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Former SA Health chief backs opening borders to WA and NT

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A former SA Health boss has flagged a swift re-opening of the state’s western and northern borders, but warns it is “inevitable that some COVID-19 outbreaks will occur in coming weeks” as the economy ticks back to life.

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Tony Sherbon, who ran the state’s Health department for five years until 2011, has raised some looming policy challenges “as states and territories carefully calibrate strategies to re-open their economies”.

“Australia should now turn its mind to securing a vaccine procurement pathway as well as priorities for vaccine and therapeutic access and distribution,” he argues, saying the nation should also lead an international effort to verify caseloads worldwide, to help determine the safety of lifting travel restrictions.

In a blog post published on his LinkedIn profile, Sherbon – who was previously chief of ACT Health and has also spent several years as a partner at Ernst & Young – warns that coronavirus outbreaks are an “inevitable” by-product of lifting restrictions, even gradually.

“Even in states and territories with ‘tight’ border closures, road and air freight traffic is still operating so it is highly likely that outbreaks will occur even in these jurisdictions,” he wrote.

“The combination of widespread testing, comprehensive contact tracing assisted by automation through the COVIDSafe app, and prompt isolation of identified cases and contacts should limit the impact of these unavoidable outbreaks.”

Sherbon argues “regional rather than statewide restrictions will likely form the basis for control of extensive outbreaks”, with “an emphasis on voluntary stay-at-home guidelines for the elderly and vulnerable [to] help limit the morbidity and mortality of outbreaks”.

However, he has also advocated easing travel restrictions between SA and Western Australia, as well as the Northern Territory, both of which currently have just two active cases of the disease, while SA has one.

In a recent post on Twitter, he noted “we have to get ready to identify and then restrict the inevitable outbreaks”, asking “why can’t we open travel to WA and NT now” given there had been “no new COVID cases in either for some time”?

In a written reply to InDaily about whether he was advocating an immediate easing of border restrictions to those jurisdictions, he said SA was “close to that point”.

“Maybe next week, depending on results elsewhere,” he wrote.

However, the leaders of all three jurisdictions have already ruled out easing border restrictions, after a similar proposal for a “tri-border travel pact” was flagged by Darwin Major Business Group boss Ian Kew.

In his blog post, Sherbon – who now runs his own health advisory business – also flagged that “restitution of overseas travel will be a crucial decision point for Australia”, which is “an open economy [whose] wealth is predominantly derived from exports”.

“We will have to trade and interact globally at some point… how do we decide when it is safe to do so and who will we target first?” he said.

“Many nations will claim to be COVID-19 free or have low prevalence of the virus – how do we verify these claims [and] who should verify these claims internationally?”

He said while the World Health Organisation “would be the starting point for a verification regime”, key nations such as the United States might not accept its decisions.

“This is an opportunity for Australia to take a global lead on the establishment of an international COVID-19 status verification process that can be used for travel access decisions,” he argued.

Sherbon said Australia “will learn to live with the virus as we reopen the economy”.

“This means that we turn our minds to the definitive prevention of COVID-19 through vaccination, effective treatment of severe cases, and gradual restitution of overseas travel,” he said, adding that the search for a vaccine will be “complicated but it is likely [one] will be available some time during 2021”.

“The policy issues for Australia will centre on access to this vaccine… firstly, will we be able to procure a vaccine in sufficient volumes if it is manufactured overseas?

“International collaboration on vaccine manufacture and distribution would be expected, but in the age of nationalist sentiment it cannot be guaranteed.”

Even if a vaccine can be locally accessed or manufactured, he noted, “important policy issues need to be debated over the prioritisation for early access”.

“Obviously, health care workers, aged care workers and the elderly who live in residential aged care are key priorities, but who is next?”

Similar questions arise in relation to therapeutic options for those infected, “if any therapeutic agent proves to be effective”.

“Global access and distribution regimes will be in focus [and] high prevalence nations will be in competition with Australia for access to the therapeutics, and the commercial behaviour of the owner of the intellectual property will be highly relevant,” he wrote.

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