Queensland and Western Australia could shut their borders to New South Wales yet again after the state recorded three mystery Covid cases on Wednesday, ruining Christmas for thousands of families.
The Sunshine State has been reluctant to specify what would constitute a new outbreak and force a fresh border closure, sparking fears the doors could be slammed shut at a moment’s notice.
Residents in New South Wales and Victoria have not been welcome in Queensland or Western Australia for most of 2020 as they battled recurring Covid outbreaks.
But borders have slowly opened in the last few weeks, after the states enjoyed long periods with no new community transmissions of the virus – prompting families to book Christmas vacations.
But on Wednesday, three new mystery cases of Covid were identified in Sydney – the first in 13 days – which has left authorities scrambling to identify close contacts.
The surprising infections threatens to curtail Australia’s impressive run during the pandemic, which has seen coronavirus cases generally confined to returning travellers in hotel quarantine.
Residents in NSW and Victoria have not been welcome in Queensland for most of 2020 – with the borders now at risk of being shut again (pictured, a Santa Claus at Brisbane Airport on December 16)
Pictured: The venues which have been put on alert on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, after a couple infected with coronavirus refused to isolate while awaiting test results
The first new case is a bus driver who shuttled international air crew between Sydney International Airport and the accommodation.
But even more concerning was a couple, aged in their 60s and 70s, who are not linked to any previous known cases of coronavirus – and refused to isolate while awaiting test results.
Contact tracers are working through the night to try and find out how the couple caught the highly contagious virus.
Rather than isolate while awaiting their results, as is the law, the couple instead enjoyed a swim, shopping, trips to cafes and a restaurant as well as a Thai massage.
Those venues have since shut and been deep cleaned, causing panic in the wealthy northern suburbs which have been untouched by coronavirus for many months.
‘They took a long time to track down,’ an anonymous source close to the case told The Australian.
‘They’re a classic Avalon couple, divorced but living under the same roof.’
Interstate family reunions could again be put on hold as state leaders reconsider the border closures (pictured, a family reunited in Brisbane after flying in from Melbourne on December 1)
Queensland and Western Australia could very well close the borders to Sydney again after the city recorded three new Covid cases on Wednesday (pictured, Sydneysiders)
During the time they were waiting for results, they visited multiple venues in Sydney’s Palm Beach and Avalon on Sunday and Monday.
The surprise new cases have prompted authorities to reconsider their border priorities.
The primary concern is that the elderly couple have absolutely nothing to do with the hotel quarantine system, which has been linked to all known cases of Covid in the community for at least the last month.
In Western Australia, Premier Mark McGowan has warned he will not hesitate in reinstating the hard border should he feel it would protect locals.
On Wednesday, he said current information had not warranted reasons to close the border, but that his state’s chief health officer Andy Robertson was ‘watching the testing situation like a hawk’.
The comments were made before the revelation about the couple, and their worrying trips around Sydney’s Northern Beaches when they should have been isolatng.
In Western Australia, Premier Mark McGowan (pictured on December 7) has warned he will not hesitate in reinstating the hard border should he feel it would protect locals
Passengers are greeted by family members after arriving at Perth domestic airport for the first time since March (pictured on November 14). WA has indicated it could close the border to Sydney again
‘The controlled border we have in place with all other states allows us to put up a hard border immediately if we need to,’ Mr McGowan told reporters.
‘If the advice comes back we need to put up a hard border, we will.’
WA last week reopened its borders to NSW and Victoria, removing the 14-day quarantine requirement for travellers from those states.
But nine days before Christmas, there is uncertainty about traveling over the holiday period.
Queensland’s acting premier, Steven Miles, on Wednesday clarified his government had no immediate plans to close the border or declare Sydney a hotspot.
But his assurances were also made prior to the announcement of two new cases, which came late on Wednesday night.
A couple from Sydney’s Northern Beaches visited several venues in Avalon and Palm Beach (pictured) leaving authorities scrambling to trace their movements
A traveller from New Zealand is welcomed by his siblings to Brisbane International Airport on December 16 when borders reopened – but many could soon be separated once more
Chief Health Officer Jeanette Young will be immediately seeking to discuss the latest outbreak with her NSW counterpart before making any further comment on borders.
But, Premier Annastacia Palaszscuk has previously refused to pinpoint exactly how many cases would be needed for a location to be determined a hot spot.
In October, she demanded NSW go 28 days without a single case of local transmission before she would open the borders.
While there is no federal definition of a coronavirus hot spot, it’s up to individual states chief health officers to decide to implement it based on an unknown checklist.
‘Hot spots are places in Australia where health officials have found a lot of people with COVID-19, or places that are at risk of a lot of COVID-19 infections,’ the Queensland Health website states.
People who visited the female change rooms at Palm Beach on Sunday December 13 between 9am and 9.15am have been deemed close contacts and must self isolate immediately
Interstate travel has just started back up again after many borders closed in March when the pandemic began (pictured, an arrivals board in Perth on December 8)
WHAT IS A CORONAVIRUS HOT SPOT?
State governments have not categorically defined what makes a region a Covid hot spot.
Instead, it is assessed on a case-by-case basis and determined based on how effectively an outbreak is being handled and the risks cases pose to the general public.
The federal government has said a metropolitan area is as a hot spot if there have been at least ten cases a day in a three-day period.
‘Hot spots are legally listed so that people travelling from those high-risk areas into Queensland can be identified.’
It means border restrictions could be put into place once again even if the mildest outbreak is found.
