Communities straddling Victoria and New South Wales are bracing for “enormous heartache” and even more disruption to business, with the looming lockdown measures adding to the pain caused by last month’s border closure, a federal MP says.
The independent MP for the north-east Victorian seat of Indi, Helen Haines, said many business owners were “desperate” and “exhausted” after experiencing four weeks of impacts from the NSW border restrictions – and now faced another hit from the reintroduction of stage three lockdown measures in regional Victoria this week.
Haines is calling for “some very targeted federal government business support to the border communities, which recognises that they have now experienced a month of disruption to their business as a result of the border closing”. The Albury-Wodonga region, for example, has faced a range of impacts.
Regional Victoria is scheduled to return to stage three stay-at-home restrictions from late on Wednesday evening, with restaurants and cafes switching back to delivery and takeaway only. The measures in regional Victoria will also result in the closure of beauty and personal services businesses along with entertainment and cultural venues, while community sport will have to stop.
“Many businesses told me when the border closed that they had only just started to stand up again after the first round of restrictions,” Haines said in an interview with Guardian Australia.
“I think it’s going to have a devastating impact on these border communities.”
Haines added that the measures would affect “the same communities that experienced substantial impact from the Black Summer bushfires and have also been enduring drought conditions for some time”.
“So I’m expecting enormous heartache … from a mental health perspective. Some businesses won’t get through this.”
Haines said some business owners were “quite desperate”. She said she had heard from the operator of a hairdressing salon that her revenue had dropped 60% after just one week of the NSW border closure.
The NSW government’s change to the public health order on 22 July had also caused “a world of woe” and “a lot of confusion” because it said people should only cross the border for medical services that they could not otherwise receive in their home state.
“We heard of in one physiotherapy practice alone, 30 cancellations in one week from people with disabilities who were too afraid to cross the border, who were confused – and they couldn’t access their allied health services somewhere else because they’d have to change their whole NDIS plan,” Haines said.
The Covid-19 crisis had exposed how the interconnected nature of border communities was poorly understood in the state capitals where key decisions were made, she said.
While Albury in NSW and Wodonga in Victoria were separated by the Murray River, there was a shared economy whereby businesses operated on both sides and workers moved across the border each day.
The restrictions that the NSW government had imposed were “a very blunt instrument” and had affected people on both sides of the border even though there were limited numbers of Covid-19 cases there, she said.
For example, at one point as many as 80 Wangaratta doctors, nurses and other health staff were unable to attend work because of where they lived – a situation that has since been resolved by a NSW Health decision to allow healthcare staff to work beyond the so-called blue zone.
But Haines said the impacts were broader than healthcare, because the economies were integrated. She said other workers were unable to go to work because of the 14-day self-isolation rule when they returned home on the other side of the border.
She said while individual issues were ironed out in recent weeks, MPs representing border communities “did feel by the end of last week that both the doors and the windows had shut to NSW and that we weren’t able to negotiate much more in terms of the border closure”.
With Victoria now going into harder lockdown, “our negotiating capacity is substantially reduced”.
The federal government announced on Sunday that it would provide 10 additional Medicare-subsidised psychological therapy sessions for people subjected to further restrictions in areas affected by the second wave – a move Haines said was welcome.
“We will need it. But what people need and, of course, what we can’t guarantee is certainty. And at the moment, that’s facing everyone in Victoria and not just the border communities,” she said.
“But my central thesis is these border communities have had a month of what I would argue has been unnecessary angst because of an artificial border zone imposed by NSW. And that’s set up these businesses to be in a position of greater vulnerability than anywhere else in the regions.”
The federal government announced on Monday evening that it planned to roll out a partial form of paid pandemic leave in Victoria – and it is also expected to tweak jobkeeper eligibility to account for the developing situation in Victoria.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, told reporters on Monday he understood people were feeling a range of difficult emotions over the lockdown measures, including frustration and anger, “whether they’re in metropolitan inner Melbourne or they’re out in regional Victoria where there are very few cases”.
The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, said businesses in regional Victoria that suffered significant losses or needed to close as a result of the current restrictions could apply for a $5,000 state grant, while those in Melbourne and Mitchell Shire could apply for double that amount “in recognition of spending longer under restrictions”.
A survey of businesses by the Albury Northside Chamber of Commerce – in combination with Business Wodonga – found that nearly 90% of respondents said the border closure had affected their business. Most of the respondents were businesses in Albury.