University study hub to open

TERTIARY students can choose to swap their home offices for a town-based study hub from next year with the development of a new regional university centre (RUC) in Albany.

The centre will be the third established in WA alongside existing RUCs in Geraldton and the Pilbara and include 10 computers for university and TAFE students to utilise.

It was one of nine new RUCs announced nationally on Monday by Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan as part of a $53.2 million plan.

Access to town-strength internet, video conferencing tools, study spaces and academic support will also be available 24/7 to students studying a tertiary qualification via distance at partner universities.

In 2018, the Great Southern recorded more than 400 residents studying fully and partially online with 14 different Australian universities.

Acting Director for the Albany RUC Jan Davidson said the facility would also be helpful to people wanting to upskill, retrain or gain additional ‘microcredentials’.

A registered nursing course will be the first course fully supported by the Albany RUC with agriculture and teaching being considered for the future.

The RUC will be located on the first floor of the Albany Co-Op Building on Frederick Street, under the Regional Development Australia Great Southern offices.

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Period of isolation frustrates

A DENMARK local who has spent nearly a month in quarantine after returning from overseas says WA’s hard border stance should remain in place.

Laura Blake, who had been working as an English teacher in Hungary for four years, decided to travel back to Australia after her school semester was cut short due to the pandemic.

Ms Blake travelled to London so she could secure a repatriation flight back to Perth, but soon found the only plane she could book would take her to Melbourne instead.

It meant the Denmark-raised teacher would have to spend two consecutive 14-day periods in isolation because of WA’s hard border stance.

The frustrating part for Ms Blake was that her flight back to Australia did actually stop in Perth to refuel on its way to Melbourne, but passengers were told they couldn’t disembark.

“We kind of just sat there while they refuelled and went on to Melbourne,” Ms Blake said.

“I think they wanted to spread the quarantine centres around Australia.”

After arriving in Victoria, Ms Blake said the forced quarantine process was a tightly run operation.

“They had been quarantining foreign arrivals for about a month by the time I arrived in Melbourne so it was a very streamlined process,” she said.

“They disembarked the plan row by row. On the plane they gave us a goodie bag full of masks and disinfectant.”

When Australians were first forced to stay in hotels after returning from overseas, social media was full of people complaining about isolation life in five-star accommodation and being treated as second-class citizens.

But, Ms Blake didn’t share those nightmare experiences on her 14-day stay.

“I think I was pretty realistic going into it,” she said.

“I was staying at Crown Melbourne, which is a five-star hotel, but I wasn’t expecting a five-star stay.

“I had already been distancing and in isolation when I was staying in London for a week. I had already experienced the mental processes you go through when you are in isolation.

“I feel like I was a bit more prepared than some people were.”

Ms Blake said the Victorian Government covered all her costs from the moment she left the plane to the day she could leave the hotel.

During a challenging period of isolation, Ms Blake said she was lucky to friends and family regularly staying in touch.

“You do realise your own mental strength,” she said.

“Realising the strength of your relationships with other people and how helpful that was in getting me through.”

Despite having to go through a frustrating second 14-week period of self-isolation after returning to WA, Ms Blake is more than happy to do her part to keep the virus out of the state.

“I’d rather quarantine than risk spreading anything,” she said.

“It’s frustrating, but it’s not really about the individual. It’s about taking care of everyone.”

Under current rules, interstate travellers are required to quarantine in Queensland, Tasmania, WA, SA and the NT.

In Victoria, ACT and NSW you do not need to quarantine or self-isolate if you have travelled interstate.

WA Liberal Party Leader Lisa Harvey has been a vocal critic of the interstate travel restrictions and has called on the WA Premier to take them down.

“We’re talking about our economy being impacted every day,” Ms Harvey said.

“Families losing their businesses, families who are going to lose their houses because of the lack of customers for their businesses.”

Federal Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham has also urged states like WA to relax restrictions now the COVID-19 curve has been flattened.

But WA Premier Mark McGowan is holding firm on the hard border stance.

