For most Western Australians, learning to live with COVID-19 will mean looking to the eastern states, if not the rest of the world, for direction.
Western Australia’s business community has spent months bemoaning the state’s approach to COVID-19.
At a Business News Success & Leadership event last August, Nicola Forrest told stories of her travels outside of WA, where individuals took responsibility for managing their own health through precautions such as the wearing of masks and social distancing.
Wesfarmers managing director Rob Scott spoke at another S&L event just months later, lamenting how the company couldn’t relocate a key executive hire to WA from New Zealand despite both jurisdictions having eliminated the virus at that time.
By contrast, Premier Mark McGowan has made it clear for two years now that he would prefer it if the virus wasn’t in WA.
If that preference was for many months considered achievable and popular, it’s now unworkable.
COVID-19 has been in WA since at least Christmas Eve, with new cases being recorded every other day and a growing number of exposure sites listed across the state, from Broome to the South West.
By the end of February, when WA’s border will have been open for three weeks, the state is likely to record thousands of new infections per day, mirroring the trajectory followed by Queensland and South Australia after their borders came down in December.
Realistically, people will need to drastically change how they go about their lives after February 5. Mask wearing will be required in public settings, as will the need to provide proof of vaccination when entering bars and cafes.
Beyond these mandatory acts, consumers and businesses will need to adapt to the reality of a workforce that will be sicker than it ever has been.
Retailers in the eastern states have struggled with this in recent months, with reports emerging of chronic staff shortages at Woolworths and Coles stores as thousands of employees undergo isolation after exposure to the virus.
The public hospital system is also likely to face major challenges in coming months.
Libby Mettam, the opposition’s health spokesperson, has frequently lambasted the frequency of ambulance ramping under Roger Cook, who shifted from health minister to tourism minister in December.
Mark Duncan-Smith, president of the Australian Medical Association WA, was critical of escalating ramping figures when speaking with reporters earlier this month, acknowledging that business as usual will stop for hospitals once the state’s border reopens.
“In WA there won’t be any elective surgery and resources will be reallocated to deal with COVID,” Mr Duncan-Smith said.
“We’ve already seen this happen in SA; within one and a half weeks of them opening up to Omicron, they cancelled all elective surgery.
“This is also what will happen in WA due to our reduced capacity to handle the workload.”
Despite these pressures, few could reasonably argue against Australia joining with the rest of the first world in allowing free travel and paring back quarantining requirements.
New Zealand, which in many ways was more aggressive than Australia in its approach to eliminating COVID-19, discarded its strategy in December in favour of a three-tier ‘traffic light’ system, which dictates restrictions based on the capacity for hospitals to manage caseloads.
Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam all made a virtue of their stringent disease control throughout the start of the pandemic.
All three have since shifted to accepting the virus will become an unavoidable part of life.
By contrast China, which is generally thought to have rolled out vaccines that are less effective than those developed and produced in Western countries, now stands alone in attempting to eradicate the virus through lockdowns.
RATs in WA
Given lockdowns will all but disappear after February, per national cabinet’s agreed-upon reopening strategy, suppression of the virus in WA will mean increased focus on its early detection.
That will likely mean widespread uptake of rapid antigen tests (RATs), which have become coveted goods in jurisdictions now overrun with the virus.
Unlike PCR tests, which are generally provided by a pathology clinic and can accurately detect infection, RATs aren’t as reliable a diagnostic tool and can frequently show false or inconsistent results.
Still, as a screening tool they can alleviate pressure on clinics that do provide PCR testing, as well as provide some freedoms to those who are a close contact of a known case but are asymptomatic.
In the UK, for instance, RATs are in wide use, provided by the National Health Service to all citizens free of charge and commonly used as a screening tool for workplaces and heavily attended events.
Australia is unlikely to follow that model, although it will, alongside states, subsidise the upfront cost of the tests.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said retailers, not the federal government, will provide the tests going forward.
For consumers, this will mean forking out up to $50 for a pack of five tests.
For businesses, particularly aged care providers where COVID-19 outbreaks could be catastrophic, it’s likely to mean millions of dollars in compliance and OHS costs (although this may be covered by the federal government, depending on whether an aged care facility is in a hotspot).
States such as NSW have taken up the slack on the back of soaring infections and a strained hospital system, having bought 50 million tests to be provided to residents free of charge, as well as reportedly reimbursing retailers to hand their stock over to consumers in the meantime.
Whether a similar drive is seen in WA is open to conjecture. While the state has banned the use of RATs for much of the pandemic, the tests were approved from January 10 on the advice of the state’s chief health officer, Andrew Robertson.