NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said there is “no reason to change” the country’s hotel quarantine scheme, despite COVID infections surging overseas in places where more Australians are returning from, and warnings the system may be a potential chink in our armour.
Following another breach of hotel quarantine being blamed for the South Australian outbreak, that state’s opposition leader Peter Malinauskas called for a radical reform of how returning travellers are treated.
He proposed an “alternative model” where, instead of spending 14 days in a city hotel staffed by standard guards and workers, people should be quarantined in less populated areas inside specialised facilities with expert staff.
Here are my remarks from my press conference at 9:30 this morning, calling for medi hotels in their current format to end, until there is a safer solution. You may note that not once do I attack Steven Marshall.
— Peter Malinauskas (@PMalinauskasMP) November 22, 2020
Associate Professor Philip Russo, president of the Australasian College for Infection Prevention and Control and deputy chair of the federal government’s Infection Control Expert Group, told The Age newspaper that putting quarantining travellers in less-populated areas “makes logical sense”.
The calls comes just days after the nation’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, said hotel quarantine was the “major risk now of reintroduction of COVID-19” into Australia.
“When you think about what’s happening overseas, over 55 million cases now, enormous numbers in many countries and that is where Australians are coming back from,” Professor Kelly said.
The number of global infections is now nearly 59 million. More Australians than ever are now returning, as airport arrivals caps lift and more states take on more passenger loads. NSW is taking the largest share of the returning traveller load.
Asked whether Australia needed to rethink its hotel quarantine program in light of the breaches in Victoria and SA, Ms Berejiklian flatly rejected the claims.
“We’re always considering options but we don’t believe at this stage that is a safe option,” the Premier said of calls to move quarantining travellers to less populated areas.
“Given the quarantine system is working so well, we don’t want to jeopardise any of that … it’s important for us to stick to what we know works.”
Ms Berejiklian also said that NSW was currently taking in 3000 travellers a week, which was the “capacity” of the state’s quarantine system. She called for other states to “do their fair share” in hotel quarantine. It comes as Victoria prepares to resume accepting international travellers, after asking for that system to be paused during the months-long statewide lockdown.
SA Premier Steven Marshall said he was “disappointed” with the calls from his Labor counterpart Mr Malinauskas, saying it “makes no sense”.
“I think this is just a blatant attempt at pushing fear and division,” he alleged on Sunday.
The New Daily has contacted federal health minister Greg Hunt for comment.
Speaking to The New Daily at a Melbourne press conference, federal Labor’s shadow health minister Chris Bowen stopped short of endorsing Mr Malinauskas’ calls for a radical overhaul, but said hotel quarantine workers should be paid well enough that they didn’t need to work several jobs to make ends meet.
The same point was made by his colleague, Labor’s shadow employment minister Brendan O’Connor, who on Sunday said that “we should not have a situation where security guards for quarantine are in multiple workplaces.”
The debate about insecure work was reignited last week when it was revealed workers in Adelaide hotel quarantine had potentially spread the virus to their secondary employment at a pizza shop.
Unions have called for such workers to be given secure enough conditions that they don’t need to seek additional employment.
Mr Malinauskas claimed the model of using hotels with “subcontracted security and ancillary casual labour, is simply not safe”.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews on Monday unveiled a pilot scheme to provide paid sick leave for casual workers who wouldn’t otherwise get the benefit.
Mr Andrews said the pandemic had highlighted dangerous issues around insecure work, such as people feeling forced to attend work while sick, or to work in several jobs.
“Insecure work is toxic,” the Premier said.
“Insecure work isn’t just bad for those who work under those conditions, it’s bad for all of us and we pay a price for the fact that so many people – particularly those who work in public-facing jobs – do not have sick leave.”