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SA Health boss casts doubt over Christmas border opening plans

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UPDATED: Fully vaccinated interstate visitors might not be allowed into South Australia for Christmas without having to quarantine – despite a bold declaration from the Premier last week – with the boss of SA Health telling a parliamentary committee “that’s not our expectation”.

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SA Health chief executive Dr Chris McGowan told the budget and finance committee this morning he wasn’t aware of any health advice suggesting that would occur by December 25.

“That’s not our expectation that there will be no quarantine requirements even for double vaccinated people at this stage,” he said.

“I’m not aware of any advice to that effect; any advice to the effect that there would be no quarantine required by Christmas.”

Premier Steven Marshall last week told reporters he hoped fully vaccinated interstate visitors would be able to come to SA for Christmas without needing to quarantine.

“I’m hopeful that all of those people coming back from interstate who are double-vaccinated and that haven’t been to exposure sites will be able to come back and enjoy a relatively normal Christmas in SA,” he said.

Marshall suggested that people who had visited exposure sites or had not been fully vaccinated would likely still face mandatory quarantine.

Under questioning by committee chair Labor MLC Kyam Maher, McGowan said authorities were working hard behind the scenes to bolster the state’s healthcare system in preparation for COVID to enter South Australia when the borders open.

“So our expectation is when we get to 80 per cent (double vaccination) we will start to relax the borders but in a controlled and cautious way,” he said.

“We’ll be planning to increase capacity in our healthcare system and we will be making judgments based on models about whether that demand on our healthcare system exceeds its capacity.

“We will be essentially trying to manage the relaxing of the borders in such a way that we don’t overwhelm the health system and that’s the most important thing we can do.

“Whether that will or won’t require quarantining – ultimately, probably not, in the short term, probably. Where that will change will depend on… how the disease spreads and how the health system copes.”

Maher asked McGowan why authorities hadn’t already published SA’s COVID “roadmap” for the public to see, given other states had been more forthcoming with details.

McGowan said SA’s situation was quite different.

“For us, those decisions to relax borders is going to be essentially introducing the disease to this state and if that disease gets to this state and spreads rapidly, (and) we are not ready for it, the stakes are much, much higher than they are ironically for those other states because we are in such a good position now,” he said.

“So as soon as we’ve got the modelling I’m sure we’ll be making that very explicit.”

He said authorities were planning for “a threshold” of three to four thousand active cases once the Delta strain entered South Australia.

“We’ve said they will be well and truly looked after in the community much more than the past,” he said.

“We are expecting about five per cent of them would be in hospital which means we’ve got to cater for about 300 beds additional capacity in our hospitals and we are working with government about how we might do that now.

“So those thresholds have been quite public, but actually the date at which we do things and all those… these are variables…”

Doctors have publicly raised concerns that SA’s embattled healthcare system isn’t adequately prepared to cope with an outbreak.

But McGowan said he was confident SA would cope both now and in the future with any COVID outbreak.

“If a covid outbreak happened right now you wouldn’t immediately rush to having three or four hundred people in hospital at any one time,” he said.

“That would build up over weeks.”

He said internal modelling showed SA had capacity to put in place 107 extra beds “today” in the event of an outbreak “and we think that would get us some breathing space till we could extend that”.

McGowan also told the committee other measures for helping the system cope would include things like moving elderly people out of hospital after treatment and into nursing homes sooner, as well as NDIS patients into disability accommodation.

Chief public health officer Professor Nicola Spurrier this afternoon told reporters it was “too early to say” exactly what arrangements would look like for people wanting to come into SA from interstate for Christmas.

“What I’m saying is it’s a little bit too early to tell what the disease rates will be looking like at different parts of NSW and Victoria,” Spurrier said.

“I’m very clear that we will be gradually opening the border and then we will have arrangements for people who are double vaccinated to come into our state but some of those people may need to be tested; some of those people may need to be doing symptom checks; some of those people may indeed need to be doing quarantine.

“But in terms of actually determining that, we need to see what the rates of the disease are like otherwise we won’t be following the science. We need to be making the best decisions for us as a state as we allow the disease to come in.”

Spurrier warned that whatever happened it was clear that “we are going to be opening the border in such a way that we will be getting some people with the disease here”.

“But what would be difficult to deal with is if we had a couple of hundred people with COVID all at the same time and then we would need to then do our contact tracing and quarantine and we’d need to be putting out all of those spot fires and it would be a lot of work,” she said.

“So we need to be doing it in a way that we gradually open those borders and fortunately we have been able to have the Doherty Institute help us with some modelling.

“That hasn’t been completed yet. Once we have that done and once we see what is happening in NSW and Victoria we will be able to make more definitive comments.”

Asked to comment on any disparity between statements from McGowan and the Premier, Health Minister Stephen Wade told reporters “SA Health’s position and the Marshall Liberal Government’s position on this is exactly the same”.

“Once we reach 80 per cent of the double vaccinated population we will no longer rely on statewide lockdowns and statewide lockouts of other states and territories,” Wade said.

“The Premier and Professor Spurrier have repeatedly indicated that there still may need to be quarantining for people at exposure sites and LGAs of high transmission. The position of the government and SA Health is exactly the same.”

Asked if Marshall had spoken too soon in making the comments he did last week, Wade said “I believe the Premier is being misquoted”.

“My understanding is he referenced exposure sites,” he said.

“The best plans that people can make for Christmas is to get vaccinated and to make sure their loved ones interstate are fully vaccinated.”

Regarding SA’s preparedness for Delta once borders opened, Wade said he had already made announcements about extra bed capacity and flagged there would be more to come.

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