from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: Herding Cats … or … It’s Coming your Way.

Rottnest Island off Fremantle, Perth, West Australia. Wouldn’t you come here just to stay in this Quarantine Village?

February 8, 2021

This week our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, hosted a ‘National Cabinet’ meeting. This is his extra-political Covid-19 group, an ‘intergovernmental decision-making forum’ including the State and Territory Premiers and Chief Ministers. It is apparent that this is a challenging business for the Prime Minister and one where decisions in a time of pandemic are important to get right – for our country and for his political future. Eleven months have passed since this group was formed and the various state leaders are getting more and more techy and determined in their self-opiniated ways of dealing with Covid-19. (5 Labor, 3 Liberal politicians) . For the PM it must be like herding eight feral cats through a narrow door.

Obviously, Prime Minister Scott Morrison would like the gathering of premiers and ministers to discuss the issues relating to the pandemic in a reasonable, if not rational way. Everyone, of course, says they are following the science of medical advice. The trouble is there are various medical advisors and interpretations.

The issue of quarantining returning Australians from overseas (and various other travellers) is one that divides and stresses our states’ leaders. The press calls these differences, ‘deep rifts’. The Labour Premier of Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk, and the ultra-cautious West Australian Premier, Mark McGowan, would like the federal government to be more proactive in the face of the new more contagious strains of Covid 19. Everyone loves to have someone to blame.

The numbers of travellers are small. Over 210,000 international travellers have gone into hotel quarantine in Australia. 1.4% have returned a positive Covid test. 82 hotel staff involved in the quarantine process became infected. At the moment, just over 6,000 Australians (and tennis players!) are arriving per week directly into the various major cities. The states are responsible for their own quarantine systems and have thus reacted in different ways. Recently, Western Australia had a severe five-day lockdown after a single worker in the Sheraton Hotel contracted the virus – perhaps through airflow. He had a second job as an Uber or rideshare driver. Victoria and NSW recently each had single quarantine workers infected and those states used ‘hotspot’ strategy, finding out where the individual had travelled while infected.

The sporadic infections in quarantine continue. There is the story of how one quarantined family opened the door of their hotel room to gather in their meal, deposited in the corridor, and managed to infect the family across the hallway. So now we are becoming aware that the virus is far more airborne than previously thought. It is likely to travel through air conditioning systems in large establishments like quarantine hotels.

So the question is: should quarantining decisions be delegated to states? Are hotels suitable quarantine facilities? It appears that hotels have multiple gaps in their infection prevention systems. For example, corridors need separate ventilations systems; quarantine workers should not have second jobs and should wear masks even in corridors (perhaps double masks as they are recommending overseas).

So now our federal government is in process of investigating whether to organise remote quarantine stations outside of our major cities – more like refugee villages. Perhaps in Toowoomba outside of Brisbane or remote islands. Thus, our cities would be protected and we can lessen the impact on our lives in 2021-2022-2023. The support staff and health staff would be isolated in these camps as well. The Prime Minister compares this idea to fly-in fly-out remote mining camps where you stay for two weeks at a time. Rottnest Island has aleady been used for Vasco da Gama cruise passengers in March last year. Remember that Australia is a country of a few major cities and lots of space. (16 out of 25 million live in the 6 major cities).

Hardly a mining camp! Rottnest Island off Fremantle, WA

I think that all countries should take note. This is probably the way of the future. Can you imagine the situation when most people are vaccinated, but, with international travel, people arrive from across the world and require quarantine? We will have sporadic outbreaks for years to come. Maybe new strains will be arriving having bred in the countries that could not get access to enough vaccine. Maybe the virus will become less deadly, maybe our vaccines can be adapted fast enough and given out fast enough to dampen down the world threat. Reading about how wealthy countries are hoarding vaccine supplies and how third world countries are struggling to get access, I am not optimistic.

My daughter in Seattle was told by a friend working in childcare that they were advised that this situation may continue for years to come. Up to 2025. We could be living in a world of social distancing, sporadic outbreaks, new strains with strange numbering systems, reduced local and international travel and concern about all sorts of flu-like symptoms.

Our PM is now talking about vaccination rollout starting at the end of this month. Bearing in mind that the AstraZeneca vaccine is now in question.

‘On Monday morning South African authorities said they would suspend use of the AstraZeneca shot after clinical data showed it gave minimal protection against B.1.351, a variant of SARS-CoV-2 which contains several mutations that cut the ability of antibodies to neutralise the virus. (Sydney Morning Herald – Monday 8 Feb, 2021).

‘Know your virus variants

Three mutant varieties of COVID-19, first spotted in the UK, South Africa and Brazil, are more resistant to vaccines than the original strain.

The British B.1.1.7 variant was first seen in September.

  • There is some evidence, although not concrete, that the new variant may be slightly more deadly.
  • At this stage, evidence suggests the variant slightly reduces the effect of vaccine-generated antibodies but not enough to pose major problems.
  • The variant has several mutations that seem to make it significantly more transmissible. It has rapidly spread through the United Kingdom and is now emerging across the world.

