19 October 2021

UPDATED: Barr says ACT's pathway changes triggered by vax rate, not interstate governments

| Lottie Twyford
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Chief Minister Andrew Barr

Chief Minister Andrew Barr defended the changes to retail trade, saying it was an adjustment made based on high vaccination rates, not on what the NSW Government is doing. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

UPDATED 2:30 pm: Chief Minister Andrew Barr has today been forced to defend the changes to the ACT’s pathway forward triggered by hitting the 12-plus 80 per cent full vaccination target yesterday.

The resumption of in-person retail from 11:59 pm on Thursday (21 October), subject to in-store density limits, has brought the ACT’s approach more in line with that of its surrounding jurisdiction, NSW.

Further alignment with NSW around interstate travel is foreshadowed to take place on 1 November. At this stage, it appears free travel will be possible both ways – so NSW residents can enter the Territory from Sydney and the rest of NSW and vice versa for Canberrans.

There may still be a need for targeted hotspots, the Chief Health Officer, Dr Kerryn Coleman, said today.

An updated version of the ACT’s pathway forward has also been posted on the ACT Government’s COVID-19 website.

As well as the already-noted changes on 29 October, according to the pathway, from 26 November, facemasks will only be necessary for high-risk indoor settings, and there will no longer be a limit on visitors at home or outdoor gatherings.

All retail will be permitted to operate with one person per two square metres. Density limits on hairdressers and other personal services will also be relaxed to 25 or one person per two square metres.

Capacity limits for hospitality venues, food courts, gym classes and cinemas will also be relaxed. Dancing and drinking and eating while standing up will also be permitted.

Lastly, ticketed events will be back for up to 1000 people and organised sport, and swimming pools, galleries, museums, cultural institutions, historic sites and outdoor attractions can all return.

As has been seen today, the pathway is subject to change.

“Nothing is certain with COVID-19. We give the best possible advice we can when situations change,” Mr Barr said.

“Not everything is under our control, and there are many factors which are external to us – either what the virus is doing or what other governments are doing.”

Mr Barr said the ability of Canberrans to simply head to Queanbeyan to go to Kmart had not been at the forefront of his mind when making decisions.

Mr Barr today said the primary driver for the reopening of retail on Friday had been the Territory’s high vaccination rates. However, he did acknowledge the “degree of confusion” from NSW’s announcements on Friday, including the overseas arrivals debacle which saw the Prime Minister forced to step in.

“That sort of thing doesn’t help the matter, and we’ve now doubled down on our interactions with NSW to try to get some greater clarity and to align where it’s sensible and meets our requirements around public health and safety,” Mr Barr said.

Mr Barr was also critical of the length of time between National Cabinet meetings, saying there probably is a need for a meeting soon.

The next National Cabinet meeting is not due until November, although it seems the Prime Minister may now miss it due to his attendance at COP26 in Glasgow.

The adjustments to retail were welcomed by the Opposition, who described it as a “common sense” approach. Canberra Liberals leader Elizabeth Lee said the adjustments to retail trade should have been implemented as soon as NSW announced its cross-border travel arrangements last Saturday morning.

In a statement, Ms Lee said the “sensible changes” had been welcomed by Canberra businesses. She noted they were previously at a disadvantage because potential customers could head to Bowral or Queanbeyan to shop.

National Carillon

The Carillon glowed blue last night to celebrate the Territory’s vax milestone. Photo: ACT Health.

On the changes to retail, Dr Coleman echoed the Chief Minister, saying she was more comfortable with easing retail restrictions now that the Territory’s full vaccination rates had reached extremely high levels.

However, she conceded that the practicalities of “being an island within NSW had implications for needing to provide consistency”, and she had engaged with her NSW counterpart Dr Kerry Chant to better align the two jurisdictions’ approach.

She also said health advice was constantly changing in response to new evidence but suggested it was very likely that no further changes would be implemented before next Friday.

“I will be interested in seeing how NSW, Victoria and ourselves respond to the 80 per cent changes, and we will need 14 days to see how that pans out,” she added.

A particular focus on schools would also be necessary, Dr Coleman said, given under-12s are now the largest unvaccinated cohort.

“This isn’t over, and the next four to six weeks are going to be critical as we see how this unfolds.”

READ ALSO ACT Health needs Federal funding injection to save lives, says Payne

Dr Coleman also provided an update on the epidemiology of the current outbreak.

The ACT this week recorded 230 new cases of COVID-19 while 238 cases recovered. Just over 50 per cent of these cases present no risk of community transmission.

