How to fix Australia’s quarantine system
Published in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 February 2021
Australia’s border closure was one of the Morrison government’s finest moments in responding to the pandemic. Tight border controls have so far given Australia the best of both worlds: little community transmission and a domestic economy largely unencumbered by COVID.
But Victoria’s latest lockdown, after yet another quarantine breach, is a painful reminder that despite our earlier victories, the war is far from over. And our biggest weakness remains a hotel quarantine system that demonstrably is not fit for purpose.
Over summer there were repeated quarantine breaches and lockdowns, in Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, and now Melbourne. Now, more-infectious COVID variants have emerged, and another winter looms.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has suggested only allowing international arrivals who qualify on compassionate grounds. But that would mean tens of thousands of Australians remaining stranded overseas, many desperate to return home.
We have to find a better way. Here’s how to fix our quarantine system once and for all.
The first step is to fix hotel quarantine. New knowledge about the new variants – especially how easy they are to transmit – means we need to upgrade management processes and protection of staff in all quarantine hotels to the standard seen in the ‘hot’ or ‘health’ hotels.
Quarantine for travellers from higher-risk countries should be moved out of hotels in our major cities. Hotels that lack adequate ventilation systems aren’t up to the task, given COVID can spread in aerosol form. And quarantining infectious arrivals in the middle of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Perth – home to nearly two thirds of Australians – puts those communities at unacceptable risk.
The costs of locking down a small regional town in the event of a quarantine breach are real, but they pale in comparison to shutting down Melbourne, home to 5 million people.
Regional military bases could be co-opted for quarantine. Health and other workers required to staff quarantine facilities could be recruited locally, or other hotels used to accommodate them, separate from the community. Workers would be compensated for the impost via higher wages, just as fly-in fly-out workers are today.
All staff, including guards, cleaners, and drivers transporting potentially infectious travellers from airports, must be fitted with appropriate PPE (personal protective equipment).
Establishing quarantine facilities in regional areas won’t come cheap. But not making the investment would be a case of penny wise and pound foolish. Avoiding even a single lockdown would justify their cost, let alone a third wave to rival that of Melbourne’s second wave last year.
With fewer quarantine breaches and fewer city-wide lockdowns, Australians would also become more confident to travel interstate. And chances are we’ll need these facilities for months or even years yet.
Whether the vaccines prevent transmission is not yet clear, and with COVID remaining endemic abroad, even more-infectious or vaccine-resistant variants could emerge.
Improving on hotel quarantine depends on more than just dollars and cents. It will require the federal government to live up to its constitutional responsibilities for quarantining.
Former senior bureaucrat Jane Halton’s review of quarantine provides a blueprint. It recommended the federal government establish national quarantine facilities ‘to be used for emergency situations, emergency evacuations, or urgent scalability’.
The federal government should continue to fund additional capacity at Howard Springs in the Northern Territory, look at other facilities elsewhere, and identify Commonwealth sites that could be used to boost quarantine capacity in regional areas.
The federal government should seek to get as many Australian citizens home as possible.
Doing so would mean Prime Minister Scott Morrison becoming at least partially accountable for further COVID outbreaks.
But that’s what national leadership in a pandemic is all about.