South Africa’s B.1.351 is also known as N501Y.V2.
It was first spotted in South Africa in October last year.  

  • It concerns scientists because it has picked up a large number of different mutations. 
  • These mutations may make it more transmissible. It is not known if they make it more deadly. 
  • Human data suggests, but does not prove, these mutations allow the virus to reinfect people who have natural immunity to COVID-19. 
  • Early data suggests the variant’s mutations cut the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, by varying amounts depending on the vaccine.

Less is known about the  P.1 variant first spotted in Brazil.

  • It bears similar mutations to the South African variant, which scientists suspect may give it the ability to evade antibodies.’

(Sydney Morning Herald – Monday 8 Feb, 2021).

from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: Confusion and the Border Wars

12  January, 2021

It has been going on for so long.

At first, in March 2020, all Australians took careful note of the dos and don’ts, the rules and regulations – as a nation. There was a unity between the states.

And then there wasn’t.

On April 3rd last year, Premier Mark McGowan closed the West Australian border to the eastern states for the first time in Australian history. And suddenly, Premiers found their higher calling. Each one could now command their state like a mini-nation and this would only increase their popularity. Just too tempting.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk was not slow to realise this. Her Labor government faced an election in October. In August 2020, with the LNP, the Opposition party, gathering strength and with Victoria still in lockdown, the Queensland premier closed the border. Labor won the election with an increased majority. They are calling it the ‘border wars’.

Each state premier is mirroring Palaszczuk’s statement: ‘And today is the day that we say we are putting Queenslanders first.’

The thing is the borders of the mainland states are not sharply defined, particularly between Victoria, NSW and Queensland and to a lesser extent, South Australia. The border towns are now beset with problems of access to services: to schools and hospitals. Farms extend across borders.

At no stage have the number of infected people reached the percentages of Europe or the USA but we all realise that the virus is so infectious that it does not take much relaxation in the rules for it to become uncontrollable.

So now we have 7 sets of rules and specific use of language from the 7 states and territories to be considered. And more specifically: your own state’s rules, which change regularly with the ebb and flow of outbreaks, and the rules for states where you plan to travel or where your family are.

It’s plain confusing.

South Australia: as of January 12, all travellers coming to South Australia are required to complete a Cross Border Travel Registration. Our authorities have declared areas to be ‘High’ and ‘Low Community Transmission Zones’. Rules apply to each of these if you desire to enter South Australia. There are special rules for border areas – a ‘Cross Border Community Travel Zone’. Applications are required.

Rules are changed so often and are so confusing that often the police and border officials get it wrong. And this is quite apart from mask-wearing rules.

Other government COVID-19 website travel information

Victoria has just come up with a brilliant new idea: coloured zones! They have green, orange and red zones. Like a traffic light. Which means everyone entering Victoria must apply for a permit – even from WA or South Australia. We have had no community spread cases since mid-November last year.

‘These are the rules as per the Victorian government. If you have been in:

  • a green zone, you will be able to apply for a permit and enter Victoria. Once in Victoria you should watch for symptoms and get tested should you feel unwell. ​
  • an orange zone, you will be able to apply for a permit and will have to take a coronavirus (COVID-19) test within 3 days of your arrival in Victoria and isolate until you receive a negative test result.
  • a red zone, you will only be able to apply for a permit as a permitted worker, or to transit through Victoria to another state or territory. You may also apply for an exemption. Exemptions are only granted in special cases. If you try to enter Victoria by road without a valid permit, exemption or exception you will be turned away. If you attempt to enter via an airport or seaport without a valid permit, exemption or exception you will be fined $4957. Victorians will be required to quarantine at home, and others will be sent back.
  • a NSW-Victorian cross-border community. If you are a resident, you will be able to enter Victoria without a permit, but you must carry photo ID and proof of your address. ​’

The Australian newspaper makes the comment today: ‘The extreme approaches of Victoria and WA are out of all proportion with Australia’s COVID-19 caseload. The nation had four new cases of community transmission on Monday, all of them in NSW. Nobody is in intensive care. The maze of confusing, costly, job-destroying over-regulation by some states is now intolerable…. But … the commonwealth (government) lacks the constitutional power to force states to open borders or abandon their ludicrous red tape.’

We were hoping to holiday on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria at the end of February. It’s not looking very promising. Point one: can we get through the border? Point two. When we are there, will South Australian stop us coming back home or make us go into quarantine?

To travel or not to travel, the decision awaits us.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Unhomely Office

September 26th

I can only assume that it is the legacy of having had to watch from close quarters, and protest unavailingly about, the vindictive cruelty with which the apartheid government treated black South Africans in the 1970s and 1980s that gives me an impotent and sickening sense of déjà vu as I watch our Home Office treating asylum seekers with an identical callousness.   Many of the asylum seekers who are having to risk the channel crossing in small boats in their desperation to come here, some to join family members already here, only because more conventional routes to get here have been blocked off using Covid-19 as the excuse, are fleeing exactly the same kind of oppression, persecution and often torture to which black South Africans resisting apartheid were subjected.   Anyone who might think I am overstating the case has only to read a series of disparate reports that have appeared in The Independent over the past ten days.

