The Canberra bubble now envelops South Australia … if you can get there, and if COVID-19 doesn’t burst it

Canberra resident Anita Hopf was overjoyed when she learned she could attend a family wedding she thought she would miss.

Most of Ms Hopf’s family live in South Australia, including her parents and her brother, who is about to marry.

Unable to travel there because of COVID-19 restrictions, she was preparing to watch a video stream of the wedding.

But then the South Australian Government announced on Tuesday it would open its borders to ACT residents.

“I’m ecstatic!” she told the ABC, while her son Blake chimed in: “Me, too!”

The celebration will not be perfect; another brother lives in Victoria and so won’t be allowed to attend.

But Ms Hopf said she had resigned herself to “a real disappointment”.

“When the news came through today, I was laughing — it was great.”

Her next step was to deal with “a bit of a conundrum in trying to find direct flights”.

So just who is allowed in to South Australia, and how can they get there?

If you live or work in Queanbeyan, bad luck

South Australian police are warning Canberrans not to try to drive across the border.(ABC News: Isadora Bogle)

The new policy, announced on Tuesday, extends only to Canberrans — not to New South Wales residents — and SA authorities do not want anyone travelling through NSW to cross their border.

So, as SA Police Commissioner Grant Stevens put it, forget about trying to drive there.

“It’s simply not possible for us to be confident that a person driving between the ACT and South Australia has not had contact with members of the NSW community,” the police chief said.

Anyone who wants to visit SA must complete an online pre-approval form declaring they have not visited NSW or Victoria within 14 days of their intended arrival.

This means the SA border is closed to residents of Queanbeyan, Jerrabomberra and Murrumbateman, but also to Canberrans who visit those places to work, shop or play sport.

They must apply through a separate process and, if permitted entry, commit to isolating for 14 days once in Adelaide.

Commissioner Stevens said he was confident NSW’s situation would improve but it remained a higher risk than Canberra for now.

“The level of comfort we have with the ACT does not, at this point in time, translate to NSW.”

It will take a while for airlines to put more flights on

An empty airport passenger counter.
It could take weeks for airlines to increase flights between Canberra and Adelaide.(ABC News: Ian Cutmore)

Flying is only legal way Canberrans can get to South Australia, but it will not be as easy as it was before the COVID-19 pandemic, nor is it likely to be cheap.

Before March, there were 23 flights a week between Adelaide and Canberra, provided by Qantas and Virgin Australia.

Now there are just three, all with Qantas.

A return economy seat costs up to $1,200, even with heavy government subsidies, but pricing may change quickly.

Canberra Airport aviation head Michael Thomson said travellers could expect to see more flights within a week or two “at the longest”.

“They do need to coordinate schedules and routes but they can act fairly quickly.”

A Qantas spokeswoman told the ABC: “Now that border restrictions have been lifted, we’ll look to increase flights if there is higher demand.”

Virgin, which entered into administration during the pandemic, said in a statement it welcomed the border decision.

“We are reviewing our network schedule and will look to resume services between Canberra and Adelaide in due course,” it said.

Why is NSW banned if the ACT’s borders are open?

A car crosses the border into Canberra on a sunny day.
The ACT is hardly a fortress, nor are its borders with NSW closely watched.(ABC News: Ian Cutmore)

There are almost 70 different entry points by road into the ACT from NSW, and none are closely monitored.

So what will stop SA residents flying to Canberra as a backdoor means of visiting Sydney?

What will prevent Canberrans from travelling to the South Coast one weekend, then staying in the Barossa Valley the next?

Commissioner Stevens said he was relying on honesty — and the gentle threat of a fine.

“We are requiring people to make a declaration on their pre-approval [form] and we are expecting people to be honest in that declaration,” he said.

The immediate fine for such a breach would be $1,060, though a criminal prosecution in the SA courts is another option open to police.

When can Canberrans visit the rest of the country?

The short answer? No one knows.

However, the ACT’s political representatives hope the SA decision will jolt other states into rethinking whether Canberra belongs with pandemic hotspots like NSW and Victoria.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr said the ACT Government had been “working patiently and diplomatically behind the scenes to get this announcement [with SA]”.

The next step, he suggested, was resuming links with Tasmania.

“I’ll be in contact with Premier [Peter] Gutwein in Tasmania. I think they’re the next most likely. Queensland also in the coming months,” Mr Barr said.

“Western Australia, I suspect, will be a longer proposition.”

Zed Seselja, wearing glasses and a suit, sits at a desk in an office with sunlight pouring through the wooden blinds.
Zed Seselja says there are “no medical reasons” why Queensland should shut out Canberrans.(ABC News: Jake Evans)

ACT Liberal senator and Federal Minister Zed Seselja said he had been lobbying SA for a changed approach.

He said Queensland’s insistence the ACT was a coronavirus hotspot was unreasonable.

“There’re no medical reasons why Canberrans should not be able to travel,” he said.

“Given Queenslanders are open to some [Australians], I think it’s absolutely fair that they should now be open to Canberrans.”

However, SA’s police chief offered a reminder that all plans — including SA’s new border policy — were subject to change.

“This is not permanent revocation of the 14-day quarantine,” he warned of the relaxed rules for Canberrans.

“This is where we’re able to be at the moment.

“But people should understand that this is a pandemic.

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