January 10, 2022 | By Bronwen Largier

When we signed off for 2021, interstate borders were just beginning to open, New South Wales had only just eclipsed its Delta COVID-19 daily case number high thanks to Omicron and PCR tests were still the norm for interstate travel.

Since then, a lot has happened.

COVID-19 is now widespread in Australia

Yesterday, Australia fell a few hundred short of 100,000 new daily cases, with the three largest states predictably clocking up the largest shares – over 44,00 in Victoria and 18,000 exactly in Queensland, which have both started registering cases detected at home by rapid antigen tests, and over 30,000 cases in NSW, which will start registering rapid antigen test results sometime this week.

Restrictions came back

Most Australian states and territories brought restrictions back in on account of the Omicron surge. In South Australia, Victoria and NSW, density limits are back, with South Australia’s being the harshest, reverting to one person per four square metres indoors with standing consumption disallowed, which is a blow for business events. The ACT also brought back seated consumption, while Victoria and NSW both reintroduced a one-per-two-square-metres density limit indoors.

As recently as Friday, NSW brought in a few new restrictions, including no singing and dancing at hospitality settings and entertainment venues – unless for weddings – which may not have a huge impact on the business events industry but may impact public events more deeply. The state government stopped short of pressing pause on major events with NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet saying health authorities would work with events and “if there is deemed to be a high risk venue, NSW Health along with the Department of Premier and Cabinet will work closely with organisers in adjusting those COVID Safe plans”.

“If you have a major event planned throughout January, continue as planned,” he said. However, Tamworth Country Music Festival, which was set to kick off this Friday, was postponed until April on the same day as Perrottet’s declaration, in light of the new measures.

Meanwhile the Northern Territory is moving from a lockout, which limits the possibilities for the unvaccinated, to a vaccine pass system which will bar unvaccinated people from entering venues such as pubs, restaurants with liquor licences, theatres, cinemas and larger events. Other states including Queensland and Victoria have these kinds of measures as standard settings.

Rapid antigen tests replaced PCRs for interstate travel

The good news, from an events perspective, is that state and territory borders stayed open through the holiday period – and with significant case numbers now being recorded in all open states, borders are not likely to close any time soon. States which still require a test before or upon entry – like Queensland and the Northern Territory – now accept rapid antigen tests, after “travel testing” wreaked havoc at PCR testing sites over the Christmas period as testing and results times blew out, in part, also because the holidays saw reduced capacity to take and process these.

And once the promised shipments of rapid antigen tests arrive on our sandy shores to ease the current shortage, this is good news too for business events, making it easier for delegates to travel around the country to attend events.

The definition of a close contact changed (in most states)

Australia’s National Cabinet broadly agreed to change the definition of who becomes a close contact when a COVID case is identified. The new definition, adopted by most states, limits close contacts to household members or household-like contacts which are those you interact with for a long period – four hours – in a household setting. This is good news for business events and public events, as attendees will no longer run the risk of 14 days isolation just from being in the presence of a COVID case at an event. Isolation periods for close contacts and confirmed cases were also shortened to seven days which also helps minimise disruption. This changes comes with a caveat however – not all states have fully adopted the new close contact definition or the revised isolation periods (yet) – so checking the rules with your state government is recommended.

The role of rapid antigen tests for events

The role rapid tests will play in business events while we wait out the peak and demise of the current Omicron wave remains to be seen. Once the Delta wave was supressed in NSW, the ACT and – to some extent – Victoria, the low case numbers and high vaccination levels meant that rapid testing did not become standard practice. That might change.

So, what happens now?

If modelling from New South Wales plays out, the worst of the Omicron outbreak could be behind the most populous state by the end of this month, with cases tipped to fall rapidly after a peak. This bodes well for the business events industry, which is typically quieter in January, and starts to ramp up in February and March. And considering NSW led the Omicron surge, we can hope that other states and territories may not be too far behind in their respective peaks and declines.

Events are, of course, a long game and it remains to be seen how current circumstances will impact confidence, which is to say, the new business pipeline and those events that are already locked in for autumn onwards. Fingers are crossed here that the longer lead times of our industry may work in our favour for a change.

And, of course, as we hear from industry, we’ll keep you updated as to how the year looks likely to play out in both the short and the long term.