WA Premier backs borders and Skyworks decision despite concerns of Omicron ‘explosion’ – WAtoday

January 27, 2022
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West Australian Premier Mark McGowan has stood by his decision to back a fireworks display for Australia Day, saying while it was a controversial issue with lots of different arguments “it’s really not my focus at this point.”
The medical community in Western Australia and interstate agree that a closed border with Omicron in the community makes no sense if open large-scale events like the Australia Day Skyworks show can continue.
Perth will hold its Australia Day Skyworks event despite fears of Omicron spread.Credit:Fairfax Media
But that’s where agreement ends, with medical opinions divided over whether the single biggest event on Perth’s social calendar will turn out to be a superspreader of COVID-19.
Mr McGowan said Chief Health Officer Andy Robertson gave the tick of approval and during Australia Day citizenship ceremonies on Wednesday, he noticed people were no longer shaking hands but elbow-bumping.
“I expect the turnout [at the Skyworks] will be down considering what’s going on,” Mr McGowan said.
“I expect most people will do the right thing overwhelmingly. Mask-wearing is compulsory.
“It’s one of those things that you have to make these judgment calls and the advice was that it is safe to do so.”
On Monday, the City of Perth backtracked over plans to have Department of Health marshals spot-checking people’s vaccination status at the outdoor event that usually attracts 250,000 people to Swan River foreshores and Kings Park gardens.
Police Minister Paul Papalia said there was currently no obligation for outdoor events to have proof-of vaccination requirements.
“While proof of vaccination will no longer be required, for the safety of everyone attending we encourage visitors to be double vaccinated, practice physical distancing where possible and use the hand sanitiser provided,” the council release read shortly after Mr Papalia’s public response.
“If you are feeling unwell, please stay home and get tested.”
The Australian Nursing Federation’s WA branch said 89 per cent of its 3000 surveyed members wanted the Skyworks cancelled.
“They’re worried about people not wearing masks, they’re worried about the up until today low testing rates, they’re worried about the fact that even though the sky show may be an open-air event, getting there is certainly an indoor journey on trains, buses, and taxis and takes more than 15 minutes,” ANF state secretary Mark Olson said.
“Ideally, we’d like to see the sky works cancel but failing that, our members, nurses, midwives and carers are calling on the public to simply not go, stay away, watch it on TV.”
Hollywood Hospital infectious disease expert Dr Clay Golledge said he advised Perth Lord Mayor Basil Zempilas that he didn’t believe the outdoor show would cause much more than a few clusters of spiking cases.
“It’s spread over a very, very big area – you don’t have 200,000 people crammed into Langley Park or something like that. You’ve got them spread all along the river and Kings Park and in houses and buildings,” he said.
“Yes, people will be taking their masks off to eat and to drink and scream their support for the fireworks. So look, it’s probably not ideal.
“But it’s not like there’s lots and lots of Omicron out there that’s undiscovered, that’s likely to really take off.
“It might cause a spike in numbers, but I can’t see it being a massive superspreader event.”
But South Australian epidemiologist Adrian Esterman disagreed.
“It is a risk. And again, if I was in charge of WA, I’d probably cancel it at this stage while we’re seeing this potential to have a rapid increase in case numbers,” Professor Esterman said.
“All it takes is a handful of cases going into the tens or hundreds of thousands,” he added later.
Given the event attracted many younger people who may not be as mask-conscious and drinking alcohol, the associated risk of spreading Omicron was much higher, he said.
“A superspreader event requires superspreaders – that is people who have the characteristics that they can infect many people and if one of them is loose, not wearing a face mask, they’re out and about, the chance is that the thing could explode,” Professor Esterman said.
The South Australian suppression model, which included early face masks and social distancing, as well as limits on events, is what the WA Australian Medical Association has been using to call for stricter restrictions.
Professor Esterman said the golden rule was to put in health restrictions early and not wait, and that came through trust in good government messaging.
“‘Let it rip’ will cause more deaths. ‘Let it rip’ is also terrible for people who are frail and elderly with compromised immune systems,” he said.
“And finally, there’s a spectrum of long COVID which nobody talks about; imagine that there’s going to be a certain percentage of infected people, even those with no symptoms, who will end up with long-term health problems.
“So the ‘let it rip’ approach is not really a good approach to take.”
But Dr Golledge said the WA community had lost a lot of its good faith in the state government since Premier Mark McGowan announced his border backflip last week.
“There’s no doubt that a lot of people are very angry and feel let down by the Premier’s decision on Thursday,” he said.
“So there’s a lot of people saying, ‘Well, why would I bother with my third dose? Why would I bother going and getting tested? You know, really, he’s not honouring any commitments that he’s made to us’. So, there’s definitely that going on as well.”
However, Dr Golledge said testing still showed low infection rates.
“The 15 positives out of 4500 tests; it’s not a big number of positives when you’re getting situations in New South Wales, Victoria, where there’s test positivity up around 20/25 per cent,” he said.
“We’re in the early phase at the moment where it’s just bumbling along. And hopefully, it just slowly increases rather than an exponentially increases.”
WA currently has just over 124 active local cases, with mystery cases still emerging as sub-clusters take shape across Perth, Peel and the South West.
COVID-19 testing had risen in recent days to see 9831 people swabbed on Monday, up from about 5000 on Sunday.
On Tuesday, Mr McGowan called for more people to get tested, particularly if they had symptoms or been to exposure sites.
He defended the state’s decision to delay the border reopening indefinitely, saying he didn’t want to introduce potentially thousands of COVID-19 cases into WA while cases were peaking in the eastern states.
“We’re just trying to do our best in difficult circumstances,” he said.
As to the Skyworks, Mr McGowan said that the health advice suggested it was safe as it required masks and was held outdoors.
But Mr Olson said a potential superspreader event just days from school returning, with an announcement about how to define a close contact due on Friday, has left public sector workers worried.
He said WA needed to stop making policy on the run, for governments to better consult, and for the McGowan government to improve messaging with paid ads.
“I think that the teachers are in the same situation as the healthcare workers,” he said.
“We’re all suffering from not getting the details that we need soon enough, so that we can get our head around that we can ask the right questions.
“The communication is just not there.”
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