I hope you’ve had some rest and recuperation over recent weeks -- although it has been a tumultuous, confusing, and sometimes deeply frustrating time.
I wanted to recap for you how we got to this point, share a bit about where we’re going from here -- and to acknowledge the very real challenges and concerns we’re all facing.
Governments, including ours in the ACT, have grappled with the arrival of the Omicron variant of COVID – what it means for Australia and how it changes our plans here in the ACT.
There have been two key challenges over the holidays. First, some states requiring travellers to have a PCR test to enter, caused enormous strain on the ACT’s testing capacity. It created a lot of stress, for people getting tested and those doing the testing, when everyone needed a break.
Second was the arrival of the Omicron variant. It’s spread so quickly that health experts haven’t been able to keep in front of it, to assess what it means for Australia… and governments haven’t been able to keep in front of it, to clearly communicate its implications for individuals and communities before it got here.
The good news is, we now know Omicron is highly infectious but significantly milder for most people, thanks to our very high vaccination rates. It was to achieve such strong vaccination rates that the ACT went into lockdown in the first place. We came out of lockdown knowing case numbers would rise, eventually but significantly, with our vaccinations in place to protect us.
Still, we emerged from lockdown before Omicron, which is spreading much more quickly than the Delta variant we were planning for. Canberrans have done the right thing and gone to get tested, while health experts and governments figured out whether the testing guidelines were still appropriate. In line with the changing landscape presented by Omicron, testing guidelines have been adjusted to reflect the changing nature of the spread of COVID in our community.
In the past week the ACT Government has made big changes to how we classify COVID cases, the advice on what you should do, and when you should get tested. In a nutshell, the comparative mildness of Omicron means that most people can manage their infections at home, which allows the health system to focus on protecting and supporting the people most vulnerable to serious effects. But this is a big shift, both in how the health system is responding to COVID and the advice we are all used to hearing, which is particularly unsettling while we all still face a shortage of testing options.
For many people it may have felt like an unwelcome shift from ‘accept these restrictions and the government will protect you’ to ‘you’re on your own’. Having sat in Cabinet to hear, discuss and accept the advice, I want to assure you, you are not on your own.
This shift continues to follow expert health advice, to act on the evidence and evolve our response as the virus itself evolves. But we fully acknowledge it’s a big adjustment that’s come rapidly, without time for most people to hear all the information they need to feel confident in it.
I want you to know, we’ve felt that sentiment, and we have worked hard to push for the testing situation to be resolved as fast as possible, and to ensure that public messages become clearer about the relative risk of Omicron while ensuring people continue to feel supported.
This virus is bigger than any one of us, and we have built up such a collective commitment to working together. It is so important that we in government properly communicate how the change in our COVID response means less overall risk, not more, enabling stronger support to people who need it.
To this end, we’re working to deliver more, immediate support to community organisations working with people who are most vulnerable to the virus.
Over the longer term, Emma as Minister responsible for Community Recovery and Emergency Relief, is co-designing with NGOs and the not-for-profit sector what inclusivity, accessibility and connection will look like, as COVID continues to be part of our lives.
The work of Cabinet has also focused on ensuring that the health system is ready and able to deal with the surge of cases from this faster-spreading Omicron variant.
We are all, together, in the midst of a massive change, as COVID beds down to become ever-present in our community. Getting vaccines and boosters are still the most important things you can do to protect yourself - everyone you care about - and all those people you’ve never even met. In the same vein, learning to judge your exposure, when you need to test, and to let others know, are the next steps we can all take to keep working together and looking after each other.
Please reach out to me or any of your local MLAs, to help us understand the questions and concerns you’re confronting, so we can carry them forward into government to address.
And do continue to use covid19.act.gov.au as your key source of information – it is the central place where all ACT Government information is being updated.
All my best for the new year.