The Premier of South Australia, Stephen Marshall, announced earlier this month that he wouldn't open his state's borders to the ACT just yet, because the ACT's borders are "porous".
At least he didn't say that it was because of the ACT's proximity to Sydney, which is how Victoria is justifying closing its doors to the ACT. Last time I looked, Sydney is some 285 kilometres from Canberra. This is roughly the same distance that Wodonga (in Victoria) is from Melbourne.
And in relation to the South Australian Premier's announcement, the ACT has not had any community transmission of Covid for nearly 54 weeks - more than one year. This is not purely because of luck: it is due to hard work on the part of government and residents from the ACT, as well as the surrounding districts, to ensure everyone is safe.
This week has seen harder lockdowns implemented in several jurisdictions across NSW, Victoria and South Australia. Interestingly, prior to the outbreaks in South Australia this week, it had kept its borders open with many other jurisdictions, including Victoria, even though outbreaks there were recent. Again, this is in stark contrast to the ACT's record of more than a year since local transmission.
The rules are quite complex for every jurisdiction in Australia. One of the major problems is that each jurisdiction describes Covid "hotspots" in different ways. For example, Victoria refers to the ACT now as a red zone, while WA refers to it as a "low-risk" jurisdiction. Surely we can at least have consistency with nomenclature?
I feel that Australia is back where it was before the standard-gauge railway was introduced.
I have high praise for our chief health officers, who have served us well during this pandemic. Some of them may well need a few weeks off to regroup, though. They have been running 24/7 for more than 18 months.
I'm focusing on South Australia because I've seen some odd regulations applied there. A recent example was the AFL match in early June, between the Adelaide Crows and Collingwood. A directive was in place that precluded Victorians from entering South Australia, yet the Collingwood side was allowed to enter and play in front of around 35,000 spectators. The CHO was quizzed about what would happen if one of the (potentially infected) Pies players should kick the ball into the crowd. The considered public health advice was not to catch the ball. For the record, Collingwood won - so nothing good happened for the South Australin team. Port and the Pies are due to meet in Adelaide this weekend - let's see how that goes!
Another example was the removal of 35 passengers from the Ghan on its journey between Adelaide and Darwin. They were removed nearly 1000 kilometres north of Adelaide, near the NT border, with the explanation that they were from Melbourne. By that stage of the trip, they and other passengers would have walked all over the train, so it was potentially a Ruby Princess on the rail track. If there was anyone infected, many would have been infected!
What might have improved the public health messaging here? Early in the pandemic, the usual consumer engagement for developing health policy was ditched by almost every jurisdiction. It was easy to understand - it takes time to engage consumers properly and genuinely.
But 18 months down the track, it is time to bring consumers back to the health policy table. Health policy is better developed and implemented if consumers are part of the decision-making process. On the occasions mentioned, they could have either helped the CHO with the messaging, or explained how silly these decisions were.
There are many inconsistencies, but another bizarre one relates to the return to the ACT of a couple of my friends. They had to travel to the UK urgently to retrieve their critically ill daughter. They were all vaccinated, and submitted a plan to NSW to isolate at home in the ACT, given their daughter's precarious health status. NSW wouldn't countenance such a proposal, so they were accommodated in a medi-hotel. Strangely, the kitchen in their unit was disconnected because of the risk of fire.
Yet the ANU recently put a proposal to government to enable international students to return to campus and quarantine in one of their halls of residence. The proposal was refused on the basis that there were no individual kitchens. However, officials accompanying the Prime Minister on the recent G7 visit were quarantined in the same hall of residence which still didn't have individual kitchens. It seems that any government official returning to the ACT will now be accommodated at the ANU.
Overseas diplomats entering Australia, usually to Canberra, whose movements are not allowed to be curtailed, manage to get themselves to Canberra and be in home quarantine as directed by health authorities without infecting anyone.
These inconsistencies are not unique to the Commonwealth, NSW or the ACT. They abound across Australia. I am concerned that the goodwill of most Australians, especially the usually compliant residents of the ACT, is being eroded by inconsistency and lack of transparency in decisions.
Not one minister of the crown, including the Prime Minister, has been subject to the same quarantine arrangements as the general public. They have quarantined at home, presumably with their kitchens, and the concomitant fire risk, fully intact.
The people who don't suffer from any of these inconsistencies are those making the rules or supervising their implementation. Goodwill is marching to the rubbish tip at an alarming rate.
It is clear Australian citizens need to be protected while there is a shortage of the vaccine and while the Delta strain is running amok. But common sense, equity and transparency need to be applied. We need to get back to the basics of being Australian, rather than pitting jurisdiction against jurisdiction. The health of all Australians is important, and responses must be proportionate to risk.
- Anne Cahill Lambert AM is a health consumer activist and retired health service CEO.