Industry experts are warning that businesses in Western Australia (WA) could suffer multi-million dollar losses as a direct result of the WA government’s decision to keep its border sealed to interstate travellers.
Travel between WA and other states has been restricted since the start of the pandemic for states that had high cases of COVID-19, with every state currently on the blacklist. This was set to change from Feb. 5 as the vaccine rollout approached 90 percent for the state’s 12-and-over population.
However, WA Premier Mark McGowan revealed on Jan. 20 that the reopening would be delayed until further notice due to the inefficacy of two-dose vaccination against the novel coronavirus’ Omicron variant.
A survey conducted by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA (CCIWA) outlined that nearly a third of businesses reported they would experience a “negative” impact as a result of the continued border restrictions. On average, businesses reported a total loss of about $2.5 million.
Tourism and international education sectors reported to be the most hard-hit due to the immediate loss of revenue and long-term damage to reputation. However, the WA government has since granted an exemption to triple-vaccinated returning international students.
Other sectors included agriculture, manufacturing, construction, ICT, and professional services, with almost three in every four businesses reporting impact caused by a difficulty in recruiting new staff.
Peak industry body Australia Industry Group (Ai Group) slammed the decision and accused the WA government of not engaging with business before pulling the pin.
“The indefinite closure of Western Australia from the rest of the country and the world will have severe and long-lasting ramifications for the state and the nation,” Ai Group Chief Executive Innes Willox said.
“The decision was taken with no meaningful consultation with industry and with clearly little understanding of the strain that big parts of the state economy are already under given a lack of staff, virtually no labour mobility, deeply stressed supply chains and the significant reputational damage as a place to do business that WA is already suffering.”
The prime minister and many state premiers have come to accept living with the virus, particularly given the relatively low rate of hospitalisation from the Omicron variant. Although international borders remain closed off to non-citizens for now, the prime minister told 4CA Cairns radio on Jan. 28 that international tourists may be allowed to return by Easter.
“WA is now an island within an island. The announcement flies in the face of agreements at national cabinet to reopen, gives industry no certainty when the state will reopen and provides businesses with no guidance about any support they will receive,” Willox said.
“The state now faces the prospect of being shut off from the rest of the country and the world for months. Industry will find it increasingly difficult to service the state and support critical infrastructure. The longer WA remains closed the longer it will slip from consideration around investment, job creation and skills development,” Willox added.
The WA government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Concerns have also grown that WA hospitals are under immense strain due to a lack of staffing and bed availability, even before hospitalisations caused by the novel coronavirus—a point highlighted by Ai Group WA Head Kristian Stratton.
“The state has had two years to prepare the health system to deal with the COVID outbreak and this raises questions as to why they apparently remain so ill-prepared to deal with the far milder Omicron variant,” Strattons said.
But this point has been rejected by WA Chief Health Officer Andrew Robertson.
“Our hospital system is ready … we’ve been preparing our system to open for the 5th of February,” Robertson told reports on Jan. 20.