving people stranded – looks, frankly, years away. And at the moment even domestic travel, with any sense of normalcy, seems as if it's getting no closer.

If we do want leisure travel within Australia to go back to the way it once was, for us all to be able to enjoy a worry-free interstate holiday or a family reunion, and for a major industry to be given a life-saving boost, there are several major things that need to change. I'm not saying they're all necessarily good things – you might consider all of this and decide that travel just isn't worth it.

But without them, I can't see widespread interstate leisure travel in Australia being viable.

Roll out the vaccines

FILE - In this Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020 file photo, a nurse holds a phial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Guy's Hospital in London. U.K. Ugur Sahin, CEO of Biontech says the German pharmaceutical company is confident that the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine works against the UK variant of the virus, but further studies are need to be completely sure. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, Pool, file)

Photo: AP

Advertisement

This is obvious. It's clear that state governments are going to keep closing borders and keep locking down communities until there's a vaccine that has been rolled out in Australia to a critical mass of vulnerable people. There can be no normal travel without the introduction of this safety net. And so far… well, we haven't got far. By now at least 15 million British citizens have been vaccinated against COVID-19. More than 40 million Americans can say the same. But not a single Australian has had the jab.

Have confidence those vaccines will be effective

For the vaccines to work – and that's "work" as in give people and governments the confidence to relax restrictions and refrain from introducing them again – we have to be confident they're actually going to work. We have to be confident the AstraZeneca vaccine, which most low-risk Australians will receive, will be effective against mutant strains of COVID-19 such as the British and South African variants. Right now, we can't say that.

Get comfortable with people being sick

Before I go on: no, I don't want to get sick. I don't want you to get sick either. I don't want Australia to end up like the USA. And I don't want everyone to die.

But for travel to go back to normal, and for our world to go back to normal, we as a society are going to have to accept that some people will get sick from COVID-19. The vaccines aren't a magic solution. Trials have shown they reduce the chance of getting COVID-19, they reduce the chance of becoming seriously ill with the virus, and they reduce the chance of transmitting it. But they don't reduce the chances to zero.

At some point – and this has been flagged already by the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison – we have to get used to the idea that COVID-19 will spread in Australia, and some people will get sick (though not seriously), in the same way they get sick from all sorts of different diseases. That's going to be a hard one for us all to get our heads around.

Get comfortable with suppression over elimination

Though we were all sold the idea of suppression over elimination of COVID-19 early on in the pandemic, the fact is that most state governments – aside, probably, from NSW – have been operating on an elimination model. That can't go on forever. Once vaccines have been rolled out to high-risk groups, if we want our lives to go back to normal, in particular our travelling lives, then we'll have to tolerate case numbers that are above zero.

Federal government has to step up

Scott Morrison has been playing a low-risk game during this pandemic, doing as little as possible in the hope, I guess, that if you don't do anything, you can't be criticised for anything. Now, however, there seems a growing base of opinion that the federal government needs to step up and manage Australia's response to COVID-19, including handling quarantine for international arrivals, and co-ordinating an agreed strategy from all of the states. That means coming to agreed parameters for hotspots, agreed responses to outbreaks, and agreed markers for border closures and lockdowns. Australia needs this desperately for domestic travel to return.

State premiers need to calm down

I'm sure there's a genuine part of every state premier that wants to do good by their state and protect their citizens. I'm also sure there's a genuine part of every state premier that is enjoying the limelight that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought them, and the popularity that has come from ruling their territories with an iron fist. Close borders and people cheer. Lock down cities and they praise your decisiveness. However, our leaders are going to have to exercise a lighter touch if we want to start moving around the country again.

States need to trust each other – and themselves

The federation is a mess right now. States don't trust each other to manage outbreaks in an effective way. State premiers don't trust each other to keep a lid on things. And if they were being honest, they don't seem to trust their own systems to keep the pandemic at bay.

Australians need to quit the parochialism

If we want Australia to be united, for borders to open and stay that way, for people to be able to travel freely for leisure, for business and for love, then we Australians need to be united. No more parochialism. No more thinking of yourself as a Victorian or a Queenslander or a West Australian first. If there are no political points to be scored by bagging other states and closing your borders to them, politicians will stop doing it. That's in your hands.

What do you think needs to change to get domestic travel back up and running? Would you like to see that, or are you happy for things to stay as they are?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

See also: Our borders aren't really closed and we're all paying a price

See also: Our zero-risk approach means there's no hope for travel bubbles

LISTEN: Flight of Fancy - the Traveller.com.au podcast

To subscribe to the Traveller.com.au podcast Flight of Fancy on iTunes, click here.

Join the Flight of Fancy community on Facebook

Comments