Minister slams 'inconsistent' Victorian rules that let in tennis players but not Sydneysiders
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Minister slams 'inconsistent' Victorian rules that let in tennis players but not Sydneysiders

By Tom Rabe, Mary Ward and Patrick Hatch

A senior NSW minister has questioned the basis of the Victorian government’s strict coronavirus border restrictions on Sydneysiders while more than 1000 elite tennis players and their support staff are flown into Melbourne from around the world.

Transport Minister Andrew Constance said the Victorian government’s decision to push ahead with the Australian Open highlighted inconsistencies with their border restrictions, which were hampering business and freight, as well as separating families.

International tennis players arrive in Melbourne ahead of the Australian Open

International tennis players arrive in Melbourne ahead of the Australian OpenCredit:Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

“Against the backdrop of having an international event and trying to maintain normalcy: fine. But I think where this falls short is the inconsistency in their decision making,” Mr Constance said.

“Throughout 2021 we need consistency around the trigger points that these state restrictions are going to have or else it will just trash jobs.”

As NSW recorded its second straight day of zero community transmission, close to 1200 international tennis players and their staff were being flown into Melbourne and quarantining in the city ahead of next month’s Australian Open.

American Tennys Sandgren was given the green light to fly to Melbourne this week after it was assessed his positive coronavirus result was "viral shedding," while UK tennis star Andy Murray is now unlikely to travel after returning a positive result.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said it was both devastating and bizarre to let in people from "countries where the virus is raging" for tennis, while Australians abroad and interstate waited to return to their homes.

The Victorian government is pushing ahead with the Australian Open in Melbourne.

The Victorian government is pushing ahead with the Australian Open in Melbourne. Credit:Cameron Spencer

"Victoria’s approach to Sydney seems to be out of proportion with the actual risk," Mr Joyce said on Friday.

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He said Qantas and its budget arm Jetstar had cancelled almost 3000 flights between Melbourne and Sydney since the northern beaches outbreak saw borders slam close before Christmas.

"Behind each of those cancelled flights are a lot of people whose plans have been thrown up in the air,” Mr Joyce said.

As is now the case with all overseas arrivals into Australia, players must test negative before getting on the plane. However, players will be allowed to leave their rooms for daily five-hour training sessions during their 14-day quarantine. They will also be tested for coronavirus daily.

"If we can find a way to let these players in from high-risk areas, why can’t we find a way to let Victorians in from what are, by global standards, extremely low-risk areas," Mr Joyce said.

Mr Constance asked why anyone would bother booking a trip interstate given the propensity of some Australian states to shut down borders with little notice.

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“What is the definition of a hotspot? Not something made up by some state premier’s office, or a decision made on the run.”

Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she would let her Victorian counterpart answer questions about why overseas tennis personnel had been brought in to Melbourne while Victorians in Sydney remained locked out.

"By any medical definition, there are no hotspots in NSW so I don't see why any state is precluding NSW residents – [or] people in NSW – from moving freely back home," she said.

More than 70,000 Victorians are trying to get home under the state’s new "traffic light" system, with thousands still stuck in NSW under current restrictions. While Victoria reopened to regional NSW on Monday, Greater Sydney remains a "red zone" from which people can only travel with an exemption.

No end in sight: a queue of frustrated motorists stretches back into NSW from the border town of Albury.

No end in sight: a queue of frustrated motorists stretches back into NSW from the border town of Albury.Credit:Jason Robins

Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley said he understood the frustration of Victorians stranded in Sydney or Brisbane, which are still considered red zones by the state government, but he did not want to risk another outbreak in Victoria.

"I apologise for the dislocation that this has caused but I make no apology for the principle of keeping Victoria safe and keeping Victoria open," he said.

Epidemiologists said there was a risk every time a person was brought to Australia from overseas.

With the exception of the northern beaches cluster, which still has an unknown source, every Australian coronavirus outbreak since July has been directly linked to hotel quarantine systems.

"From a public health point of view, if we could do without the Australian Open, at least in this part of the year, I think it would be ideal if we did so," said ANU Associate Professor Sanjaya Senanayake, acknowledging – like previous state government decisions to proceed with the Test series against India – it was a matter of balancing finances with public health measures.

Dr Senanayake said it would not be unexpected if about 2 per cent of the international arrivals had the virus, adding the process of testing the arrivals before they fly to Melbourne was imperfect.

"A positive test is very helpful, but a negative test doesn't rule out that they've been infected, say, in the previous few days."

University of Sydney clinical epidemiologist Dr Fiona Stanaway said the testing process was "better than nothing", expressing support for only allowing people who had tested negative to board planes and for more routine testing within quarantine as a whole, while Australia awaits its vaccine rollout.

Despite the low numbers of cases, residents of Greater Sydney remain largely barred from quarantine-free interstate travel, with only the ACT and Northern Territory reopening to some local government areas this week.

Queensland Chief Health Officer Dr Jeannette Young said Queensland would no longer be using a 28-day wait period to determine when to reopen its border.

with Lydia Lynch and Rachael Dexter

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