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Border tease: not on the first date

Christmas came early for many on the 13 December last year, when WA Premier Mark McGowan announced the State Government would embark on its “Safe Transition Plan” and ease hard border controls from 12.01am on February 5, 2022. 

Families rejoiced, weddings were locked in and flights were booked. Business breathed a sigh of relief, plans were made and talent recruited.  

But alas, 37 days later everything changed. Mr McGowan again fronted the media (this time in prime time) and announced that WA would live up to the name ‘Wait Awhile’ and would not be opening on February 5. That date sailed by over the weekend, and he still can’t say when we will be opening.  

For a lot of people this went down about as well as a hot bowl of minestrone this summer.  

Anecdotally this was the last straw for many Western Australians living interstate or overseas who have been waiting to move home, and finally reunite with relatives they haven’t seen for two to three years. Many of these people were supportive of the WA Government’s policies up until this point. They were shown a light at the end of the tunnel, but then it was cruelly switched off. 

Similarly, for business it heralded the return of that cruellest of mistresses – uncertainty. Influential business names from the big end of town have been increasingly critical of the hard border policy. Senior executives have been relocated east, and workers and recruits have been stranded interstate. 

While none of us are being told what is going on, there are a few clues we can use as pointers to what may happen. 

Backflipping 

The first thing to note is that the date was not the only thing that changed. February 5 was chosen as that was when the population of WA was forecast to reach the 90% double vaccinated milestone.  

But in renouncing the February 5 opening date, the Premier also revealed that the 90 per cent double vaccinated milestone was now irrelevant, and we would have to reach the 80 per cent triple vaccinated milestone. Imagine Daniil Medvedev being told the Australian Open final was a three setter, only to be told just before the end of the second set it would be going to five. 

Modelling for Dummies 

Many have been questioning how much faith can be put in that new 80 per cent milestone, and whether the goalposts will shift again. Due to the strong reaction to the backflip on the date, any further changes would create even more unrest so the Government would be very reluctant to do so. For this reason, we can expect the 80% triple dose target to be a hard one.  

Wednesday’s announcement seems to support this, with the Government putting in extra effort to get people to boost up. The significant line here is:  

“Of those Western Australians 16 and over, 37.6 per cent have received a third dose and the third dose vaccination rate is increasing by around one per cent per day this year.”  

Based on this figure, basic back of the envelope calculations indicate it will be about 42 days until we hit 80 per cent triple vaccinations. This takes us up to around mid to late March for reopening. 

The Election Conspiracy 

Cynics have been suggesting that there is a political aspect to the closure, and that part of the aim is to keep Liberal politicians from entering WA to campaign in the lead up to the Federal election – the thinking being that Labor is happy to ride the McGowan hype train in WA going into the election and hope that voters can’t separate Federal and State politics.  

If this is true, then you can probably lock in a reopening around April. But while it’s a fun speculation – and it’s certainly not the most elaborate or fanciful of the various COVID and vaccination related theories in circulation – given the fallout from shifting the date and criteria last time, don’t expect decisions on the borders to be heavily influenced by the upcoming election. 

Softening up 

As touched on above, pressure is building from all angles to get the borders open. Big business and peak industry bodies are now getting more and more vocal on the issue. The media has also switched its narrative since the postponement of the February 5 opening date 

The Government find themselves in a bit of a bind with their new criteria likely set in stone. The announced push to increase boosted rates looks as much like an attempt to get the borders open more quickly as it does to protect people from COVID.  

However, the Government could still bow to external pressure in other ways, such as softening the entry rules or decreasing isolation periods rather than fully opening before we get to that 80 per cent milestone. Indeed, we’re already seeing signs of this with the Premier indicating that a move to seven-day isolation periods is imminent. 

If not now, when? 

The most likely outcome is that WA will open its borders when we hit the newly set 80 per cent triple vaccinated target, which looks likely be mid to late Marchbut we can potentially expect some softening of rules between now and then.  

The Government will be unlikely to put a date on anything again, so we will probably see a short run in from announcement of the borders opening to the actual opening date.  

About the author

Cameron is a Government Relations Advisor with a unique and varied background, in both the public sector and private sector. Contact Cam.

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