One hundred doctors locked out of Western Australia weeks before state reopens

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<span>Photograph: Paul Kane/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Paul Kane/Getty Images

Shutout doctors and the state opposition raise concerns Mark McGowan’s government is refusing entry for essential workers

One hundred doctors, including specialists, consultants and locums for remote areas, are locked out of Western Australia, with Mark McGowan’s government refusing G2G passes despite the entry of Covid-19 being mere weeks away.

Since the spread of the Omicron variant in late 2021, the WA government has progressively shuttered entry from anyone entering from the eastern states, making it now close to impossible for anyone to enter WA, diplomats and state officials aside.

As the reopening deadline of 5 February approaches, shutout doctors – who already have jobs and work contracts in the state but can’t get a G2G pass to enter – are warning the health system needs adequate time to prepare for the influx of Covid-19, and the state government should now grant all doctors a G2G pass as a matter of urgency.

Heather* is a senior doctor who is in training to be a specialist and has had her application to enter WA refused three times in recent weeks. Her hospital job is expecting her to begin work in late January.

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“I am a specialist-trainee – but there are also anaesthetists and consultants that are getting rejected and that’s extremely concerning,” said Heather, speaking to the Guardian on the condition of anonymity.

“What I think is upsetting is these rejections are happening to the really essential doctors – people who are due at community clinics or in remote regions where their skills are absolutely critical.”

With mortgage repayments to make and no clear outline for when entry will be granted, Heather is now looking at applying for locum roles in other states.

“The state needs to decide should all doctors be allowed in as a group, or should we cherry-pick the specialists we need most – ICU, anaesthetists – and give them priority, with the rest having to wait,” Heather said.

“The reality is every state is under a lot of health pressure, so it’s not a realistic excuse from WA to say the vulnerable communities need special protection. I am sorry but there are vulnerable communities in many other parts of Australia. The main difference with WA’s vulnerable communities is there is a much greater distance between Perth and the Kimberley, say.”

According to a group chat viewed by the Guardian, around 100 doctors are in a similar position to Heather. All of them have jobs lined up, or are returning to senior roles they have held in critical and specialist areas for years.

“In a [health] system that’s already understaffed makes perfect sense that we’re all having such trouble getting in …” wrote one doctor. “Especially with the border opening only a month away, the mind boggles.”

“Yes, staffing at a crisis point without Covid,” wrote another. “I fear total collapse of the system when Covid arrives.”

In a statement, McGowan’s office said the Office of the Chief Health Officer had received, processed and approved more than 130 applications for entry from health officials in January 2022.

Mark Duncan-Smith, the WA president of the Australian Medical Association, said many doctors were gaining entry but the process was complex.

“It’s a problem of process, not exclusions,” said Duncan-Smith, who said the AMA had assisted several doctors who had difficulties obtaining G2G passes, despite having employment contracts and letters of support.

“They’re not being excluded, the problem is not in the approvals, these excluded people are having problems navigating the system. Should the system be simpler? Yes.”

Western Australia’s opposition leader, Mia Davies, said it was “extremely concerning” that doctors who want to come home to WA “to work in our understaffed health system are not being granted exemptions”.

“Immediate attention should be given to allowing these vital health workers to come into WA safely, as they will be key in bolstering WA’s hospital and medical workforce ahead of February 5,” she said.

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“I’m sure a majority of West Australians would like to see common sense applied to safely bring these essential medical workers into the state to support us through this next stage of Covid.”

Libby Mettam, an MP and deputy leader of the WA Liberal party, said any doctors facing difficulties entering at a time of critical health need for WA was “completely unacceptable”.

“It is completely unacceptable that health workers, including doctors, are being locked out of WA when they could be assisting our under-resourced health system ahead of the border opening in less than a month’s time,” Mettam said.

“Given WA’s health worker shortage and the inevitable influx of Covid in the community in less than a month’s time, the McGowan government should be doing everything to ensure these health workers can work here, which includes health worker exemptions.”

WA is scheduled to open to Australia – and the world – at midnight on 5 February. The McGowan government announced the reopening date in December when the state’s double-dose vaccination rate hit 80%.

However, in parts of the Kimberley and Pilbara the vaccination rate remains much lower, with some remote Indigenous communities not yet hitting 50%.

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