On Saturday 19th, we find May Bulman, The Independent’s Social Affairs Correspondent, reporting that the Home Office has decided that now is a good time, just as the predicted second surge of Covid-19 starts to gather momentum, to lift its ban on the eviction of asylum seekers who have had their applications refused.  Given that more than 50% of appeals against refusals are successful (itself an indictment of the Home Office), with over 23,000 people having their refusals overturned on appeal, and given that appeals can take up to a year to be heard, this means that many people who are still legitimately in the asylum system are about to be made homeless as winter draws in.  May Bulman quotes Stuart McDonald, SNP MP: “With Covid on the rise again this is an utterly appalling decision by the Home Office, putting both asylum seekers and the public at risk.  Making people homeless and destitute as the pandemic continues is especially shocking when that pandemic is known to be of particular danger to those very populations and indeed BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) people.”

On Wednesday 23rd, May Bulman reported that the Home Office, after suspending the requirement since March due to the risk of infection, is once again, just as the second wave of infections gets going, insisting that asylum-seekers and victims of trafficking who have been formally identified as modern slavery victims must report in person at reporting locations.  This means having somehow to find the money for fares and risk infection by using public transport to travel significant distances at a time when the government is advising against the use of public transport. This wholesale disregard for health and safety considerations echoes an August 8th report about asylum seekers being deported on flights without any prior Covid-19 testing being required either for those being deported or for their escorts.  If telephone calls have sufficed to establish people’s whereabouts for the past six months why are they not good enough now?  Nazek Ramadan, director of Migrant Voice, suggests an answer: ‘…looking tough on immigration is more important to them [the Home Office] than keeping people safe.”

On Thursday 24th, May Bulman’s now almost daily revelations tell us that, regardless of the already over 50% success of appeals, the Home Office is planning to add asylum interviews to the ever-expending list of this government’s ideologically-driven outsourcing of public sector activities. She says that ‘many of the firms in the running for this new contract – including G4S, Serco, and Sopra Stera – have been embroiled in previous scandals over handling of immigrations services.’  Our government has clearly learnt nothing whatever from the spate of complaints, not to mention suicides and deaths from other causes, that have resulted from the Department of Work and Pensions’ insistence on outsourcing benefit tests for sick and disabled people to wholly inappropriate and manifestly incompetent private companies working to targets rather than in the interests of the sick and disabled.  The chief executive of Freedom from Torture is reported as having described this move on the part of the Home Office as ‘alarming’ and commented: “Asylum decisions often turn on what happens in the interview and there is a real risk of forcible return to torture if mistakes are made.”  But why would the Home Office, or this government as a whole, care about people being returned to torture as long as it can be seen, as Ramadan suggests, to be being “tough on immigration”?

On Saturday 26th, we find Rob Merrick, The Independent’s  Deputy Political Editor, reporting on hate speech described by Simon Woolley, a former 10 Downing Street race advisor, as “wrong, reckless and at worst dangerous, because this type of language easily stirs up racial hatred” uttered by no less a figure than our Home Secretary herself – Priti Patel.  Patel apparently declared in a recent Zoom meeting that she was determined to stamp out the “criminality that takes place and that has happened through Traveller communities….”  Patel might well have been bought up on a diet of Enid Blyton, whose fall-back villains were all too often thieving ‘Gypsies’, but that is no excuse for this kind of unthinking racial generalisation.  As it happens, Merrick quotes Lord Woolley, former adviser to the Downing St. Racial Disparity Unit, as telling The Independent that the crime rate among Travellers is, in fact, lower than the national average.   Johnson should obviously have sacked Priti Patel long ago, as his predecessor did the last time Patel was a cabinet minister, but why sack an ardent Brexit supporter from the key role of Home Secretary just because she happens to give every appearance of being an equally ardent racist?

Patel elicited a good deal of media sympathy, including from The Independent, when she recently recounted how she had been racially abused as a “Paki” at school.  But that, very evidently, does not preclude her from being capable of indefensible racial generalisations herself.  Anyone who lived through apartheid will be all too well aware that one of the frequent responses of people who weren’t granted the unearned privilege of being classified as “white” was to interiorise the racism and transfer it, sometimes with interest, to other groups lower down apartheid’s iniquitous racial hierarchy.   Boris Johnson would do well to instruct her to take part in ‘unconscious bias training’ as has been suggested, Merrick reports, in a letter written to her by more than 80 ‘leading academics, race equality organisations, and politicians.’

As long ago as May 2006 John Reid, shortly after taking over as Home Secretary, declared that “Our system is not fit for purpose. It is inadequate in terms of its scope, it is inadequate in terms of its information technology, leadership, management systems and processes.”   So what has changed in the intervening years apart, perhaps, from the need to put “leadership” firmly at the head of the list of glaring inadequacies and add institutional racism to the list?