Three Garuda Indonesia pilots took an Uber from Melbourne Airport to a local hotel immediately after arriving on a flight from Jakarta, potentially risking the health of Victorians as they travelled outside official channels to hotel quarantine.
The pilots arrived in early December soon after Victoria had rebooted its hotel quarantine program.
Under the state’s quarantine arrangements, international arrivals are supposed to be shuttled directly from the plane to a bus operated by the Australian Defence Force, which should then take them to their hotel.
But the rules for airline crew have always been more relaxed and new state regulations were introduced on December 23.
The Uber driver who picked up the pilots told The New Daily he sounded the alarm with the Victorian government after he realised the pilots had come directly from overseas.
He said a local Garuda employee told him the pilots had flown a plane with no passengers and had tested negative for COVID-19 before leaving Indonesia. (Daily case numbers in the country are close to record highs and total deaths have surpassed 20,000.)
But he said the Garuda employee, who booked the Uber, also told him the pilots had to go into hotel quarantine after touching down in Australia.
The Uber driver, who did not wish to be named, said it felt as though the state government was leaving the airline crew to their own devices and “just relying on them to follow the rules”.
“It seemed really strange,” he said.
The New Daily asked Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services why the pilots were allowed to take an Uber to the hotel – instead of ADF-controlled buses – but they did not respond to specific questions related to the incident.
Instead, a department spokesperson told The New Daily that “airline crews and technicians employed by international carriers who transit through Melbourne are now required by law to enter mandatory quarantine”.
“We’ve taken this approach as an additional precaution to help reduce the risk of airline staff inadvertently bringing the virus back to Australia from overseas,” they said.
“These measures are consistent with practices already in place in other jurisdictions, including in New South Wales and Queensland.”
The New Daily understands that new state quarantine regulations for airline crews and technicians employed by international carriers came into effect at noon on Wednesday, December 23. (Guidelines from the federal government still say airline crew can be exempt from quarantine.)
Before the new regulations came into effect, international airline crew were supposed to travel to hotel quarantine via private transportation.
The New Daily asked DHHS whether ride-share companies like Uber were defined as private transportation, but the department did not respond before deadline.
NSW Health regulations list private cars (including hire vehicles) as appropriate forms of transport for quarantine-bound airline crew but state that taxis and ride-share companies should not be used.
From now onwards, DDHS has committed to accompanying all international crews to and from the airport and their designated hotel.
Under the new regulations, staff of international carriers will be tested for coronavirus on arrival at their hotel and will be free to depart on their next flight after receiving a negative result.
The latest revelations come at a time of heightened scrutiny into how state governments are managing hotel quarantine arrangements for international airline crew.
The latest COVID-19 outbreak in NSW was previously linked to a crew member who failed to isolate properly while transiting in Sydney.
The NSW government said from December 22 it would enforce stricter quarantine arrangements for airline crew, after months of allowing them to self-isolate in 26 unsupervised hotels of their choosing.
Crews must now isolate in one of two hotels supervised by police and NSW Health.
The major policy shift came one week after ABC’s 7.30 revealed that NSW police had fined airline crew from South America for breaching self-isolation rules.
Federal chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly told reporters on Sunday, however, that Australia’s quarantine arrangements for airline crew had held up well until recent weeks.
He said they were designed to ensure employees “have some sort of normality in their life”.
“We’ve found them to be very, very good, certainly the local [airlines],” Professor Kelly said.
“In terms of other airlines from outside Australia, they’re often here only for two, maximum three days, and they have been in hotel quarantine, but not in the very strict manner as has been the case for other arrivals.
“But, again, we haven’t had any evidence that that has led, other than the last couple weeks, to any cases in the community.”
The New Daily approached Garuda Indonesia for comment but did not receive a response before deadline.
CORRECTION, DECEMBER 24, 2020: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the federal government had introduced new national quarantine regulations for airline crew effective from 12pm on December 23. They were in fact specific to Victoria and introduced by the state government, though NSW and QLD has similar measures in place.