Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan has demanded the federal government take over managing hotel quarantine, threatening to permanently throttle the number of international arrivals allowed through Perth unless Canberra offers more assistance.
Mr McGowan said late on Sunday the federal government had agreed for now to his plea to halve the number of returned travellers to 512 a week throughout May.
“If the Commonwealth is unable to assist with proper quarantine facilities, I am reluctant to return to the full 1025 per week cap,” he said.
“That weekly number of returning residents is not something that can continue long term without proper Commonwealth quarantine facilities being used.”
The latest escape of COVID-19 from hotel quarantine has reignited a long-running stand-off between the Morrison government and state and territory leaders, with Mr McGowan calling the current model “not sustainable” and appealing to other interstate leaders before the next national cabinet meeting on Friday.
“It is their responsibility,” a clearly frustrated Mr McGowan said of the Commonwealth as he also suggested Perth’s three-day lockdown – which is scheduled to end at midnight Monday – might have to be extended in some form.
“Section 51 of the constitution, the highest law in the land, says it is the Commonwealth’s responsibility … The simple reason the Commonwealth doesn’t want to do it is because it’s risk and it’s work and it’s hard.”
Mr McGowan criticised Canberra for allowing people to leave Australia to visit high-risk countries, and then return.
“I’m just not copping that – that people recently went to India and come back COVID positive,” he said.
“Then we have incidents like this occur, and then somehow the Commonwealth says that’s OK. It’s not OK.”
States want federal govt to run quarantine
The federal government decided in March 2020 to close the international border in the face of the pandemic, but quarantining arrivals has been left to the states.
They have periodically grumbled about bearing the cost and responsibility of quarantine, set up in commercial hotels not built for such purposes.
And although the system has been largely successful, leaks of COVID-19 into the wider community through workers or guests have led to growing calls for a system overhaul.
Health Minister Greg Hunt recently suggested quarantine might be here to stay, saying “if the whole country were vaccinated, you couldn’t just open the borders”.
His comments were interpreted to mean travel restrictions could be here for the long haul.
“It’s very frustrating. Hotel corridors are our international border, and there’s still no standard approach,” Professor Mike Toole, an epidemiologist at the Burnet Institute, told The New Daily.
“There’s a national approach to vaccination. Why can’t there be a national approach to hotel quarantine?
“At this moment, it’s even more important than vaccination, because if we keep the virus out, there’s not as much of a rush to roll out vaccines.”
Dutton blasts army quarantine idea
The basic question of where quarantine should be held is a key point of contention between state and federal leaders.
The states want purpose-built centres in regional areas away from populated areas to avoid city-wide lockdowns where there is a leak, as well as for remote defence bases to be repurposed.
But federal ministers believe the hotel system is a great success, and are cool on the idea of moving quarantine to smaller towns that they warn could be overrun by an outbreak.
On Sunday, Defence Minister Peter Dutton again hosed down calls to use army bases, calling them “not fit for purpose”.
“The accommodation is austere at our air bases. There is not the segregation of facilities, such as the mess, and where people need to come together for showers or toilets,” he told the ABC’s Insiders.
“Our air bases don’t hold thousands of people.”
Mr McGowan raised the prospect of using facilities such as the Christmas Island detention centre for returning arrivals, but Mr Dutton rubbished that idea.
“This has all been looked at,” he said.
“The Commonwealth doesn’t have the tens of thousands of police officers, or the health systems. The states run public hospital systems and that’s their responsibility.”
The Northern Territory’s Commonwealth-run Howard Springs facility has been cited as an example of how the federal government could provide more quarantine support.
But senior federal sources told The New Daily it was staffed by dozens of elite AusMAT medical and trauma teams, which would be “unrealistic” for the federal government to replicate in multiple sites in each state.
“[Hotel quarantine] has been effective. There have been some blips and we will work with Mark McGowan,” Mr Dutton said.
Calls for purpose-built quarantine
The federal opposition has long demanded dedicated quarantine centres, with shadow health minister Mark Butler calling for Canberra to “take the pressure off our CBD hotel system” and set up federal facilities.
A review of hotel quarantine by former health department secretary Jane Halton recommended a “national quarantine facility in reserve”, and suggested using military or immigration centres.
The Commonwealth has accepted Mr McGowan’s request to halve the weekly number of international arrivals into WA for the next month, from 1025 to 512.
Mr McGowan has threatened to keep the cap on unless the Commonwealth offers to “assist with quarantine”.
Mr McGowan has not outlined his exact plan.
“That weekly number of returning residents is not something that can continue long term without proper Commonwealth quarantine facilities,” he said.
University of NSW infectious disease expert Bill Bowtell told TND the current system was “not fit for the purpose we want it to perform”.
“The hotels were never built to be quarantine facilities,” he said.
“It has become apparent that no matter how well people think they’ve organised it, there are deficiencies.”
Mr Rudd tweeted in support of a “national network of quarantine centres outside cities”.
State and federal governments have considered dedicated facilities in areas like Avalon, outside Melbourne, and Toowoomba in Queensland, but those plans have gone off the boil.
The Victorian state government, meanwhile, is pushing ahead with its own plans.
Professor Toole said it was time for such dedicated facilities to be revived.
“I’m all for it. It would be perfect at Avalon,” he said.
“I’m not so happy about Toowoomba, because transferring guests there could be a high-risk exercise, but Avalon is an airport with loads of space to build a facility.”
Professor Toole called on the federal government to “throw all the resources needed” at building such accommodation.
“Don’t penny-pinch. The border isn’t the airstrip now, it’s the hotel corridor. This is where people are getting infected,” he said.
“Even if we get all quarantine staff vaccinated, there’s still risk. An Auckland airport worker got infected, even after two doses of vaccine.”