The first people to receive a COVID-19 vaccination in Australia will roll up their sleeves tomorrow, but the start of the rollout does not mark the end of hotel quarantine. Another 5000 international arrivals are due to land this week, mostly into Sydney.
Australia will likely segregate those arriving from overseas for years to come, to keep the community safe and the economy functioning. But as has become all too clear, hotel quarantine is not fail-safe. It is vulnerable to human error, to inadequate airflow and ventilation and to a virus that is mutating to become increasingly infectious, and almost certainly airborne.
Cleaners wearing protective equipment disinfect the Holiday Inn quarantine hotel at Melbourne Airport.Credit:Getty Images
There is growing concern about quarantining returning Australians in our biggest cities, where infection can spread quickly and an outbreak and lockdown can harm the national economy. The Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry believes the snap five-day lockdown in Victoria last week triggered by the Holiday Inn outbreak will likely cost the state more than $500 million.
While NSW has ruled out any move to regional quarantine, noting it has successfully accommodated 130,000 travellers in Sydney over the past year, with very few leaks, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews are pushing for the creation of purpose-built quarantine facilities in less populous areas like Avalon, near Geelong, or Toowoomba, 130 kilometres west of Brisbane.
These proposals have the advantage of being next to airports, minimising travel time to accommodation and the exposure risk along the way, and are fairly close to large hospitals for arrivals who need medical care. Such facilities would also accommodate workers on-site, reducing the risk of staff taking the virus home to their communities. Guests would have more fresh air, which helps limit the spread of COVID-19 and improves the mental health of those in quarantine. And the construction and operation of these facilities would create jobs, providing an economic boost to the regions that host them.
But moving quarantine into the regions carries significant risk and logistical challenges. The quarantine system requires a large workforce. Bringing a workforce of this size in and out of regional facilities and accommodating them would prove a challenge.
The NSW quarantine system also looks after up to 5500 people at a time, including up to 600 in special health accommodation. These people may have COVID-19 or be showing symptoms, but others have come home with chronic conditions like lung disease or diabetes and require medical help. Some have to be transferred to hospital for more intensive treatment. About 5000 Australians wanting to come home have been deemed vulnerable by DFAT and this includes those with financial difficulties or medical conditions.
We can hardly expect regional hospitals to shoulder this national health burden. Many are already inadequate and overstretched.
Regional Australia must also have a voice in this national conversation. Mayors feel as though they have been left out, which is both unfair and unwise, given they know best if their regions have the capacity and willingness to host a quarantine facility.
With 41,000 Australians still trying to get home, we need to be open to ways to expand and improve our quarantine system. The Victorian and Queensland governments are right to look towards regional Australia. But such facilities have their limitations, including their smaller size and fewer local services, meaning they can never replace the hotel quarantine system in our cities, they can only supplement it. So our hotels must be made as leakproof as possible.
The federal government has a larger role to play here. Setting and overseeing national standards for hotel quarantine would ensure best practice nationwide and reduce errors. And establishing Commonwealth-run facilities in suitable parts of regional Australia would help ease the burden on state governments, and get more Australians home. After all, COVID-19 has no regard for state borders: this is a national problem, not a state one.
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