SYDNEY – After almost two years, Western Australia has lifted the nation’s toughest COVID-19 border controls. Double-vaccinated international and domestic travelers are now allowed in, as the so-called hermit state reconnects with the rest of the world.
For almost 700 days Western Australia was cut off from the rest of the country and the world.
Most international visitors were banned, as Australia’s largest state, which is 10 times the size of the United Kingdom, tried to isolate itself from the pandemic.
The state premier, Mark McGowan, said the tough policy had “avoided needless deaths,” but he acknowledged the pain felt by separated families and businesses.
The tough measures did keep infections low, but they were unable to stop a recent surge in omicron cases.
A total of 1,770 cases were reported Wednesday – a new record for Western Australia – but the number of hospitalizations remains relatively low.
With almost 99% of the eligible population double-vaccinated, authorities have insisted that the time is right to end border restrictions.
dr. Mark Duncan-Smith, president of the Australian Medical Association (Western Australia), told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that the tough border strategy appears to have worked.
“What’s happening here in WA [Western Australia] right now, with omicron at 1,000 cases a day, is a social experiment that has never been done in the world, and so what we are hoping for is that we will get a very, very soft landing and hopefully our hospitalization numbers will stay very low and that will be testimony to the effectiveness of those borders over the last two years, buying us that time,” he said.
Western Australia’s tough stance on border closures led to it being dubbed a ‘hermit kingdom.”
McGowan was compared to the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un by Alan Joyce, the CEO of Australia’s national airline, Qantas, last month. Joyce later apologized for his comments.
Other Australian states and territories imposed internal border closures during the pandemic, but those restrictions ended last year. Australia reopened its international borders to all vaccinated international travelers on Feb. 21, but Western Australia maintained its restrictions.
Passengers on the first flights from Sydney and Melbourne into the Western Australian state capital, Perth, were welcomed with gifts of toy quokkas, a small marsupial said to be the “world’s happiest animal.”
Tourism officials in Western Australia have said the reopening of domestic and international travel into the state would bring “joy” to the industry.
Australia has recorded about 2.9 million coronavirus infections since the pandemic began. More than 5,200 people have died.