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Premier - COVID-19 and Border Restrictions


Cassy O'Connor MP

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Monday, 6 September 2021

Tags: COVID-19, State Budget

Ms O'CONNOR - Premier, last week Commonwealth Attorney-General Michaelia Cash was making veiled threats to states and territories in relation to when we reach those targets in the national plan and any border restrictions that may be in place. She was saying was that the states and territories need to be cognisant of the potential unconstitutionality of ongoing border restrictions. Do you have advice from our Solicitor-General, for example, that uphold Tasmania's right to have some border restrictions in place regardless of the national plans outcomes?

Mr GUTWEIN - I haven't had that advice updated but I did have clear advice that as a sovereign state we could make those decisions if it was based on advice that to do so was in the best interests of our community. We were the first mover with border restrictions. I did that in the full knowledge that I felt very comfortable with the advice that I had. At that level we take advice on our border restrictions from both Health, and regarding the economy Treasury has a played a role, but primarily from Public Health. If that advice was not to open to a particular area in the country then I wouldn't open to a particular area in the country and they can knock themselves out.

Ms O'CONNOR - Very pleased to hear that. So, what you're saying in a distilled form is that Tasmania has given in-principle support to the national plan, but ultimately regardless of what happens on the mainland with vaccination rates we will retain our right to control borders should Public Health advise that is the best way to save lives?

Mr GUTWEIN - I think every premier and chief minister is of that view. We are working collaboratively on a national plan. I think it's a sensible national plan. Based on the modelling and advice I have received, I think it provides a pathway out of this. It's one that I desperately want, as I know many Tasmanians want. The national plan provides that pathway. If I receive Public Health advice that it wasn't safe to open to a particular area of the country, then I would accept that advice.

Ms O'CONNOR - Is it Government's and Public Health's expectation that there is a possibility Delta will arrive in Tasmania even though we have a range of restrictions and tracking and testing in place? What's your view on how we'd respond should that happen?

Mr GUTWEIN - I do think Delta will arrive. One of the reasons I have worked the last 46 days, as I said yesterday, was because that began at the start of the Victorian outbreak. For a period I was expecting a case any day. In fact, every time my phone range I was expecting that call to be that we had Delta in the state. Delta is far more contagious than the original Wuhan strain, as we've discussed, and I would expect that at some stage Delta will arrive here.

Our four stage plan was to protect our borders, which we did. We've put in additional steps to ensure we had the testing and tracing capacity in place to ensure that we have the capacity available within our health system, and to also ensure that we provide some support for businesses.

I released a lockdown plan for a worst-case scenario. We have had Delta in this state six weeks ago. We had it in quarantine. A gentleman arrived when he shouldn't have arrived from Sydney. We didn't have a flight to put him on immediately and so he was placed in quarantine. We then discovered that we needed to tighten up some arrangements, which we did.

The response then was the right response, that was to track and trace and isolate those people who were around that case. If that case had been in our community, for example at a local football final that we're seeing at the moment, with 1500 people attending, albeit with masks and with some restrictions, then the response would be different. Whether Public Health would make the decision to lockdown the entire state or a particular area of the state would depend on that initial intelligence that we gained on where people may have travelled. We've had Delta, we managed it, it was localised and there was no need for a broader lockdown. The other end of the scale is obviously at a football-type event. The responses would be different. We have put out a plan that indicates what we would do if we needed to go to a state lockdown.

Ms O'CONNOR - Premier, I don't know if you read the article in the Saturday paper on the weekend written by Rick Morton, but it forensically went through the New South Wales COVID-19 data. It found that there are about three times the number of people hospitalised than the New South Wales Government is saying. Because two thirds of the people who have a serious case of COVID-19 are being treated through hospital in the home and community nursing. Are you aware that the data in New South Wales need to be very carefully looked at regarding hospitalisation rates for people who contract COVID-19?

Mr GUTWEIN - I didn't read that article but I did watch the New South Wales Health minister, I think it was, on Saturday morning speak -

Ms O'CONNOR - The aptly named New South Wales Health minister.

Mr GUTWEIN - You were going to draw me there, the Minister for Health in New South Wales. I did watch his contribution and yes, that does need further inspection, I agree. It is something we will look at to get a more fulsome picture.

Ms O'CONNOR - Premier, we are receiving quite a bit of correspondence in our office from expat Tasmanians stuck on the mainland. There are families in caravans and families where the main breadwinner has lost a job because they couldn't get into the quarantine facilities down here. There are families scattered across the eastern seaboard who are trying to get home and they're expressing despair and frustration over the process that leaves them hanging, waiting for a quarantine space here for two and three months.

Are you able to provide any sort of comfort to those individuals and families who are shut out of their home on the mainland?

Mr GUTWEIN - The most important thing we can do is try to increase the number of quarantine rooms available to us here. The challenge, I have to say, has been the Delta outbreak in New South Wales, and those who have either been travelling back through New South Wales who have been caught, or Tasmanians who are caught there, because they need to go into hotel quarantine.

Yesterday I announced that an additional 28 rooms have been brought on line, and we're looking at another 100 at the moment. The committee might recall that last year at our peak, we had about 900 rooms that we were utilising; one of the challenges that we are seeing is that we have significantly less than that at the moment, because the infection-prevention control measures need to be much stricter with Delta, largely to do with air conditioning and ventilation. We are currently looking at working through the Travelodge, which I think has 100 rooms that we have acquired for the purpose, but we're looking at ensuring that its ventilation and air conditioning is suitable to deal with Delta. That's being worked through at the moment.

In terms of how we're managing those people who are caught, if you're in Victoria, then obviously you can come home and quarantine at home. It's those who have been caught in New South Wales who are the challenge. My understanding is that we have a waitlist that variously rises, with somewhere between 140 and 180 people on it.

About 10 days ago - and I'd need to check this has occurred; I think it has - we asked that more informative communications be provided to these people, rather than they've been denied for whatever reason, whether that be lack of space or other - to provide more information and communicate with them clearly. So, that's under way. I'm not sure what steps have been taken.

Ms O'CONNOR - The questions being asked are how you prioritise and triage ex pat Tasmanians wanting to come home. Whether there's any fairness in that system, or if it's just 'first come, first served', and how it works. There's a lot of confusion about that process, bordering on despair.

Mr GUTWEIN - Communication is everything, I understand. I've personally been involved in discussions to ensure that we are communicating and providing support and advice. As I say, I'd need to check to see how that's progressing. By the sounds of it, not very well, so, I'll need to look into that. It is challenging. I don't mind saying that. We are doing our best to work with individuals, because in some cases some people will be struggling financially as a result of the circumstances they're in. I've also asked the engagement to include a discussion around any other supports that we might be able to provide while people are in that predicament.