After Victoria’s success, NSW now poses greater COVID risk

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Victoria has been the national pariah for months, its residents enduring lonely weeks of isolation as other states closed their borders when coronavirus cases soared during the state's second wave.

But that balance has shifted. Victoria, which has recorded no new cases for 10 consecutive days, is now considered more at risk from NSW when it comes to outbreaks, rather than the other way around, experts say.

Masks remain mandatory in Victoria despite the state boasting a lower number of active cases than NSW.Credit:Getty

One leading epidemiologist has even suggested there is an argument for Victoria to close the border to NSW, which is set to reopen on November 23 for the first time since July.

"You don’t want any more cases in Victoria after all that sacrifice, even though the risk is low," said Adrian Esterman, professor of biostatistics at the University of South Australia.

"It’s really a balance or a trade-off. Opening up the borders will allow people to see their relatives and friends and improve the economy with visitors, but there is that risk. It’s really up to [Victoria’s] modellers to work out if that risk is worth it."

Victoria has recorded just six cases of coronavirus in the past fortnight, with the drop in cases prompting a further easing of restrictions from Monday, removing limits on the distance people in Melbourne can travel and allowing them to visit regional Victoria.

In comparison, NSW has recorded 18 locally acquired cases and 38 cases remain active, compared with just four in Victoria.

A number of other states still accepting international travellers are also reporting more active cases than Victoria, including South Australia, where 18 of 19 active infections were acquired overseas. Queensland has eight active cases and Western Australia has 10.

Much of Victoria's second wave, which at its peak in August recorded 725 people being diagnosed in one day, is thought to have been sparked by cases from the state government's bungled hotel quarantine program for returned international travellers.

Professor Catherine Bennett, epidemiology chair at Deakin University, said she understood the desire to close Victoria’s borders now residents were beginning to enjoy their freedoms after months of punishing lockdown.

But she said Victorians should have confidence any new outbreaks would be stamped out.

"We’ve got the testing, we’ve got the early warning [systems], we’ve got the public health response. I think we should use that to allow us to open up our borders safely, but stay alert," she said.

Though some restrictions are to ease shortly, Victorians are currently unable to travel to any other state at all or without spending weeks in quarantine.

Some states and territories have opened their borders to NSW, including South Australia, the Northern Territory and Tasmania.

Professor Esterman is among a number of experts calling for a national centre of communicable diseases, to help standardise state approaches to contact tracing, testing and border closures.

He said border rules imposed by each state seemed to be based more on what voters wanted than epidemiological principles.

"Why would we have [South Australia’s] borders open to NSW but not Victoria?" he said. "There’s no logic to it."

While many other epidemiologists believe national elimination of coronavirus is unachievable, Professor Esterman said it might be possible if NSW were to make changes, including mandating masks in public and reducing the number of visitors allowed in a home from 20 to 10.

"It’s not a huge impost on people – and it’s that little extra tweak that could bring them in step with all other jurisdictions," he said.

NSW epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws said if Victoria managed to keep reporting no daily cases of coronavirus, then NSW would pose a risk to Victoria, albeit a low one.

Professor McLaws, an adviser to the World Health Organisation, said the risk was one that all states, including Victoria, would have to learn to live with, as any elimination of coronavirus would probably not last.

"There is a threat to the whole of Australia, given that we’re in a global pandemic. We always have the potential for seeding from freight ships, freight planes, returned travellers … and also asymptomatic cases," she said.

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