More than 30,000 homesick Australians are hoping upgrades to our hotel quarantine system will be their ticket home.
If these upgrades fail, we risk another outbreak of the coronavirus that may result in closed state borders and further delays, warns a leading infectious disease expert.
On Wednesday, sweeping changes to hotel quarantine in South Australia and Victoria were announced, including tighter security, advanced contact-tracing plans and new staff restrictions.
Victoria’s hotel quarantine program will resume on December 7, more than four months after it was suspended for its role in the state’s killer second wave of COVID-19.
International arrivals in Melbourne will initially be capped at 160 passengers a day or 1120 per week. They will increase Australia’s weekly cap to almost 8000 people.
For Aussies stuck overseas, the increased cap for returned travellers is welcome news.
In 2021, Australia’s prized status as a COVID-safe country will all depend on the quality of our hotel quarantine systems.
That’s according to Bill Bowtell, a strategic health policy adviser and Adjunct Professor at the University of NSW.
“We need to have permanent, properly trained, committed people looking after an expanded quarantine program,” he told The New Daily.
“Quarantine is now the critical measure. If it fails, we go back to local transmission outbreaks. The state borders will go back up again and the NZ-Australia border will be shut.”
Adjunct Professor Bowtell, who helped lead Australia’s response to the AIDS crisis, said he was pleased the changes in Victoria and SA meant quarantine hotel workers would no longer work multiple jobs and risk spreading the virus.
But he did not think introducing a ban was the right approach.
“Pay them well and pay them properly and they won’t need multiple jobs,” he said.
“This pandemic has really exposed the absurdity of the gig economy in health care. We had aged-care workers forced to work at two to three facilities just to put food on the table.”
These views have long been voiced by Professor Marylouise McLaws, an infectious diseases expert at the University of NSW and member of the WHO’s COVID-19 team.
“If we want to be successful with battling this pandemic, we need to start providing better employment,” she said.
“It’s a pattern we’ve seen around the world – not just in Australia.”
Meanwhile, the Victorian government is yet to announce whether it will use home quarantine for some returned travellers, as recommended by retired judge Jennifer Coate in her interim report into the state’s botched hotel program.
She has suggested using a mix of hotel and home quarantine, where international arrivals from low-risk countries could be monitored at home via smartphone technology like in Singapore or even ankle or wrist bracelets.
Adjunct Professor Bowtell said home quarantine was appropriate for travellers coming from New Zealand.
“I think we should – for these purposes – count New Zealand and Australia as one entity,” he said.
“But (in general) I don’t think we should go for this idea of, ‘Oh well, people can self isolate’. It worked dreadfully in the UK.”