Authorities in Western Australia are attempting to contain a growing Perth Covid cluster, amid handwringing about the state’s decision to indefinitely delay the reopening of its borders.
WA recorded seven new Covid cases on Saturday. There were 20,148 new cases in New South Wales, 16,016 in Victoria and 15,050 in Queensland.
While the WA numbers remain extremely low compared with states where the Omicron variant has spread, concerns are mounting that a more serious outbreak could still take hold despite the decision to keep the state border shut.
Two of the new cases were acquired in the community without a known source; the state’s health department has urged anyone in the Perth and Peel region experiencing symptoms to come forward for testing.
“[It’s] the elephant in the room. We already have Covid Omicron in WA. We already have community spread,” said the president of the Australian Medical Association’s WA branch, Mark Duncan-Smith.
“In the other states, it all started with one case. WA already has that one case. Even as we speak, the number of Omicron cases in the community is doubling every three days.”
In a strongly worded statement, Duncan-Smith called on the WA government to introduce modest restrictions, and to properly prepare the health system and schools for the pandemic.
The federal health minister, Greg Hunt, said on Saturday that he sympathised with families kept apart by the extended WA state border closure, but stopped short of the sort of outright criticism previously levelled at states over hardline border policies.
Federal ministers, including Hunt, have previously been outspoken about Western Australia and Queensland’s closed-border policies. In September he said Queensland’s policies that had separated families and denied entry to certain people were “a profound moral failure”.
“We understand many families will be disappointed, their ability to meet loved ones, their ability to see beautiful young babies or to be present for weddings. That’s all been deferred,” Hunt said on Saturday.
“It is a matter for Western Australia and so we recognise that that’s a decision for the WA government.”
Australia recorded 64 total Covid deaths on Saturday – 30 in New South Wales, 20 in Victoria, 10 in Queensland, three in South Australia and one in Tasmania.
A day after Western Australia’s border announcement, Queensland effectively opened its international borders to travellers, who arrived for the first time without having to quarantine.
Queensland has delayed the return of its school year by two weeks; though New South Wales and Victoria are both planning to welcome students back in the coming weeks.
In NSW, the premier, Dominic Perrottet, said the state’s healthcare system was equipped to cope with an expected spike in transmission that would result from a return to the classroom.
“We are doing it in a way that is safe for parents, safe for teachers and safe for children, and we’ll be announcing those plans alongside the Victorian government shortly,” he said.
The Northern Territory recorded 314 cases of Covid-19 overnight, with the lockout in Alice Springs, the Amoonguna community, Yuendumu, Yuelamu and Galiwin’ku being extended for a week.
There are 63 people with Covid-19 in hospital in the territory, including six on ventilators and one in intensive care.
The Australian Capital Territory recorded 666 new cases of Covid-19, two-thirds of which were from rapid tests.
There are currently 63 people with Covid in hospital, one person in intensive care, and one ventilated.
Meanwhile, an estimated 1,000 people took part in a “Freedom Rally” in Melbourne’s central business district to protest against Covid vaccination mandates.
The crowd, which was followed by police, assembled at Parliament House around noon and moved along Bourke Street and Flinders Street before stopping at the Victoria Police Centre.
The crowd chanted “you serve us” at police along with slogans such as “save out children” and “sack Dan Andrews”.
Also in Melbourne, the organisers of the city’s Invasion Day rally announced they had cancelled the march this year, saying the risk of spreading Covid through the Aboriginal community was too high.
They have recommended supporters attend the online dawn service instead.
The Invasion Day rally is the biggest protest held in Melbourne each year.
A total of 93.3% of Victorians aged 12 and over have had at least two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine. The national vaccine rate for children aged five to 11 receiving their first dose has climbed to 26.5%.
The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, who was in Launceston pledging $15m for the Royal Flying Doctors Association, described the vaccine rate of children five to 11 as being in “chaos” and a “shambles”. He said the rate indicated that “children just won’t be able to be fully vaccinated by the time that school goes back”.
Albanese did not directly answer when asked if he believed the start date for primary schools should be pushed back until there was greater vaccination coverage, saying instead that the Australian government should have moved faster.