More than $50 million has been spent by the NSW government to house thousands of returning travellers in hotels since the coronavirus travel ban was enforced.
Figures obtained from the NSW government by the ABC show 25,188 people have been placed in quarantine accommodation in the state since late March, with costs rising above previous estimates of $16 million.
But an agreement already reached between the states and territories will likely see some of those funds recouped from other jurisdictions for interstate residents who stayed in Sydney hotels.
The NSW government expects to claw back at least $17.5 million from other states, once each jurisdiction claims costs for their own residents.
Last month, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the government had “no regrets” about footing the initial charges.
“It’s a cost we are taking on board because it is keeping the community safe,” she said.
“The state has been bearing the cost even though border protection isn’t our responsibility.
“It’s something we’ve done to keep our citizens safe.”
International flights into Australia are now few and far between.
Virgin has ceased its international passenger operations until further notice, with Qantas only operating a small number of flights to New Zealand.
Between March and June, more than 81,000 passengers arrived into Australia by air, including more than 39,000 who flew directly into NSW.
As the number of flights was dramatically reduced, only about 10,400 people flew into the country in the first 10 days of June – 4700 of whom came through NSW.
Epidemiologist calls for long-term solution
A leading epidemiologist says Australia should reconsider a long-term quarantine option, similar to the facilities on Christmas Island.
A purpose-built quarantine facility could offer greater protection to the community and more space compared to a hotel room, Mary-Louise McLaws from the University of New South Wales said.
“There needs to be a safe place for both the staff and returned travellers where it’s set up for this,” Professor McLaws said.
“We’re not seeing the end of this pandemic and, as our authorities have reminded us very clearly, they’re not aiming for zero – but they’re aiming for controlled sustained low level of community infection.
“The biggest risk we have, from our statistics, are our returned travellers, so there is potential for a purpose-built central quarantine for all returned travellers that relieves the major burden from two states.”
Professor McLaws said a purpose-built quarantine station might be needed for future arrivals to prevent outbreaks at quarantine hotels, as was seen in Melbourne.
“It may be safer for the general community to have them placed somewhere where it is comfortable, have greater space for recreation but also less risk to the general community via workers,” she said.
“If you’re going to do that, then you also need experts in infection control to be there to also ensure that the staff that are managing that hospitality are doing it safely.”
She said the travel ban could have been implemented sooner but it ultimately helped prevent thousands of deaths.
“I hate to think about it because if we hadn’t put in the travel ban then at that stage … we could be in a position like Sweden, for example, that has close to 4700 deaths,” she said.