Leaders can’t escape error of this close call

The Victorian government’s abrupt decision to shut the state’s border with NSW has been nothing short of a debacle.

It was precipitous, poorly managed and, frankly, dangerous as thousands of cars, caravans and boat-trailers crammed highways to beat an unreasonably tight deadline.

Yes, Victorians had been warned two weeks ago that their travel into NSW could be curtailed suddenly. Yes, they knew the situation could change at any moment. But families, children, the elderly and disabled are always at terrible risk when trapped in traffic for hours.

It would be catastrophic if a fire had taken hold, or if someone were to have a heart attack or seizure.

Families exiting NSW were stuck in the dead of night in interminably long traffic jams, on remote single-lane sections of the Princes HighwayCredit:Justin McManus

Blame for the debacle lies with authorities on both sides of the border. After nine months of pandemic management, government officials should have been far better prepared to co-ordinate the predictable mass exodus of travellers trying to get home.

After all, that is what we are entitled to expect from governments, state and federal: strong, co-ordinated and professional management that ensures citizens are safe.

Instead, families exiting NSW were stuck in the dead of night in interminably long traffic jams, on remote single-lane sections of the Princes Highway, without NSW police or emergency services personnel to co-ordinate or provide information, without toilets, water supplies or safe places to stop.

While the Victorian government says the decision to close the border is backed by health advice, it beggars belief that it was necessary to do so with such short warning. Victorians were given barely 33 hours to return, or risk being indefinitely locked out of their home state.

Surely, after the various inquiries into sometimes cack-handed management of the pandemic in 2020, it is now clear that careful planning for emergency actions is an absolute priority.

Delaying the shutdown by two or three days surely would not have made that much difference to curbing the spread of a COVID-19 outbreak in suburban Sydney. That is because contact tracing, so we are led to believe, is so much better than it was six months ago and the Sydney outbreak is not yet measured in the hundreds, as it was in Melbourne in July when NSW shut the southern border.

An extra two days could have provided police, state emergency services volunteers, community groups and townships time to prepare for the avalanche of travellers.

All this makes it more difficult to understand why the Victorian government was rebuffed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison when it requested up to 300 Australian Defence Force personnel to manage NSW border checkpoint controls. Instead Victoria got just 50 ADF personnel to provide logistical support for state police patrolling checkpoints.

It is not sufficient for Mr Morrison to dismiss border closures as merely state matters. We are a nation, and strong, professional and co-ordinated leadership requires the federal government to assist states in times of great concern, as we are experiencing now.

National cabinet, the conference comprising the Prime Minister and state and territory leaders, met almost weekly last year. It has not met since December 11 and is not due to reconvene until mid-February.

It is time for the national cabinet to abandon its holiday and get back to work, and for political leaders to lead with clear, cogent and rational responses that are backed by the best health advice.

These are times of great stress and concern for many families and for workers who are beginning a new year stuck on the wrong side of a state border with no clear avenues for returning home.

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