Instead, the State Government launched a $2 million tourism campaign this week titled ‘Wander out Yonder’ to encourage Western Australians to holiday in WA and boost the local tourism sector.

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Hikers return to Knoll

WESTERN Australians from across the state ascended on a rebuilt Bluff Knoll trail over the weekend as the iconic hike opened up to the public for the first time in nearly five months.

When bushfires savaged the Stirling Ranges throughout the Christmas and New Year period, nearby walking trails, which attract thousands of visitors every year, were left devastated.

With almost the entire 3km track at Bluff Knoll needing a rebuild, contractors and staff from Parks and Wildlife Service at the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) have spent four months working to repair the extensive damage.

Taking the opportunity to re-design the popular track, DBCA have made improvements to the trail to make it easier to climb and more family friendly.

With Bluff Knoll’s peak 1098m above sea level, more than 50 tonnes of materials had to be airlifted onto and off the mountain by helicopter.

Funding for the repair bill was paid through the Australian Heritage Grant and the rest of the balance was covered by the DBCA.

The revamped trail seems to be already paying dividends for Great Southern tourism.

On Saturday, the Bluff Knoll carpark was packed with visitors gearing themselves up for a steep ascent in picture-perfect conditions.

Perth couple Adam Stokes and Bianca Harding, who were down in Albany for the weekend, said it was an “amazing climb”, and they were pleasantly surprised by the amount of infrastructure that had been built into the trail.

As the Stirling Range’s biggest draw card, the reopening of Bluff Knoll is very welcoming news for local businesses who have been hit hard by the bushfires and then COVID-19.

Mt Trio Bush Camp and Caravan Park owner Margot Byrne said it just felt great to hear the business phone ringing again.

“The fires came through on December 26 and we had a few people at the very start of March and then that petered out with the pandemic,” she said.

“With the park being closed it has been really difficult. It has been a
very slow start to the year, that’s for sure.”

Ms Byrne never thought she would be so excited to see a caravan heading down her driveway.

“We’ve got people coming for the long weekend and we are looking forward to the snow season and wildflower season,” she said.

“The light at the end of the tunnel has arrived. It’s all positives ahead of us.”

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Tourists get a room

THIS coming long weekend is what many tourism and accommodation operators have been holding their breath for, but for some businesses the spike in customers might not be enough.

Non-essential travel restrictions between many of the state’s regions were lifted on May 18, prompting a surge in bookings for Great Southern accommodation providers.

Owner of Lilac’s Waterfront Villas and Cottages Joe Lembo said the phone rang for the first time in three months when the restrictions were lifted, where before the only contact they received was for cancellations.

“We’re fully booked this weekend we’re very pleased to say,” Mr Lembo said.

“It has been very quiet since the lockdown of course, so we’re very happy and relieved that the borders are open.”

Nigel Oakey, one of the creators behind Katanning’s Premier Mill Hotel, said ‘tough’ couldn’t begin to describe what the business had been through during lockdown, however is grateful to have customers back for this long weekend.

“We’re all booked up and it’s looking good,” Mr Oakey said.

“I think the positive momentum we built previous to the shutdown has made sure people haven’t forgotten us and they’re keen to get out and do something different.

“We’re looking forward to this weekend, but it’s about making sure this can be sustained after that.

“Obviously that’s going to be all related to future restrictions being eased and so forth.”

But not all businesses have received the same rush of bookings.

Albany Visitor Centre Coordinator Steve Williams said other restrictions have hampered the region’s potential.

“Bookings are about 30 per cent of what was received for this long weekend last year and feedback suggests many visitors are waiting for restrictions on museums to lift so attractions like the National Anzac Centre are open again before they commit to visiting Albany,” he said.

Owner of Dog Rock Motel Neville Buss said his business is still feeling the grip of COVID-19, with comparisons to last year showing how much of an impact the pandemic has had.

“It’s been very tough on all accommodation places and all around because of the restrictions on borders, once the borders opened we have become busier, but it’s nothing like it was pre-COVID,” Mr Buss said.

“[The bookings] were higher last year for sure, at least at this stage.”