A drop in the daily testing numbers was also noticeable, Dr Coleman said. At the start of this outbreak, testing numbers had averaged 3000 a day, but that number had now fallen to an average of just over 1600 each day over the last two days.

She noted some of these lower testing numbers could be attributed to less reporting of exposure locations and fewer Canberrans having tests mandated as a close or casual contact.

While Dr Coleman said she had no magic number regarding the perfect amount of tests, she did encourage anyone with symptoms to get tested. She expected that as the return to school and work gets underway, common colds and usual viruses would spread. She hoped anyone with these symptoms would get tested.

READ ALSO Discover the NewActon precinct’s public art trail

The median age for the ACT’s cases is still 27 years old, and just over half of all cases are male.

As the Territory’s vaccination rates have increased, the proportion of unvaccinated cases per week has decreased. At the start of the outbreak, 80 per cent of all cases were unvaccinated. Now, 50 per cent of cases are unvaccinated.

Dr Coleman said this was expected. Breakthrough infections had also risen from 4 per cent per week at the start of the outbreak to 14 per cent last week.

Since the start of the outbreak, 128 people – or 8.5 per cent of all cases – have been hospitalised, ranging in age from one to over 95 years old.

There have been 31 people in ICU and 17 have required ventilation.

The age range of cases admitted to the ICU is 24 to 68 years.

The vast majority of cases admitted to hospital continue to be unvaccinated, she said.

Dr Kerryn Coleman

Chief Health Officer Dr Kerryn Coleman provided an update on the ACT’s outbreak today. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Total deaths for the outbreak now stand at 8, and 15 per cent of all positive cases are still unlinked.

“With more people moving around the community, we will see more community transmission, and we will see case numbers rising,” Dr Coleman said.

She flagged changes to the ACT’s reporting on positive cases from next week, as well as a scaling back of contact tracing.

There will no longer be a focus on linking all cases and the proportion of unlinked cases won’t be reported on anymore.

Instead, the focus will be on cases where transmission in the community will be rapid or where vulnerable people are more likely to be exposed in settings like healthcare, aged care, workplace exposures and indoor venues.

Telstra tower lit up blue

Canberra’s landmarks lit up blue in celebration of the major vaccine target hit last night. Photo: ACT Health.

UPDATED 11 am: The ACT has recorded 24 new COVID-19 cases to 8 pm last night.

Yesterday there were 17 new cases.

Of the new cases, 21 are linked to known cases or ongoing clusters. There are 428 active cases in the ACT.

There are 18 patients in ACT hospitals with COVID, including 10 in intensive care.

Last night the ACT passed the 80 per cent fully vaxed milestone for people aged 12-plus (officially 80.7 per cent).

In NSW there were 273 new COVID cases and four more deaths.

Yesterday there were 265 new cases and four deaths.

NSW Health has also revealed that infections in the youngest cohorts are now outstripping other age cohorts.

Officials say almost 600 children have fallen ill with COVID in the past week in NSW.

On 13 October, the TGA announced that vaccine manufacturer Pfizer was eligible to apply to vary the provisional approval for the vaccine to include children aged 5 to 11 years.

Victoria has recorded new 1749 Covid cases and 11 deaths.

Yesterday the state had 1903 new cases and seven deaths.

Canberra Centre

ACT retailers and the Opposition have criticised the Government after it relaxed the border rules, allowing Canberrans to spend their dollars interstate rather than at local businesses. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

Having hit the milestone of 80 per cent full vaccination yesterday (18 October), the ACT Government has announced some changes to the pathway forward, including the resumption of retail trade from Friday.

At 11:59 pm on Thursday, 21 October, all retail, including essential businesses currently operating under a click and collect or click and deliver models and non-essential retailers, can recommence operations from Friday with capacity limits of one person per four square metres.

As already signalled, further restrictions will be eased from 29 October.

From this date, capacity limits across a number of different industries including hospitality and major events will be relaxed and food courts will also be able to reopen under the same one person per four square metres rule and face masks will no longer be mandatory outdoors.

From 1 November, subject to the public health risk at the time, the ACT will remove the declaration of NSW as a COVID-affected area, and will align its quarantine arrangements for overseas arrivals with that of NSW.

When NSW is removed as a COVID-affected area, quarantine free travel to and from Greater Sydney as well as the rest of the state will be possible for Canberrans.

In the ACT, baseline public health safety measures are expected to continue throughout November and December, including keeping hospitality density limits at one person per two square metres.

The ACT is now the only jurisdiction in the country to have hit 80 per cent double dose for the population aged 12 and above. Landmarks around the Territory including the Telstra Tower, and the National Carillon glowed blue or ‘vaccine aqua’ last night in celebration of the feat.

