The Victorian government’s proposed new quarantine model has been praised by leading epidemiologists as “ticking all the boxes”.
Their positive feedback has provided some relief to Victorians, who emerged on Thursday morning from a snap five-day lockdown aimed at containing a virus leak from a quarantine hotel.
It comes as national debate flares over the safety of hotel quarantine, with the Queensland government proposing a 1000-bed facility in Toowoomba and the Northern Territory government negotiating plans to expand its Howard Springs facility near Darwin.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the coronavirus cluster at the Melbourne Airport Holiday Inn – which involves the virulent British B117 strain – stood at 19.
All of the cases are undergoing 14 days’ mandatory isolation and health authorities consider the outbreak under control.
Speaking to reporters this week, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said his government was “actively pursuing” the construction of a purpose-built quarantine facility to mitigate the risk of taking return travellers.
Officials are looking at building the standalone hubs near Melbourne and Avalon airports, away from the CBD.
Mr Andrews said the move had been endorsed by the state cabinet and the centre would probably largely replace the inner-city hotels.
“This is incredibly welcome news and it’s exactly what’s required,” said Professor Adrian Esterman, an epidemiologist at the University of South Australia.
“What the Victorian government is suggesting ticks all the boxes we’ve been talking about for ages.”
The main issues with Victoria’s current hotel quarantine system are poor ventilation and the hotels’ location in CBDs, he said.
This is where the new model kicks in.
“When you have the accommodation blocks, the ventilation is taken care of because they have windows that open and people can go out on their balcony to have fresh air,” Professor Esterman said.
“Having a breeze going through the place will disperse virus particles. They can even build filter equipment in there and air purifiers if they wanted.”
He said the proposal to build staff accommodation onsite for quarantine workers would also stop them “getting infected then carting it back to their families and into the community”.
Professor Esterman said his only recommendation would be moving the hubs to “even more remote areas”, though “Avalon is still extremely good”.
“It’s far enough away from city centres, so it poses far less of a risk,” he said.
Professor Marylouise McLaws, an infectious diseases expert at UNSW, agreed Victoria’s proposed upgrades were “very good news”.
“We’re going to have to use quarantine into the near future, and then for the next pandemic,” she said.
“It’s about time.”
Epidemiologists have been calling for better air flow in quarantine since June 5, she said.
That’s when the World Health Organisation published a report showing COVID-19 can be spread via airborne transmission.
Professor McLaws, a member of the WHO’s COVID-19 response team, said it was crucial that Australia kept out variants of concern, such as the new strains from the UK and South Africa.
That’s why Victoria’s lockdown “had to happen”, she said.
“This virus is a predator. We need to ensure that we don’t give our enemy any advantage,” Professor McLaws said.