Sudden Australian state lockdowns and border closures: What a coronavirus outbreak would mean for our summer holidays

On 15 November SA Health, South Australia's health department reported four new cases of COVID-19. The source of the infection was an Australian traveller returning from overseas and in hotel quarantine. In a case that paralleled the recent Victorian coronavirus outbreak, a worker at the hotel had become infected and passed on the infection to extended family members, 15 of whom were subsequently diagnosed with COVID-19.

By Tuesday 17 November the state reported 34 active cases, almost doubling the state's active case numbers from two days previously. Until the weekend of 14-15 November, coronavirus had barely grazed South Australia.

Adopting the mantra "go hard and go early", the state's lockdown was swift.

Effective from midnight on Wednesday November 18, South Australia embarked on a six-day pause. Schools and universities closed, all South Australians are required to stay home. Only one person per household per day is allowed to leave the house to purchase food or essential supplies. Outdoor sport and outdoor exercise are banned and weddings and funerals cancelled.

The travel lockdown

With coronavirus fear in the air, Australia's states are on a hair trigger alert right now and several rushed to bolt their doors in response. In Western Australia, which had only opened its border with South Australia at midnight on 13 November, the state government declared "No one will be allowed into WA if they have been in South Australia in the previous 14 days," apart from those on official business.

The suddenness of the announcement was an unwelcome surprise for passengers from Adelaide arriving in Perth aboard a Qantas flight on the evening of 15 November. Instead of a warm welcome to a newly accessible state they were given a bitter choice – either self-quarantine in Western Australia for 14 days or return to South Australia.

In Queensland the government imposed restrictions on travellers coming from 20 local government areas (LGAs) in Adelaide. Anyone arriving from those LGAs after November 9 would be required to present for testing and home quarantine for 14 days after leaving Adelaide.

The Northern Territory and Tasmania imposed similar restrictions on anyone arriving not just from Adelaide but from anywhere in South Australia.

What does this mean for our summer holidays?

Sudden lockdowns that close state borders are a nightmare for travellers. Why risk an interstate holiday when that state might close its border at short notice in response to a coronavirus flare-up? Or when you could find yourself in a declared hotspot and forced into a 14-day quarantine when you return to your home state? If your holiday plans run up against a travel ban just a few days before you're due to depart your booking might disappear with no entitlement to a refund or a travel credit. Holidaying in your home state becomes the low-risk option, for your health as well as your peace of mind. "It'd be the safest thing to do", according to Dr Norman Swan.


The view from the travel industry

While applauding the strict measures that have been put in place to defeat the pandemic, for the travel industry these new lockdowns are yet another frustration, and further evidence of disunity on the part of state governments.

According to Tom Manwaring, Chairman of the Australian Federation of Travel Agents, "It's hard to quantify what this means for interstate tourism in Australia over the coming summer but the experts agree the coronavirus is likely to be with us for a long time. We need to work with COVID-19 in a measurable way and that means a national position on outbreaks rather than the state-by-state measures that we're seeing. We certainly need national track and trace measures, fast and effective testing and mandatory masks and social distancing but the approach from government needs to be a little more business friendly than the piecemeal response that puts a clampdown on all business activity as soon as the case numbers rise."

For Dean Long, CEO of the Accommodation Association, the country's largest representative association for the accommodation sector, this is a major blow for AA members.

"For interstate tourism over the coming summer this is a confidence killer," he says. "Opening and closing borders is a blunt instrument. In particular, closing down the WA border at such short notice was an abuse of power when it affected people who are in mid-air en route to Perth. They had no opportunity to make an informed decision and the border closure deprived them of that right."

"It's particularly hard for the accommodation industry because travel bans frustrate plans for guest numbers yet we're doing the right thing, our industry is very conscious of our responsibility. We are following the guidelines laid down by the Commonwealth Department of Health, we've instituted contact tracing protocols and intensive cleaning in high touch areas for example. It's notable that the outbreaks that have occurred in hotels are not caused by hotels operating as hotels, they are operating as quarantine hotels under government supervision."

Striking a brighter note, Long also has a suggestion for travellers wondering where they can holiday safely this summer.

"Have a staycation in your capital city, and what better time to see it? Become a tourist in your own city. Cities are coming alive with the warmer weather with performances starting up, there's plenty of life happening in the cafes, a buzz in the restaurants and here in NSW the government is giving everyone $100 worth of vouchers under the Out and About scheme to stimulate the restaurant and entertainment industries. There's never been a more exciting time to come into the city than right now and there are some great deals for mid-week rooms at city hotels at the moment it's a great opportunity to reconnect with city living and maybe stay in a hotel you've always wanted to experience."

See also: Lessons Australia could learn from Singapore's international reopening

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