In a post on his Twitter yesterday, Chief Minister Andrew Barr foreshadowed some changes being made today.

The ACT Government came under fire from the Opposition and the business community over the weekend for its ‘border backflip’ which ostensibly allowed Canberrans to cross the border to shop.

Non-essential retailers in NSW are allowed to operate, while those in the ACT remain under extremely tight operating conditions.

In NSW, of course, only fully vaccinated customers can visit any non-essential retailers.

Speaking this morning on breakfast radio, Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said changes to the NSW border rules had created ‘inconsistencies’ in the two states’ approach.

In accordance with the National Plan, the ACT is no longer listed as a hotspot as of 11:59 pm last night, and the Commonwealth funding tap will be even further turned off.

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith.

Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith encouraged anyone with even the mildest of symptoms to get tested. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Ms Stephen-Smith yesterday reiterated concerns over the low testing numbers currently being recorded and suggested these may be due to fewer exposure sites being identified.

She urged anyone with “even the mildest of symptoms” to come forwards and get tested, saying that if you were infected with COVID-19 and wait until you’re sick enough to need to attend Emergency, the treatment options available to you would be greatly limited.

“Get tested … for peace of mind or so you find out you have COVID-19 and a treatment plan can be commenced straight away,” she said.

The Minister also called for patience as the last few thousand Canberrans – particularly younger cohorts – come forward to receive their second doses in the coming weeks.

READ ALSO ACT Recovery College wins service award despite withdrawal of funding

Amid concerns over an inaccurate population denominator, the ACT has also stopped recording first dose vaccination rates as the milestone of 99 per cent of the eligible population being jabbed has now been passed.

New dates and times of concern for the early childhood centre and construction site already listed as close contact exposure sites were added to the ACT Government’s COVID-19 website yesterday evening.

The construction site at Campbell Primary School is now a close contact site on Friday, 8 October, between 6:30 am and 5:30 pm. It’s also listed as a venue of concern from Monday, 11 October to Thursday, 14 October between 6:30 am and 5:30 pm.

On Friday, 15 October, the construction site is listed as a close contact site between 6:30 am and 3 pm, and between 6:30 am and 12:30 pm on Saturday, 16 October.

READ ALSO UPDATED: More restrictions to go as ACT hits 80% vaccination target

The Grass Parrot Room and Kangaroo Room at the Narrabundah Early Childhood School is a close contact site on Wednesday, 13 and Thursday, 14 October between 9 am and 3:30 pm.

While there are still 108 active exposure locations, very few new locations have been listed since the ACT’s hard lockdown ended on Friday, 15 October, reflecting a change in public health policy.

See the ACT Government’s COVID-19 website for specific exposure times and dates as well as instructions to follow as a close contact.

As life returns to ‘COVID-normal’, the ACT Government announced yesterday that speed vans in residential areas will start to return, and free parking will end at the beginning of next month.

Libraries ACT will reopen its Belconnen, Gungahlin and Tuggeranong branches with reduced hours from Wednesday, and Access Canberra centres will also begin to reopen.

Some changes to public transport will also occur in the coming weeks with the full school bus timetable to resume on Monday, 25 October as more students return to school.

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HiddenDragon8:10 pm 19 Oct 21

In the cosily predictable, symbiotic ecosystem which is the ACT politico-media complex, the unambiguously critical lead story on last night’s local ABC TV news, about retail options in Canberra vs retail options across the border, was like an earthquake.

Rather than the usual approach – buried in the middle of the bulletin, and taking an “on the one hand, but on the other hand, and here’s what’s wrong with the views of the people (i.e. whingers and/or troublemakers by definition) who are daring to criticise or question the ACT Government about (insert details of stuff-up of the moment)” line, last night’s story (which was not the first on the subject) left no room for doubt.

By a complete and utter coincidence, we awake this morning to discover that discretionary retail in Canberra presents no greater transmission risk than the things which were re-started last Friday.

Totally totally agree. Always several steps behind; always reactive. If it wasn’t for Perrottet we would have been hunkered down for 6 more weeks. And my kids still can’t go to school for another week….

Lighting up of monuments in blue to celebrate vaccination rates – How utterly ridiculous.

This is a city which now has 80% vaccination rate that still has businesses struggling due to restrictions and will continue to do so, 4 days after the rate is met (a date which could have been predicted through booking estimates); students at home; mask wearing outdoors (when an overwhelming majority of instances of infections occur indoors)

To politicians and public health officials, please read the room and demonstrate that you also understand the fundamental principle of not only public health responses but government – the principle of proportionality. A good reference would be the National Health and Medical Research Councils – Decision Making for Pandemics – an ethics framework.

