The first flights carrying returning international travellers have landed in Melbourne as Victoria restarts its coronavirus hotel quarantine program.
SriLankan Airlines flight UL604 from Colombo landed just before 8am on Monday (local time).
It was the first of eight international passenger flights carrying 253 travellers due to touch down in Melbourne on Monday. It was followed by Singapore Airlines flight SQ237 at 10.30am
The flights marked the resumption of Victoria’s hotel quarantine program for returning Australian citizens and permanent residents.
Victoria stopped taking international flights at the end of June, when it was revealed hotel quarantine workers had contracted COVID-19 from guests. The outbreaks sparked the state’s second wave, which resulted in more than 18,000 infections and 800 deaths.
Under the revamped program, passengers arriving in Melbourne are processed within the airport’s security zone, and then escorted back out onto the tarmac to waiting buses to be transferred to their hotels. They do not go into the airport’s public arrivals areas at all.
“This is something that we have been testing and trying for now, well, it’s been around well before [Victoria’s] second lockdown. We have made sure that every single part of this process is absolutely infallible,” Melbourne Airport’s chief of aviation Shane O’Hare said.
Victoria Police will take the lead in enforcing the state’s new-look hotel quarantine program, with support from the Australian Defence Force.
Eleven airport and CBD hotels will participate, including the Stamford Plaza, one of two hotels where outbreaks occurred in June.
Hotel guests will have to pay about $3500 for their 14-day stay, while fresh-air and exercise breaks will be banned to prevent movement inside hotels.
The ABC reported passengers were expected to arrive at one of the “hot hotels” – the Pan Pacific – from about 11am. They will be greeted by police and escorted through a cordoned-off walkway into the hotel.
Additional flights from other destinations will bring home more returning travellers throughout Monday.
Other international arrivals into Melbourne on Monday included freight flights, and planes from New Zealand. Travellers who arrive in Australia from New Zealand are exempt from hotel quarantine.
The resumption of passenger arrivals from further afield came as Victoria posted its 38th consecutive day free of new COVID infections and fatalities.
NSW also had another day without community transmission of the virus. It had four new infections among people in hotel quarantine.
International flights will also return to Adelaide on Tuesday.
The return of Victoria and South Australia to the hotel quarantine program will increase to 6700 the weekly cap on stranded Australians returning home from overseas.
The states have not been deterred by a German-Australian mother and son skipping hotel quarantine in Sydney and flying straight onto Melbourne.
But Trade and Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham was disappointed by the weekend breach.
“It is a reminder the relentless task of bringing thousands of returning Australians home each and every week, as we continue to do, working with the states and territories, is a real challenge,” he told the ABC on Monday.
“It is the greatest area of potential vulnerability in terms of COVID spreading into the community.
“I’s why there needs to be continuous work to make sure that all of the systems and checks and balances are in place to be able to do that safely.”
NSW Police has taken the blame for the breach. The German pair became the first occupants of Victoria’s revamped hotel quarantine program when their arrival in Melbourne was detected on Saturday.
Nearly 200 people who were on their Virgin Australia flight from Sydney remain in isolation. That is likely to be lifted if the Germans return further negative COVID tests on Monday.
Mr O’Hare said a similar breach of quarantine protocols would be “pretty well impossible” in Melbourne because of the way incoming travellers are being processed.
“The good thing here is that the NSW Police have declared that they recognised the breakthrough of the system in Sydney,” he told the ABC.
“I think it is a great credit to the way that this has been managed in Melbourne – the observation, the vigilance, the surveillance goes on quite naturally in Melbourne for all inbound travellers, and domestic travellers. The way that was handled, it has been great.”
Tasmania has also joined the national quarantine effort with a repatriation flight from India landing in Hobart.