Mr Buss encouraged people who are booking to try and keep the money they are putting into tourism within Australia.

“If anyone knows anyone coming, tell them to book direct,” he said.

“When people book with agencies online all of the commission goes out of Australia, whereas if they ring places directly, they’ll get a better deal and the money stays in Australia.”

Amazing South Coast Chief Executive Peter Grigg said while the effects of coronavirus restrictions have been deeply felt across the region, this long weekend shows hope for the future.

“Our air is pure, our water is crystal clear, if there is any place in Western Australia or even Australia to come and re-energise your soul after being locked up in your house after so many months, this is the best place to be,” he said.

“Whether it’s Denmark, Albany, Plantagenet, the Porongurups or Bremer Bay, people now have a bit of fresh air that they can get out into and enjoy.”

Mr Grigg said now is the time for businesses to take advantage of the visitors we will have. “The opportunity that we’ve got is to promote the region to three markets,” he said.

“Those that have never been, and what a great destination they will enjoy when they
get here, there are those that have been down 20 years ago and so much has changed in that time and that is the very reason that they need to come back, and the other big market is our relations.

“We haven’t seen our grandparents or our grandchildren for many months, and now we’ve got some friends and relations and family that can interact and socially engage, share a bottle of wine and share a meal, all outside of having a Zoom meeting or a FaceTime on the computer.”

While he emphasised the importance of people remaining cautious, Mr Grigg said he is excited to see people enjoying the gifts of our region once again.

“I think for us the opportunity now is the next four weeks, and hopefully everything goes well,” he said.

“The last thing we want is a resurgence of this.

“We do need to be cautious, but our message is that we’re open for business, the region is open for business, our operators are open for business, so please come back and we’ll make you most welcome.”

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Fast-track plea for radiation machine

ALBANY’S promised cancer radiation therapy machine is set to be operational by the second half of 2022 but local campaigners and politicians say it’s not good enough patients must continue to wait for lifesaving treatment close to home.

Currently, patients from the Great Southern requiring radiation must travel to Perth or Bunbury for treatment.

Campaigner Mary Williams, whose initial $15m fundraising fight for the machine in Albany began four years ago, was beside herself when the project was awarded $6.6m in Federal funding in September 2018 and $13.1m in State funding in March 2019.

But she is frustrated with what appears to her as a lack of trying on the State’s behalf to get the project underway.

“I am at a loss as to why we can’t fast-track this,” Ms Williams said.

“It’s the perfect time – we need to give our people jobs and this would create jobs.

“Our cancer patients are so vulnerable, particularly now … the anguish of our people when they have to travel for treatment … that’s when the depression sets in.”

Federal Member for O’Connor Rick Wilson echoed Ms William’s disbelief, describing the delay as “unacceptable”.

“On April 20, Premier Mark McGowan announced a list of major infrastructure projects to be fast-tracked, supporting jobs and boosting local economies,” he said.

“But perhaps the most imperative project for our region, one which will save lives, was left off that list – the Albany Radiation Machine Project.

“I’m calling on Premier McGowan to fast-track this vital project.”

State Health Minister Roger Cook said efforts to streamline the oncology project were in place now by concurrently completing the Project Definition Plan and Schematic Design processes ahead of procurement.

“However, this is a complex operation in biomedical engineering to create a specialised bunker for radiation equipment,” he said.

“The design and construction needs to protect the safety of patients and staff so they aren’t exposed to unnecessary radiation.

“We will work to ensure the project is completed to the appropriate level of efficacy and safety.”

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Workplace culture changed forever

AS THOUSANDS of WA workers dusted off their suit jackets this week and returned to the office for the first time in months, a business management expert is warning leaders to keep health and safety front of mind.

As part of the State Government’s economically-focused four phase plan to ease restrictions, Western Australians are now being encouraged to return to work unless unwell or vulnerable.

Professor Gary Martin, the CEO of the Australian Institute of Management in WA, said it would be tempting to bring all your workers back at once, but cautioned against an all-in approach.

“While bosses and workers alike might relish the opportunity to trade their comfortable couches for corporate cubicles, a return to the office brings with it new opportunities for the virus to spread,” he said.

