‘Are you going to India?': Queensland isn't in any hurry to open borders

A steel shade structure went up on Friday over the Gold Coast highway at Tugun, where police and soldiers are manning the border checkpoint between New South Wales and Queensland.

© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Jason O’Brien/EPA

The permanent shelter was put in place a day after the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, made comments that implied the temporary border closure might drag on beyond Christmas.

A roadside monument to a pandemic with no end in sight.

“It’s the uncertainty … that’s as big a problem as anything,” says Emma Visman, who moved from Queensland to the northern NSW town of Ballina last year.

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Visman’s partner, a Fifo worker in the Northern Territory, has been unable to return home for the past few months. Most of her family and friends are across the border in Queensland.

“I understand why the border is closed, but there’s no clear message about [when we might be able to re-enter Queensland],” she says. “Any message we get is so vague. They basically expect you to deal with the fact this is going to happen for a long period.

“I’m fully vaccinated and I’m following the rules. What I’m most upset about is that last year when we were all first locked down, we had this sort of solidarity as a country.

“This year it feels like if you’re stuck in this situation, the attitude is it’s too bad.”

The latest angst about the Queensland-New South Wales border has stemmed partly from a national focus on Victoria and NSW, where Covid case numbers remain high. Pathways to removing lockdown restrictions in those states are linked to vaccination rates.

Queensland has its own roadmap, but the plan does not mention vaccination rates or when the borders might open.

Palaszczuk said this week people should “take a deep breath” and wait until next Friday – the next national cabinet meeting – before she could given any more detail about when the roadblocks would be removed.

© Photograph: Jason O’Brien/EPA Queensland has its own roadmap, but the plan does not mention vaccination rates or when the borders might open.

Related: Covid-19 vaccine Australia rollout tracker by state: total number of people and per cent vaccinated, daily vaccine doses and rate of progress

Asked if interstate travel could be allowed by Christmas, Palaszczuk said: “Go and ask New South Wales and Victoria.”

“The reason we have tough border measures in place is because there is a massive outbreak at the moment in New South Wales and Victoria and their hospitals are going to be overwhelmed,” Palaszczuk said.

“I think everyone needs to take a really deep breath here, because what we are trying to do is protect this state and keep Queenslanders healthy and out of hospitals.”

She also dismissed the idea of allowing international travel.

“Where are you going to go? Are you going to go to India?”

“I think the federal government needs to identify very clearly what are the countries that Australians can travel to, OK?”

Queensland’s success at beating back Covid outbreaks and the relative freedoms in the state have emboldened a hardline and broadly popular border policy.

Even as media pressure amplifies – the Courier-Mail’s front page on Friday called Palaszczuk the Christmas “Grinch” – the premier and her conservative chief health officer, Jeanette Young, have remained steadfast.

In the process, genuine concerns about the state’s management of the border – including a lack of communication, planning, compassion and common sense – have become swept into an increasingly polarised debate.

Those directly affected by border closures say they have grown increasingly frustrated.

Melbourne woman Emma Bisshop’s mother is in an aged care facility in Cairns. She had hoped to travel north for Christmas.

“We are acutely aware that time with Mum is precious,” she says.

“I’ve actually been very thankful that she’s been protected from Covid. I’ve been happy that Queensland shut the borders. We’ve got our vaccinations so we can visit her, but the hardest part is not knowing when – or if – that can even happen.”

Hilary Jacobs, the president of the Greater Southern Gold Coast chamber of commerce, says it is “evident that people are getting tired” of the border closure.

“The Queensland population has been a migratory population,” she says. “Many Queenslanders started life in the southern states or only retired to Queensland, and as a result of that, many of those people haven’t been able to see their extended family, their children [or] grandchildren. They’re missing the vital growing up years of their family.

“The biggest problem for business at the moment in Queensland is that we have no idea from one day to the next where we’re heading.

“What we do need to understand are what will be the triggers for the border bubble being fully reinstated, or the bubble not being required at all? When we can take bookings from interstate travellers safely, and when we can have confidence?”

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