Canberra, Australia (AP) – While people are now able to travel freely in Australia’s more populous east, COVID-19-free Western Australia will maintain its tighter restrictions next year, state leaders said on Friday.
Western Australia is the largest state, covering a third of Australia’s land area. It also has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, as the state has had few infections and life has been relatively normal throughout the pandemic.
Western Australia is the only Australian state or territory that does not intend to reopen this year. Vaccinated Australians are free to travel the world through east coast airports in coronavirus-hit Sydney and Melbourne from Monday, when a 20-month-old international travel ban was lifted.
Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan on Friday set a vaccination target of 90% of the population aged 12 and older to ease border restrictions. The milestone was projected to be reached in late January or early February.
McGowan said he would set a date for reopening the state, when 80% of the target population has been vaccinated, which is expected in mid-December.
Once a reopening date is set, it will remain in place until the vaccination rate falls below 90%.
“As far as world standards are concerned, a rate of 90% would be an amazing achievement,” McGowan said.
“Given our current vaccination rates, these targets are realistic and within our vision,” he said.
According to state figures, only 63.7% of the target population in Western Australia was fully vaccinated. Nationally, 79.6% of the population aged 16 and older were fully vaccinated, according to federal government data released Friday.
Other states intend to significantly ease pandemic restrictions once 80% of the population aged 16 and older have been vaccinated.
The sparsely populated north of Western Australia has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.
McGowan said parts of the state could be separated by interstate borders if their vaccination rates remain low. Such areas include the Pilbara region where the country’s lucrative iron ore mining operations are based.
“Cutting off the Pilbara, or any area for that matter, is not something I want to do,” McGowan said.
“But if that’s what’s needed to protect the local community and local industries, then we will take that action based on the health advice at that time,” he said.
Government modeling showed that reopening that state at the 90% vaccination benchmark instead of 80% would mean 70% fewer hospital beds for COVID-19 cases, 75% fewer intensive care beds and 63% fewer deaths, McGowan said.
“The difference in easing border controls to 90% instead of 80% has saved 200 West Australian lives,” McGowan said.
McGowan said if the state lacks the 250,000 additional people it needs to vaccinate to reach the 90% target, additional pandemic measures will be needed at its reopening date.
Western Australia accounts for only nine of Australia’s 1,781 COVID-19 deaths.
Four of those deaths were passengers and crew of the German-operated cruise ship MV Artania, which was brought to hospital in the capital, Perth. The state’s last COVID-19 death was in April 2020.