But science and reason must always guide our course. And the national framework, endorsed by national cabinet in October, is based on both. It sets out thresholds for imposing and loosening restrictions on our movement, based on a nuanced equation of new case numbers and testing rates.
State and territory leaders must use this framework to guide their decisions. Doing this will give the nation certainty, which will help our wellbeing as well as the economy. As Gladys Berejiklian tells The Sun-Herald today, “we can’t really see people’s lives and livelihoods destroyed by opening and shutting borders on a whim”.
This year has been one of the most challenging in living memory, for our country and for many of us individually. This is especially the case for families who have found themselves separated on different sides of a state border. We need this framework to bring us back together, and give us some relief, especially as we approach Christmas, a time traditionally marked by reunion, celebration – and holidays.
We have always taken free movement across our nation for granted. Until this year, state boundaries only seemed to take on any sort of significance at State of Origin time. But the COVID-19 pandemic has stripped the flesh off our federation and revealed its true structure – the enduring power of the states to call the shots, and the lack of real authority the federal government has when it comes to tackling a problem like a pandemic.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison relies on charm and persuasion to encourage the states to play the national game. So far, he has failed. Morrison must redouble his efforts and show the states that they have more to gain than lose by staying open to the rest of the country. That their economy – and their people – will benefit.
To reopen, and stay open, the states themselves must have confidence in our lines of defence against COVID-19, namely quarantine and contact tracing. Both have been the subject of national reviews that compliment the national framework.
These reviews specify what is best practice and recommend a national way forward that includes exempting low-risk countries, such as New Zealand, from quarantine requirements, to take pressure off the system; setting up a national data exchange to facilitate efficient contact tracing across state borders; and ensuring we have reserves of contact tracers who can be put to work anywhere across the country. Such initiatives should give states confidence that Australia can open its borders and suppress any outbreaks without having to close again.
The national framework is the result of considered thought and effort by experts in health and science. It should not be discarded on the first indication of a new outbreak of COVID-19. For the sake of our country, and ourselves, we must all have faith that it will work – and give it a go.
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