‘Corporate mates’: Queensland lashes exemptions for business travellers amid Covid outbreak

Federal home affairs minister says international travel claim is a ‘smokescreen to hide the ineffectiveness’ of state quarantine system

Queensland authorities say the state’s latest coronavirus outbreak has been traced to a hospital patient who was repeatedly allowed to travel to and from Indonesia for business, prompting accusations “the prime minister’s corporate mates” have been granted exemptions to cross the closed international border.

The state reported three new community Covid cases on Wednesday – all known contacts of existing cases – on the first day of a snap lockdown.

The “good news” of the latest case numbers was followed by a barrage of criticisms of the federal government, led by the premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, and a succession of state ministers.

They included claims that vaccination clinics are five days from running short of Pfizer doses and that a request for more had been rejected by the commonwealth.

Queensland authorities also took a firm stance in opposition to people under 40 receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine – a direct rebuke of the prime minister, Scott Morrison’s, recent announcement that younger people could access the vaccine.

Queensland’s chief health officer, Dr Jeannette Young, says she doesn’t want people aged under 40 to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine because she doesn’t want an 18-year-old in the state “dying from a clotting illness”.

The snap three-day lockdown in southeast Queensland, Townsville, Magnetic Island and Palm Island was prompted by the Delta-strain infection of an unvaccinated hospital clerical worker, 19, who was posted outside the Covid ward at the Prince Charles hospital in northern Brisbane.

The deputy premier, Steven Miles, told reporters genomic sequencing had confirmed the source of the hospital worker’s infection was a man who travelled to Indonesia for business.

Miles said: “The borders are not genuinely closed.”

The unvaccinated traveller “had been allowed to come and go between Australia and Indonesia repeatedly throughout this pandemic by the Morrison government,” he said.

“They are not vaccinated and have been through our hotel quarantine several times.

“Yesterday, 223 international travellers arrived here in Queensland. We have never said, never said, that vulnerable Australians should not be repatriated home through hotel quarantine. In fact, they should be.

“It turns out the only thing that’s required to get a permit from the federal government to leave the country is proof you have a meeting in another country. It’s not good enough that just because you can afford a business class flight or a charter flight you can breach our closed international borders.

“It’s not good enough the borders are open for the prime minister’s corporate mates but closed for the rest of us, putting Queenslanders at risk.”

Miles said he did not want to stop people from being able to enter Australia but wanted the Morrison government to put in place vaccination requirements for repeat travellers.

A spokesperson for Morrison said the man was “absolutely not” known to the prime minister.

The West Australian premier, Mark McGowan, backed Queensland’s call and said he understood the man was a helicopter pilot who worked in Indonesia and returned to Australia on his breaks. McGowan went further than his Queensland counterparts and said “until we’re all vaccinated this sort of thing has got to stop”.

“The best part of 100,000 people have left Australia over the course of the past 18 months for all sorts of reasons,” he said.

“Some reasons are legitimate, but the vast majority of people going overseas, in my view, shouldn’t have. They should stay home while there is a pandemic running wild around the world, because, inevitably, they want to come back and when they come back, some of them will be positive and then they displace others who have been waiting overseas to get back, who didn’t go overseas in the past 18 months.”

Anyone can apply for an exemption to travel out of the country, through border force, if they meet the necessary requirements, which include compassionate and “essential” business reasons.

A letter from your employer, or other evidence that you are travelling for a business reason, is considered evidence when applying for an exemption. The onus is on the traveller to be able to get themselves home and pay for hotel quarantine.

Wednesday ended any pretence of co-operation between the Queensland and federal governments, which had agreed to an uneasy truce after Peter Dutton, the then-home affairs minister, accused Queensland of allowing movie stars into the state before he was forced to concede it was his own department which dealt with those approvals.

Karen Andrews, who took over the home affairs portfolio earlier this year, accused Palaszczuk on Wednesday of trying to deflect from her government’s quarantine failures by using the Australian Border Force as a scapegoat.

“What Annastacia Palaszczuk is doing is making sure that she is doing as much as she possibly can to ensure that she puts up a smokescreen to hide the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of quarantine that is administered and managed by the Queensland government,” she said.

“Now, it is actually interesting to note that some days premier Palaszczuk and the Queensland state Labor government choose to push to have people enter this state. Particularly those people who are involved in film and television, who are involved in sports.

“But when they have their own failure that they can’t manage, they are very quick to jump up and down, try to blame the commonwealth government and then demand that borders be down or that caps be reduced. Quite frankly, Queenslanders can see these claims for exactly what they are, they don’t stack up, they are a smokescreen, and quite frankly the premier needs to get on with managing the state.”

Andrews accused Palaszczuk, who has signalled she may travel to Japan for the Olympics as part of Queensland’s 2032 bid, of “arguing against her own travel”.

“It will be interesting to see what Palaszczuk now has to say about whether or not she’s going to travel to Tokyo,” the home affairs minister said. The commonwealth supports the bid and has its own MPs working on it in conjunction with the state government.

Queensland’s aggressive stance comes as the state faces criticism for allowing the unvaccinated worker in close proximity of a Covid ward, in apparent contravention of a statewide order that all staff be vaccinated.

Young said it appeared the order had been interpreted – in her view, wrongly – as not applying to the clerical worker, who worked outside the ward. She said an investigation into the matter was under way.

The new cases reported on Wednesday were each linked to an existing cluster. One was the brother of the hospital worker, who accompanied her and family members on a trip to Townsville and Magnetic Island.

D’ath said supplies of vaccines at some clinics were due to run out in five days and said those clinics faced the prospect of having to cancel longstanding appointments for second doses.

She said a request of the federal government to provide about 132,000 additional doses had been rejected on Wednesday morning.

“The reason we gave is that we are at a critical level and that at some of our sites we are projected to run out of Pfizer by as soon as … 5 July, next Monday.

“At some of our sites we are due to run out. … and one of those sites being Sunshine Coast University Hospital. Our reason also is we said additional vaccine supply is critical to avoiding cancellations of already committed appointments, and to ensure that we can continue to prioritise areas of high risk.

“So we are getting to that point that we’ll have to start prioritising only second doses if the commonwealth do not have any vaccine left. And they need to tell us.

“Now, maybe this is why the prime minister’s come out and suggested that under-40s get [AstraZenica].”

As Townsville in north Queensland – as well as nearby Magnetic Island and Palm Island – enters its first snap lockdown, the city’s mayor has called for more state support, amid reports of lengthy queues for Covid tests.

“Quite frankly, I think we need some more help in terms of testing here on the mainland to support our local community,” Hill told the ABC.


Ben Smee and Amy Remeikis

The GuardianTramp

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