Border rules based on outdated vaccine data prevent families visiting unwell relatives in South Australia

Border rules based on outdated vaccine data prevent families visiting unwell relatives in South Australia


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Michael and Kristen Battistella desperately want to take their children to visit grandmother Loretta in Adelaide.

Loretta, 73, has cancer in her hip, shoulder, lungs and liver and will soon begin a second round of chemotherapy.

They’re fully vaccinated, but Michael and Kristen Battistella worry South Australia’s reliance on outdated data will stop them and daughters Mia and Nina seeing an ailing relative. Credit:Simon Schluter

Despite being vaccinated, Mr Battistella and his wife cannot visit his mother when South Australia opens its border to the country on November 23.

Premier Steven Marshall’s road map will enforce quarantine on all visitors from local government areas with a double-dose vaccination rate lower than 80 per cent.

Victoria has soared past the milestone as a state, reaching 85.9 per cent full vaccination by Wednesday.

Yet to assess uptake by local government area, the federal government is using population data from 2019 – before the COVID-19 pandemic caused tens of thousands of international students and migrants to leave the CBD and inner-city suburbs.

The municipality’s vaccination rate is 69.9 per cent, according to the latest federal data. In reality, however, it has most likely already surpassed the 80 per cent threshold because of a declining population.

Ms Battistella’s family is among many in Melbourne as well as the City of Sydney who will soon be unable to visit severely unwell relatives and reunite with family members because the South Australian government has created a policy based on outdated data.

The situation has prompted state MP for Melbourne Ellen Sandell and lord mayor Sally Capp to write to the South Australian government urgently requesting a change in policy.

The use of 2019 data also means vaccination rates in regional areas, particularly in Victoria, could be lower than the federal government’s assessments because regional city populations have grown since that time.

Ms Battistella has struggled to explain the hold-up to Loretta and her daughters, aged 12 and nine, who are keen to see their grandmother.

“Loretta has a tumour behind her eye that she’s having radiotherapy on. You don’t know how it will affect her eyesight – could it be the last time she can physically see the family?” she said.

“It’s all adding another layer of emotional stress that I thought we were over by this stage in the pandemic.”

To add to the complexity, the family’s home suburb of West Melbourne has a vaccination rate higher than 80 per cent despite the wider local government area officially being below the threshold.

State MP for Melbourne Ellen Sandell has written to the South Australian government asking them to adjust the policy.Credit:Simon Schluter

Along with the City of Melbourne, only inner-city Yarra local government area has a first-dose rate below 80 per cent in Victoria, leaving those two unlikely to hit 80 per cent full vaccination before Christmas – if ever.

A similar story has unfolded in New South Wales, where the City of Sydney’s double-dose rate of 72.6 per cent is lagging most of the state, likely because thousands of international students and migrants have left.

The City of Melbourne conservatively estimates its international student contingent has dropped by 28,000 since 2019, reducing the council’s total population aged 15 and over from 168,000 to 140,000.

Based on a population of 140,000, that would put the current double-dose vaccination rate at close to 84 per cent.

Ms Sandell labelled it a “ridiculous situation”.

“Many inner Melbourne residents are now in limbo because the South Australian government has not been clear about the rules and our vaccination data is potentially very inaccurate,” the Greens MP said.

“Real people’s lives are now being affected by this, and it urgently needs to be fixed.”

Similarly to the Battistella family, Richmond resident Dan Wilson hopes to visit his 84-year-old grandmother in Adelaide as soon as the borders open.

“She has a form of bone cancer, she’s had a number of falls, she may need to go in for an operation on her foot because she has nerve issues. There’s just a lot going on,” said Mr Wilson, 36.

Dan Wilson (left) was hoping to visit his grandmother as soon as South Australia opens its border on November 23.

“She lives by herself and we were really excited until we realised this problem. It seems like an arbitrary decision that doesn’t make sense. I’ve booked a trip to Hawaii after Christmas and it looks like I’ll get there before Adelaide.”

South Australia plans to use the local government area metric until 90 per cent of its population aged 12 and over is fully vaccinated, unlikely until the new year based on current uptake.

Cr Capp said her council calculated its vaccination rate to be at least 81 per cent and revealed she had written to South Australia’s Health Minister, Stephen Wade, asking for residents to be able to enter the state without quarantining when borders open on November 23.

Melbourne lord mayor Sally Capp has asked the South Australian government to alter its border policy. Credit:Enrique Ascui

“We again call on the Commonwealth to review its baseline data to more accurately reflect the current population of City of Melbourne and Australia,” she said.

“These massive discrepancies are preventing businesses from moving forward and loved ones from reuniting.”

In a statement, a South Australian government spokeswoman confirmed it was relying on Commonwealth figures combined with data from other states and defended the use of local government areas to inform its border policy.

“Local government areas have been used by multiple jurisdictions throughout the pandemic to identify high-risk areas,” she said.

University of Melbourne demographer Tom Wilson said there had been significant changes in population trends across the country since 2019, making it likely published vaccine coverage rates were approximate in some areas.

For example, net migration into regional Australia was 45,000 in the 12 months to March 31, up from 24,000 the previous year.

“In some popular regional areas which have recently had above average population growth, vaccination coverage might be a little overstated in the statistics,” Dr Wilson said.

“Conversely, in some inner-city locations that have had population decline in the last year, official vaccination rates could be understated. But we won’t have any detailed figures to confirm that until new population data is released next year.”

Dr Wilson said beyond the Census, due for release in June, there were very few up-to-date data sets the government could use.

He said administrative information from Centrelink, the Australian Tax Office, telephone providers, banks and essential services were legally restricted or commercially confidential.

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