“The reality is what happens back in your office could make the difference between relative safety and ongoing disruption and health issues arising from new viral outbreaks.

“Minimisation of virus transmission should therefore be at the very top of bosses’ to-do lists.”

Although managers had their hands full trying to keep staff employed and everything was moving at a rapid pace, Professor Martin said employees needed clear directions in an uncertain time.

“The bottom line is those bosses who fail to launch plans for a safe return to the office are likely to infect their workforce with a lack of confidence and respect in their leadership.

“And that is one virus no leader wants to catch.”

One of the defining trends of the 21st century workplace has been the open-plan office.

Dividers came down, designated ‘chill out’ zones sprouted out of nowhere and ‘hot seating’ became everyone’s new favourite term.

But the COVID crisis could spell the beginning of the end for the much-maligned open-plan layout.

While Australian workplaces won’t completely switch back to traditionally-styled offices, Professor Martin said there is no doubt they will change.

“For many, open-plan offices have always been a difficult idea to swallow,” he said.

“Critics suggested the work benefits were masked by the real underlying business case: to reduce overall floor space by wedging workers into a confined space to save money for the organisation.

“Some experts believe we are twice as likely to become sick in open-style working places than in more traditional offices that feature walls and barriers.”

Professor Martin said long gone are the days when you might be respected or considered brave for turning up to work with a fever.

“The new way of thinking is that you are crazy and so inconsiderate to come into work when you are sick, even if it’s gastro and nothing to do with coronavirus,” he said.

“There’s going to be a strong shift in culture because people will turn on someone if they go into workplaces unwell.”

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Current restaurant rules ‘no way viable’

WHILE customers are jumping for joy now that pubs and restaurants can open for dine-in service, business owners are bracing themselves for huge losses in the name of trying to help boost the local economy.

Six Degrees was one of a handful of Albany locales that reopened on Monday when some social distancing restrictions were eased.

Now, up to 20 people can be served in a dine-in capacity but it has come at a steep price for Six Degrees.

Owner Anton Davey spent $10,000 in five days to purchase laptops and other essential equipment to adhere to all strict requirements imposed by the State Government.

He also still requires approximately 11 staff to serve 20 customers along with takeaway orders – chefs, waitstaff, and the new administrative roles of recording patron details for COVID-19 tracing and monitoring the sanitiser station.

It’s a business model he says is “no way viable” but he’s prepared to take a loss for two weeks to help reignite the local industry.

“It’s like taking $100 bills and throwing them into the fire,” Mr Davey said.

“But we’ve all got to do our bit to help kickstart the town, we’ve got to get the ball rolling.”

Emma and Rohin Mitchell had lunch at Six Degrees on Tuesday and were happy to get out of the house and support the local economy.

“We’ve been looking forward to a decent pint and food we don’t have to cook,” Mr Mitchell said.

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Restrictions lifted for boarders

RESTRICTIONS likened to “prison” standards in residential boarding facilities were lifted last week in time for all students to return to now-compulsory school classes.

Last week the Weekender published a story on Great Southern boarding families refusing to send their children back to boarding school due to “unkind” home visit restrictions, and soon after Premier Mark McGowan and Education Minister Sue Ellery announced that all students could now return to boarding facilities and were allowed weekend home visits.

Previously, only Year 10, 11 and 12 students were allowed to return to enable boarding colleges to adhere to social distancing rules, and all home visits during term were prohibited.

Ms Ellery told the Weekender that all agricultural and residential colleges would be working directly with families regarding the return of students.

“Parents will not be able to enter the school sites to remain consistent with parents not entering school sites,” she said.

“However, residential college managers and agricultural college principals will continue to manage parent visit requests using their discretion.

“They will be able to accommodate requests for short-term contact visits, for example, to attend an appointment, go for a walk or catch up.

“In line with Australian Health Protection Principal Committee advice to reduce out of facility visits, students may only leave on the weekend, at the discretion of the principal or residential manager.”

Students who have medical advice stating they are unable to attend school will continue to be supported at home.