In August, Queensland closed the doors to New South Wales for a second time after a outbreak in Sydney’s south-west, despite lifting restrictions just three weeks earlier on July 10.
This precedent means Queensland could choose to slam its borders shut once again, even after thousands of Australians made plans to visit.
The federal government has previously proposed a definition of a metropolitan area being defined as a hot spot if there have been at least ten cases a day in a three-day period.
A rural area would be declared a hot spot if it had three cases per day in a three-day period, under this proposed definition.
But this has not been formally adopted by states, meaning there is no universal definition of a hot spot.
It leaves the huge decision of whether a city or state has too many infections to be made by individual state’s health officers.
Interstate travel could be cancelled just in time for Christmas and New Years Eve after a spike in Covid cases in Sydney (pictured, shoppers on December 15)
WA last week reopened its borders to NSW and Victoria, removing the 14-day quarantine requirement for travellers from those states (pictured, workers in Perth on December 8)
Australia has become the envy of the world thanks to its handling of the coronavirus crisis, with swift border closures on March 20 sparing the nation from the worst of the pandemic.
But the shock mystery cases threatens to curtail the winning streak, which has allowed millions of Australians to live a relatively normal life while the rest of the world suffers under crippling lockdown with hospitals at breaking point.
People who visited the female change rooms at Palm Beach on Sunday December 13 between 9am and 9.15am have been deemed close contacts and must self isolate immediately.
Anyone who attended Coast Palm Beach Cafe between 10am and 11am that day, Avalon Bowling Club between 3pm and 5pm and the Sneaky Grind Cafe in Avalon Beach between 10.30am and 11am the next day are also close contacts.
The new cases could ruin Christmas if state premiers were to close borders again (pictured, decorations up in Canberra on December 15)
Close contacts have been ordered to seek Covid testing and self isolate for 14 days regardless of the results.
With Christmas and New Years Eve both falling within the next 14 day period, the announcement could destroy holiday plans for hundreds of families in the region.
Sneaky Grind owner James Sledmere told The Australian he was unsure how Covid could have broken through the community’s bubble.
‘We’re in quite a bubble so it’s very weird that it has happened here on the northern beaches,’ he said.
‘We are a small business and this is a small community so it’s really disappointing that we had to close, but hopefully we can get back on our feet soon.’
People who were at Woolworths in Avalon Beach between 12 and 5pm on December 13 and Oliver’s Pie shop customers from Monday December 14 about 9am should monitor for symptoms
Meanwhile, people who were at Woolworths in Avalon Beach between 12 and 5pm on December 13 and Oliver’s Pie shop customers from Monday December 14 about 9am should monitor for symptoms.
NSW Health is urging all residents on the Northern Beaches to stay on high alert for symptoms.
Earlier on Wednesday, a man who drives international air crew to and from Sydney Airport was diagnosed with COVID-19, ending the state’s 13 day run without a locally acquired case of the virus.
He was tested on Tuesday and returned a positive result at 7am Wednesday.
The man did not transport anyone from the general public as a part of his role, and his family later tested negative.
It follows NSW’s first locally acquired infection in 13 days, a bus driver transporting flight staff – but these two new cases are not linked to the man (pictured, commuters at Town Hall)
Mr Hazzard said the positive result shows Australia isn’t protected from COVID-19.
‘Obviously we may be an island but we are not totally isolated from the we are not totally isolated from the pandemic that is raging across the world,’ he said.
‘Indications at this stage are that it is but, as we are well aware, there can be a shedding of the virus after someone has had it, so we are doing those checks.’
Mr Hazzard said protocols in how airline crews are transported to hotels could now be changed.
Wednesday’s cases are the first infections since a hotel quarantine cleaner tested positive on December 3.
The bus driver man developed symptoms on Saturday. He was tested on Tuesday and returned a positive result at 7am Wednesday (pictured, testing in Rushcutters Bay)
VENUES VISITED BY COVID-POSITIVE COUPLE
Anyone who visited one of the following venues is considered a close contact.
They must get tested for Covid and are required to self-isolate for 14 days regardless of the results.
• Palm Beach female change rooms – Sunday, 13 December 9 to 9.15 am
• Coast Palm Beach Café, Palm Beach – Sunday, 13 December 10 to 11am
• Avalon Bowlo (bowling club), Avalon Beach – Sunday, 13 December, 3 to 5pm
• Sneaky Grind Café, Avalon Beach – Monday, 14 December, 9.30 to 11am
• Hungry Ghost Café, 20 Avalon Parade, Avalon – Sunday, 13 December, 9.30am to 11am and Tuesday, 15 December 9.30 to 11am
• Barramee Thai Massage and Spa, 4/42-44 Old Barrenjoey Rd, Avalon Beach – Monday, 14 December, 2 to 3.30pm
• Bangkok Sidewalk Restaurant, 1/21-23 Old Barrenjoey Rd, Avalon Beach – Monday, 14 December 7 to 8pm
People who visited these venues are also instructed to get tested and isolate until they receive a negative result:
• Woolworths Avalon Beach – Sunday, 13 December, 12 to 5pm
• Oliver’s Pie, Careel Shopping Village, Avalon Beach – Monday, 14 December, 9 to 9.15am
Similarly, anyone who visited the following location should seek testing following the Covid diagnosis of a bus driver:
• Forest Rangers FC, Little Rangers session at Gannons Park, Pindari Rd and Isaac Street, Peakhurst – Friday, 11 December 2020, 4.30pm – 5.30pm
• Bing Lee, Gateway, 1 Mona Vale Rd, Mona Vale – Monday, 14 December, 4.30 to 4.45pm