Most borders are closed to NSW despite no COVID-19 hotspots in the state  here's why - ABC News  01/20/2021 18:07:45 

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian this week bemoaned the fact Australia had no COVID-19 hotspots, and questioned why most domestic borders remained closed to her state.

She based her statement on the Federal Government's definition of a hotspot, which counts the number of cases in a specific geographical area over a three-day period.

"So, if there's no place in Australia that's deemed a hotspot, why do we even have these border closures and restrictions ... it doesn't make sense to me, I don't think it makes sense to the public who have to deal with this frustration," she said.

But when it comes to how states decide who to let in, things get much more complicated  here's why some have decided to shut their borders despite NSW recording three consecutive days with no locally acquired COVID-19 infections.

So what does 'hotspot' actually mean?

The Federal Government defines a hotspot as an area with 30 cases of COVID-19 over three days.

That only applies to metropolitan areas  in regional areas, it's nine cases over three days.

It's worth noting this doesn't necessarily mean a whole city.

The northern beaches local government area (LGA) was declared a hotspot by Australia's chief medical officer Paul Kelly in December after an outbreak at Avalon, but the rest of Sydney was not included.

There are exceptions to this rule.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk asked other states and territories to declare Greater Brisbane a COVID-19 hotspot earlier this month, amid concerns the contagious UK strain could be circulating in the community.

Annastacia Palaszczuk looks thoughtful as as she listens at a media conference.
Ms Palaszczuk urged states to act after six COVID-19 cases of the UK variant were found.(ABC News: Christopher Gillette)

How do states decide what is and isn't a 'hotspot'?

That differs between states and territories  and that's why one state might close it's border to a place, but another doesn't.

The ABC contacted every state and territory health department to ask how they define a hotspot.

In Queensland, an LGA can be declared a hotspot if there are one or more unlinked cases in the past 28 days, but other criteria can also be used at the discretion of the chief health officer.

Currently, if you've been in a hotspot in the past 14 days  that's all of Sydney, Wollongong, the Blue Mountains and the Central Coast  you can't enter Queensland unless you have an exemption.

"Sydney was declared a hotspot during the northern beaches outbreak due to its geographical proximity, community transmission levels and the extremely high likelihood of travel between the two areas," a Queensland Health spokesperson said in a statement.

"States and Territory Governments continue to assess each emerging outbreak individually."

A sign saying no entry to nsw big fines next to a sign saying welcome to albury.
Declared COVID-19 hotspots have lead to border closures country-wide over the past year.(ABC News: Greg Ryan)

But not all provided such explicit criteria.

A spokesperson for NT Health said it considered the epidemiology of outbreaks and the efficacy of public health measures where the outbreak is occurring when deciding whether to declare a hotspot.

"As well as the extent to which local controls imposed in the NT will mitigate the risk of transmission of COVID-19 to the NT community," they wrote in a statement.

WA Health told the ABC it did not use a hotspot definition for deciding when to close borders.

"Responding quickly to outbreaks in other jurisdictions to prevent importation of new cases and subsequent local spread, as we have seen recently in Victoria from NSW, requires early and broad action, including border and public health measures, as the disease has often already moved out of the 'hotspot'," a spokesperson said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Victoria Health said the designation of red, orange and green zones was based on advice from thechief health officer.

"Discussions continue at AHPPC around a uniform definition of COVID-19 hotspots," they said.

SA Health said it made declarations on a "case-by-case basis".

Will there be consensus on this soon?

Probably not.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has flagged multiple times a desire to get a uniform definition agreed upon by the National Cabinet.

In September, he called the federal definition "a good starting point" but indicated it probably wouldn't be the final result.

By December, it was looking less likely a national agreement would be made.

"A national standard on hotspots is not something that Premiers and Chief Ministers have agreed to," Mr Morrison said on December 18, as the Avalon cluster was starting to grow.

"That's something they do not want to do ... That would have to be done by agreement with states and territories, and that is not something states and territories have agreed to put in place.

"They have their own rules that they are putting in place and they're seeking to protect the health and safety of people in their own jurisdictions."

Despite this, Mr Morrison has continued to support a "hotspot approach".

Earlier this week, he told Nine Radio he'd like to see some "greater transparency and predictability" around border closures, and a harmonising of those rules across states and territories.

The National Cabinet is meeting again tomorrow, however the standardisation of hotspots isn't expected to be on the agenda.


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