You do have to laugh at their statements about “being more comfortable” with further changes because of the high Vax rates.

They’ve known within a day or two when we were going to hit this targets for a couple of months at least. So don’t try to make out anything has changed in relation to health advice in the last couple of days, it’s a political decision. As quite a few have been recently with attempted backwards justification on the decisions through Health.

That’s rich. The backflip was caused by the plainly inequitable position of New South Wales reopening retail while shops in the ACT were closed. There was a whole day yesterday and the weekend prior where ACT people staged a mass exodus to Queanbeyan to shop, and business leaders flooded the media with criticism at losing business in this way.

The health bureaucrat who signed off on this disgusting situation should be immediately sacked. There is no reason why the shops in the ACT couldn’t reopen last Friday, and it seemed to be petty bureaucratic empire building and dictating to the politicians and the people of the ACT that they were really running the show.

This whole idea of baby steps out of lockdown is stupid and pointless. All restrictions should be immediately lifted. Why should we have to wait until December before we can live like Australians again?

Any actual evidence to support a claim of a ‘mass exodus’ to Queanbeyan to shop? There must have been some either exceptionally desperate punters out there, or some very disappointed ones afterwards given the ‘fare’ on offer.

“”ACT Government announced yesterday that speed vans in residential areas will start to return””
I think someone has beaten them to it. Am sure I did see a couple of vans last week.

Lots of people have reported seeing them in recent weeks many saying how many there were.

Though think their problem and yours is comprehension of what was being said. Vans have been out and about on main road not in suburban streets. That’s why people are seeing more (on main roads) ands the return to suburban streets is what is changing.

Why can’t the gubment use the same terminology as the rest of Australia in relation to transmissions???

Linked, or under investigation gives us no real idea about the circulation of the virus. If they changed it to the known, community transmission or private transmission, will it show that there was no need for such a protracted lock down?

Once again the ACT government has been forced kicking and screaming into doing something they should have always been doing in the first place.

It’s funny to think of all the previous statements that Barr has had to act against recently.

No doubt they’ll try to spin this backflip as a positive for themselves whilst still blaming NSW for anything negative.

Forced by the speed at which NSW is opening up and opening in ways different to the National plan you keep touting.

Yes, the national plan that NSW are following more closely than Barr and the ACT government were and are.

The national plan states that at 80% double dosed vaccinations for over 16s, there should be minimal baseline restrictions with only highly targetted lockdowns to control case numbers and protect our health system.

We hit that 80% double dosed rate Sunday/Monday, NSW a day or so earlier.

So why was Barr’s plan different to what he agreed to in National cabinet? Especially when our case load is currently low and there are no real current constraints on our health system relating to COVID.

If you think the ACT government are more closely aligned to the National Plan, I’d love to hear how……

dingus_maximus1:17 pm 19 Oct 21

Not to mention, halfway through our lockdown, moving the vaccination rates to include 12 and over where every other jurisdiction is 16 and over. We would have hit 80% a couple of weeks ago if they didn’t do that. Thankfully they haven’t approved it for 5 and over yet, otherwise we would still be in lockdown for weeks to come.

I have no issue with ACT moving to 12+ in its stats. We were only a few days behind NSW who were touting their vax achievements. It’s not until you read that their 80% is only 16+ that realise how much better ours is AND how potentially safer we might be.

Chewy in this instance it is NSW who is doing something different and did so without consulting or advising the ACT who is impacted by their decisions. Guess the new premier wants to make his mark.

Fair enough for him, but you would be the first to whinge if Barr made a knee jerk decision which is what would have been required with the pace at which nsw made their change. Originally nsw would have opened around the same time the ACT has originally planned.

“potentially safer”.

We are all “potentially safer” if we never leave the house either, but luckily most of us understand and accept a level of risk every day.

Along with the fact
that the professional modellers who put together the information on which the national plan was based, advised clearly that vaccinating the 12-15 year old cohort made little difference to the outcomes.

The move to 12+ in the ACT was driven by the risk aversion of the ACT government and their wish to keep higher and longer restrictions despite the health advice.

I asked how this was in ways different to the National Plan as you claimed.

I agree with you that the quick changes that the new premier has made should have been managed in a much better way.

Although retail in NSW was announced to open the way it has a month and a half ago, so it’s not like this outcome should have been a surprise to the ACT Government, who should have always included it in their plans.

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