Premier Mark McGowan’s decision to keep Western Australia’s borders closed indefinitely has been labelled a failure of leadership as thousands of flights are cancelled in response.
West Australians face being trapped indefinitely within their own state after the premier broke his promise to resume travel next month.
Mr McGowan announced the extraordinary backflip during a late-night press conference on Thursday, claiming it would be “reckless and irresponsible” to proceed with the planned February 5 reopening given the surge in Omicron COVID-19 cases across the country.
The premier had promised to reopen the borders once the state’s double-dose vaccination rate reached 90 per cent. It is 89 per cent now.
More compassionate exemptions will be granted from February 5 but those allowed to return for funerals or to see dying relatives still face 14 days in mandatory quarantine.
A fresh reopening date has not been set.
Qantas on Friday said it would cancel thousands of domestic flights into Perth through to the end of April and review the planned restart of its Perth-London route.
Up to 15 passenger flights per week will be maintained for essential personnel and freight.
“The rest of the country is focused on getting through this but WA is still playing for time, despite people doing the right thing and getting vaccinated,” Qantas Group chief executive Alan Joyce said.
“The question is what it will take for them to open.”
Flight Centre said it would give fresh consideration to a constitutional challenge against WA’s border closures.
The government’s backflip raises serious questions about its lack of preparedness after almost two years of border closures.
WA’s health system has been plagued with issues despite the state banking a $5.6 billion budget surplus.
Opposition Leader Mia Davies said the government had effectively admitted its hospitals could not handle a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein noted that WA’s double-dose vaccination rate was lagging months behind that of other states.
“I think it’s a failure of vaccination, to be honest,” he said.
From February 5, approved interstate travellers will be allowed to self-quarantine but must be triple-dose vaccinated if eligible.
International arrivals must enter hotel quarantine for seven days before being allowed to self-quarantine.
Mr McGowan said the hard border controls would be further reviewed over the next month.
He said WA’s unemployment rate was by far the lowest and reopening the borders now would “devastate” many industries.
“I’ve been contacted by many people very happy with the announcement we’ve made … because it gives them the opportunity to get vaccinated,” he said on Friday.
The premier insisted the health system was “strong and ready” but said he would like WA’s third dose rate to get as high as 90 per cent.
It sits around 27 per cent, a level comparable with the eastern states.
The premier had said last month the only reason WA wouldn’t reopen its borders on February 5 was if there was an “unforeseen emergency”, such as the emergence of a new deadlier strain or a realisation Omicron was deadlier than anticipated.
He insisted his position had not changed despite WA having just 82 active cases.
Australian Medical Association president Omar Khorshid labelled Mr McGowan a “one trick pony”.
“This decision should be acknowledged as a failure by the WA govt to prepare and a broken promise,” the Perth-based doctor tweeted.
“Omicron is here already and it will cause a significant outbreak in WA soon enough. Sticking our head in the sand won’t make it go away. Let’s prepare!”
Australian Industry Group chief Innes Willox said it was “impossible” to get labour in and out of WA and the decision would severely set back the national economy.
Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said “many people in Western Australia would be disappointed with the decision”.
“Many West Australians will be asking ‘If not now, then when?'” he told the Seven Network.
WA Health reported seven new local infections on Friday, four of which had not been linked to any known cases.