“Additional measures will be put in place to assist these students through the existing specialist unit, School of Special Educational Needs: Medical and Mental Health, with up to 20 additional teachers to provide learning support for these students,” Ms Ellery said.

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Boutique wineries left out

SEVERAL boutique wineries in the Great Southern are being battered by Phase 2 COVID-19 restrictions, which permits wineries to provide tastings only when the alcohol is accompanied by a meal.

These regulations, which came into effect from May 18, will mean that almost 30 per cent of Great Southern wineries are unable to provide tastings to potential buyers.

Owner of Duke’s Vineyard Duke Ranson said that the new regulations are devastating, as wineries who only offer the cellar door experience are unable to provide a meal in conjunction with the tasting.

“All the little producers in the Great Southern won’t have any wine sales until the restriction is lifted,” he said.

“We’re permitted to open, and we’ve been open, but we can’t do wine tastings, so we won’t sell wine.”

Despite being required to undergo new health and safety training, the winery is still barred by the regulations.

“It’s absolutely diabolical,” Mr Ranson said.

“I think the crazy part is that already we have to have all our staff trained in responsible service of alcohol, and they’ve also introduced a mandatory requirement that they all do a course in COVID awareness.

“So here we are, all trained, skilled, ready and not allowed to open the doors.

“We’re a major tourist attraction for the Great Southern as a group, and 80-something cellar doors in the Great Southern are all not permitted to do tastings, so it’s a huge effect on tourism.”

The upcoming long weekend has historically been an important event on the calendar for the Ranson’s, however this year’s red wine release will most likely go unsung.

“We have a long weekend coming up which is normally our release of red wines, and last year we sold $30,000 worth of red wine on that weekend,” Mr Ranson said.

“This year we’ll sell nothing.”

Member for Warren-Blackwood Terry Redman said visitors to the South West and Great Southern come for the experience of gourmet food and world-class wines, with many people travelling to explore smaller wineries, looking to discover boutique wines.

“Without the opportunity to provide tastings, small wineries will miss out on visitors and income, at the very time they need it the most,” Mr Redman said.

“Visiting a winery to buy wine, yet being banned from having a tasting, simply does not make sense.

“It appears to be an over-reaction when larger wineries with a restaurant are allowed to seat up to 20 people with wine and food.”

Mr Ranson said that while he was able to maintain his current staff, the challenges presented by the ongoing restrictions are detrimental to the family-owned business.

“It is hurting all the local industry,” he said.

“We’ve only got three staff and we’ve kept them on, but we’re battling.

“Life’s difficult and the consideration is unreasonable, we just find it baffling, puzzling and bloody annoying.”

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COVID clinic upgrade

ALBANY’s first and only drive-through COVID-19 testing clinic has been accredited by the Federal Government as an official Department of Health GP Respiratory Clinic.

Pioneer Health initially established its drive-through testing regime six weeks ago off its own back to enable people to be assessed for COVID-19 there, instead of at the hospital.

Now as an official respiratory clinic, it can cater for more patients per day, including ‘walk-through’ patients.

Dr James Turner, who heads the Albany Drive-Through Respiratory Clinic, said approximately 400 people had visited the facility over the past six weeks and nearly 300 people had been tested.

“So that’s about 16 people per day coming to visit,” he said.

“Now, we could cope with about 100 people per day if we needed to.”

To be tested at the clinic, people must call 9892 0480 or book online at pioneerhealth.com.au where they will be allocated a specific time slot for a test.

It is open from 9am to noon on weekdays and Dr Turner encouraged patients to take advantage of the free test and come in if they had any flu-like symptoms.

“During this phase of the COVID pandemic, it’s important that anyone with flu-like symptoms is tested to ensure that we identify outbreaks,” he said.

Symptoms include a fever or recent history of fever, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, runny nose or headache.

If the GP on shift deems a test appropriate for a patient, it is conducted via PCR swab and results are received after 48 hours.

A follow-up consultation can be undertaken with the patient’s own GP, regardless of whether that GP is located at Pioneer Health.

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