LIbby Mettam: Why McGowan’s shock border decision was driven by fear

Libby MettamThe West Australian
Libby Mettam.
Camera IconLibby Mettam. Credit: Justin Benson-Cooper/The West Australian

There is no doubt that the Premier’s shock decision to keep the WA border closed indefinitely, leaving WA stuck in a holding pattern, is driven by fear.

Fear of the unknown due to a lack of modelling, fear about the impact on the health system and possibly fear how those that elected him to keep them “safe and secure” would react once he was no longer “crushing and killing” the virus.

Which may explain his absence from yesterday’s daily COVID press conference which revealed there were 24 new cases and that two COVID cases that presented at Fiona Stanley Hospital were not triaged properly. “A wake-up call” the Health Minister said.

Perhaps to the McGowan Government but no-one else.

We have known about omicron for almost two months.

The Chief Health Officer advised the Premier of the threat of the omicron variant on November 27, two weeks before his announcement of a Safe Transition ‘plan’ to re-open the borders on February 5.

In that advice, the CHO stated early data showed it was highly transmissible but less severe with a 64-70 per cent reduction in hospitalisation and 75 per cent less ICU admission rates compared to Delta.

At the announcement, when the border opening was “locked in”, the Premier said “Western Australians can have confidence that the time is right to ease our border controls. That our health system is ready… to handle to arrival of COVID-19 in the community.”

Except it apparently wasn’t the right time and yesterday’s bungle shows the system is clearly not ready.

With 24 new cases reported, the question is if not now, then when? It appears the horse may have bolted and the angst caused by last week’s indefinite border lockdown was pointless.

We know that the efficacy of booster shots reduces after a couple of months and therefore those that have already received it, primarily healthcare workers and the elderly, will have waning protection beyond the end of March.

So the very people we are supposed to be protecting will still face significant challenges and perhaps be more vulnerable despite the delay.

The CHO also warned that WA could expect an early and significant influenza season in 2022 and “any decision on opening dates should consider the potential for twin outbreaks if the peak or post-peak period” falls in the winter flu season.

Given the peak is likely two months after the initial outbreak, it is increasingly likely that will happen.

Despite having two years to prepare our hospital systems, to put a plan in place for how WA will manage this inevitable spread in the community so schools, businesses and hospitals have protocols and guidelines in place, it’s astounding the McGowan Government is still not ready.

It has relied on a hard border and snap lockdowns and done none of the heavy lifting behind the scenes it promised the West Australian public it would do.

ABS data shows 1671 people died in Australia due to COVID between January 2020 until October 2021 (before the Omicron variant was detected), the average age was 83 and 71% had pre-existing conditions.

By comparison, in the same period to October 2021, influenza/pneumonia resulted in 1816 deaths.

All deaths are devastating for family and friends but now we know less people are dying of COVID than the flu we have to learn to live with the risk associated with it.

It’s also important to reflect on the fact 3139 people died from suicide in this period in Australia and many more are continuing to deal with ongoing issues often exacerbated by forced isolation.

The McGowan Government has committed nearly $9 billion to COVID-19 response initiatives but only $20m in 2020-2021 on mental health initiatives despite the increased demand during the pandemic.

After two years, our hospitals are also in a worse position than they were before COVID.

Last year, we had the highest ambulance ramping figures on record, we recorded the lowest number of ICU beds per capita (which was even less than 2020) and we had more than 100 Code Yellows in our hospitals due to a lack of bed capacity.

Our hospitals are also suffering staff shortages, yet more than 100 doctors and nurses currently unable to enter the State because their G2G passes keep getting rejected.

Delaying the official re-opening also comes with serious risks to those that are most vulnerable.

The Health Minister’s recently announced recruitment program for health workers and ICU upskilling program is welcome, but why wasn’t this happening two years ago?

Why did an international recruitment campaign take six months to develop and only begin late last year? Why did the McGowan Government suspend a pathways recruitment program to enable local workers to re-enter the workforce when other nurses were locked out?

The AMA president says the State Government cannot rely on vaccination alone and there needs to be preparedness in the health system. This includes ensuring health workers have access to basic PPE and test kits.

Yet, when a COVID patient presented at Fiona Stanley Hospital this week, healthcare workers didn’t have appropriate PPE and they are now in isolation. Yesterday’s triage bungle is another example of the lack of protocols in place.

We also know that despite dragging its feet on ordering Rapid Antigen Tests and banning them until two weeks ago, the government is now chartering planes to expedite their arrival.

Also buried in last week’s announcement was the decision to cancel elective surgeries, which should not be taken lightly. While not urgent, these surgeries are not optional and often lead to increased acuity. The waitlist has already doubled since 2017.

This information and policy vacuum has contributed to a high level of anxiety across the health workforce and community that is fuelling the fear.

The reality is, there is no way to crush and kill a virus, despite the Premier’s rhetoric.

At some point, Western Australians will have to live with this virus.

When that is may no longer be a choice given yesterday’s case numbers.

Given we will soon have the 90 per cent vaccination rate we were originally striving for as a state and have boosted our most vulnerable, many would have expected the government to uphold its end of the bargain with respect to preparedness. That clearly is not the case.

The time for spin and the “us vs them” mentality with the East must cease.

The Premier must set a date to reopen to the rest of our country and stick to it.

Libby Mettam is the deputy Liberal leader and shadow health spokesperson

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