Relief for locals as SA border opens

By David Schout

Residents in the CBD and inner Melbourne are now free to visit South Australia after dubious vaccination data had threatened to deny long-awaited family reunions.

Just prior to its border reopening on November 23, the SA government agreed to accept residents from the City of Melbourne without the need to isolate for seven days. 

SA Premier Steven Marshall said the issue had caused “enormous frustration” but confirmed inner-Melburnians could now enter the state.

Mr Marshall’s government had previously said that anyone from a local government area with a double vaccination rate of less than 80 per cent — of which the City of Melbourne, at the time of publishing, was one — would not be allowed in the state without undertaking quarantine.

However as reported in the October edition of CBD News, Melbourne’s supposedly low inoculation figures were almost certainly wrong. 

Vaccination rates are based on 2019 population levels, which meant the significant exodus of Melbourne’s international students and overseas residents since the onset of COVID-19 was not reflected in the data.

Those who had long departed Australia were still statistically counted as “unvaccinated”, which left the City of Melbourne as the supposedly lowest-vaccinated LGA in Victoria. 

Since October, state MP for Melbourne Ellen Sandell had pushed the state government to update the population data, and even called out Health Minister Martin Foley online. 

“I’ve been asking for a briefing about this and for more information for several weeks but have not heard anything back, so I’m resorting to Twitter to help my constituents,” she Tweeted on November 5. 

Mr Foley confirmed in Parliament on November 18 that as a result of new data analysis the City of Melbourne had, in fact, passed 80 per cent double-dose vaccinations.

He said vaccination rates had been underestimated by about 10 per cent, and while official figures had the LGA at 71.8 per cent fully vaccinated, it had in fact hit 81 per cent. 

Similarly, official first-dose levels (at the time) were at 75.9 per cent, however the government estimated real figures were in fact around 86.6 per cent. 

The next day, Mr Marshall’s government accepted the new data analysis and confirmed borders would open for those travelling from the City of Melbourne. 

“I’m so pleased that my lobbying has been able to get this ridiculous situation fixed for local residents,” Ms Sandell told CBD News.

“Our City of Melbourne residents have done it so tough during the pandemic and this was the last thing they needed.”

Confusing the matter further was that, even with Melbourne’s questionable figures, the area still had a higher vaccination rate than that of South Australia.

Ms Sandell said the prospect of being denied SA travel was particularly concerning for a number of constituents.

“This was having a real impact on people’s lives because South Australia refused to open their border quarantine-free to anyone from a local government area with less than 80 per cent official vaccination rate, even though they knew our data was wrong. It was a ridiculous situation that means many local residents haven’t been able to book travel to visit sick relatives in SA, to go to funerals, or travel for work or plan their Christmas with family.”

One of those was West Melbourne resident Kristen Battistella, whose 73-year-old mother-in-law Loretta lives in SA and will soon begin a second round of chemotherapy.

After Melbourne’s extended lockdown, Ms Battistella’s husband Michael had finally booked a trip to see her, however only after confirming flights had realised the LGA-specific requirements for travel. 

“Our overwhelming joy knowing that they could finally see each other after six months, quickly turned into an absolute nightmare,” she told CBD News.

“It was distressing, infuriating and perplexing why they would use such outdated statistics. The situation was even more ludicrous, as it appeared it was easier for us to travel to Queensland or even to Singapore.”

After writing to various politicians and media outlets, Ms Battistella said there had been a “flood of emotion” within her family when the SA Premier confirmed City of Melbourne residents could travel to the state quarantine-free.

“Among an inundation of well-wishers and tears, we could finally plan his quick trip, and confidently book tickets for my two children to fly unaccompanied to South Australia to see the family in December. Common sense prevailed and now we are planning to spend as much time together as a family for Christmas.”

Town Hall edges towards 10,000

On September 1, the council transformed part of Melbourne Town Hall into a vaccination hub to jab some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.

And as of early November, more than 9000 people had received a vaccination at the iconic Swanston St building.

Nicole Bartholomeusz, chief executive of Cohealth — the community health service in charge at Town Hall — said the response had been “overwhelming”.

“We’ve been thrilled with the turnout at the Melbourne Town Hall over these last two months, especially from people in their 20s and 30s who became eligible for vaccination later in the rollout,” she said.

Around five per cent of those vaccinated were born in Australia but did not have Medicare card and were likely homeless or experiencing severe disadvantage.

A third had a preferred language other than English, with the top three preferred languages (other than English) Mandarin, Cantonese and Spanish.

“There has been an overwhelming uptake from culturally and linguistically diverse communities to access the vaccine which shows that providing a culturally safe offering combined with our community engagement approach works,” Ms Bartholomeusz said. 

As of November 9, the Cohealth Melbourne Town Hall vaccination centre offered vaccinations to anyone who lives, works in, or visits the city, with extended opening hours (until 6pm) to accommodate the post-work crowd •

Caption: West Melbourne resident Kristen Battistella’s mother-in-law Loretta (pictured with grandchildren), is set to undergo a second round of chemotherapy. A statistical anomaly threatened to prevent son Michael (right) from visiting her in SA.

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