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Life is full of risks… and decisions we make, always have consequences.

I offer that simple statement as a reminder to everyone as we enter the next stage of the national plan to suppress the spread of the coronavirus, save lives, accelerate vaccination rates, restore a new COVID normal, and return to interstate and international travel.

The public debate is going to get a bit heated at times and we need to try to respect each other’s views, and disagree as politely as possible.

Everyone has disaster fatigue and Gippslanders have been doing an incredible job throughout the pandemic, at considerable personal costs. Not only have we largely accepted restrictions which have prevented the spread of the virus (even the rules we haven’t agreed with) but we have turned up in large numbers to get vaccinated when it’s our turn.

Our health professionals and all frontline workers are emotionally drained, physically exhausted, and all we can offer them is an enormous ‘thank you’.

We have continued to support local businesses wherever possible and we have looked after each other. However, there is a growing sense of frustration and anxiety as we want to move to the next stage quickly, for the sake of the community, and everyone we love.

There is a pathway to emerging from the worst of the pandemic, despite the increased case numbers we are seeing in Melbourne and Sydney.

The ‘National Cabinet’ has agreed that lockdowns and other restrictions will ease as we reach 70-80 percent of adults fully vaccinated. At that point, we can expect some baseline community restrictions on physical distancing, hygiene requirements and masks indoors, but lockdowns should be a thing of the past, except in extraordinary circumstances.

Our health services will be better placed to manage the demand, and evidence around the world is indicating that vaccinated adults are less likely to catch the virus, spread the virus, and have lower hospitalisation rates.

Schools and universities will return to face-to-face learning and there will be other significant changes.

International travel should return with home-based quarantine options, and the ridiculous situation of people being refused entry to their homes from interstate will need to end if we are going to grow confidence, and support jobs, in the domestic tourism and hospitality industry.

There will still be risks to public health. But we need to better manage those risks against the benefits of re-opening small businesses, and preventing Australians from becoming increasingly isolated and frustrated by the ongoing restrictions.

In the middle of a pandemic, we have seen an epidemic of loneliness and a mental health crisis. Those risks require more balance in the rules we put in place and decisions which the majority will support.

Under the plan, the way out of the pandemic is through increased vaccinations, restoring travel freedoms, reopening businesses, and allowing people to renew relationships with family and friends.

Whether we like it or not, I fear it is inevitable that people who are prepared to have the vaccination will be able to enjoy more freedoms than those who ‘opt out’ for anything other than medical reasons. Judging by the emails and messages I have already received, this is going to upset some people.

This is what I meant about ‘decisions we make, always have consequences’. Except for people with medical conditions, it is a deliberate choice for some of us to remain unvaccinated.

In Australia, vaccination is free and voluntary and being vaccinated against coronavirus is the best way to protect yourself and those around you. If you choose to not have the vaccination, which has been administered to billions of people at minimal risk around the world, and cleared by Australia’s world-leading health authorities, that will be your choice.

I respect that choice and offer no criticism or judgement whatsoever. But as an adult, the consequences are likely to include less access to travel and recreational facilities if you don’t have proof of vaccination, or a medical reason for not receiving the vaccine.

Just as workplaces like mine sites and offshore platforms demand a drug and alcohol-free environment for the safety of workers, there will be legitimate health and safety reasons to require employees and customers to be vaccinated. I expect that some venues like aeroplanes, restaurants, public bars, music festivals and large sporting events will require patrons to provide a proof of vaccination prior to entry.

Where it’s impossible to physically distance, or adopt other measures to prevent the spread of the virus, the risk assessment for some businesses will be to accept only vaccinated customers.

Obviously, there will need to be medical exemptions for people who are unable to receive a vaccine but businesses have an existing right to stop someone from entering their premises, or refuse to serve someone, as long as they don’t breach anti-discrimination laws. In practice, I can’t see how a teenage shop attendant is going to be expected to check a customer’s vaccine status, or enforce a company ruling, but that’s a whole different question and clearer laws may be needed.

Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the disappointment, division and anger that providing proof of vaccination will create for some people but again, it’s their decision to not be vaccinated.

I don’t see this as a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ scenario, just a personal decision we all have to make by evaluating the risks and recognising the consequences.

Some people have very strongly held, personal views against all vaccinations, or disagree with limitations being imposed on unvaccinated people and the so-called ‘vaccine passports’ for travel. This is despite the fact that entry to other countries has often required proof of vaccination against certain infectious diseases.

I believe it’s inevitable that proof of vaccination will be required for international travel, and possibly domestic air travel, where it won’t be possible to physically distance patrons. But it doesn’t make sense for state governments to impose travel restrictions for independent travellers (think grey nomads and family road trips) once we achieve national vaccination targets.

Australians should be able to drive across state borders, which are really just notional and somewhat redundant lines on a map, in their own vehicles regardless of their vaccination status, once we achieve the national target. Again, it’s an assessment of the risks and a couple towing a caravan around Australia is a very different scenario to hundreds of people in an aircraft.

Notwithstanding some of the feedback I have received, the overwhelming majority of Australians, as proven by the ever-increasing rates of vaccination, are prepared to trust the health advice and just want to get back to a normal life.

We have a national plan to achieve that outcome and I will keep encouraging Gippslanders to get vaccinated, while respecting the rights of others who make a different decision.

I will participate in the public debate in a constructive, practical and empathetic manner and recognise that we may have to ‘agree to disagree’ on some of the more contentious issues.

We need to try to keep our community safe as we work together to respond and recover from the pandemic which has wreaked enormous damage throughout the world.

Australians have been spared the worst of the health impacts compared to other countries, but we still have a long way to go as we seek to manage coronavirus as an infectious disease in the longer term.

Keep making good decisions for you, and the people you love.

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