West Australian Premier Mark McGowan wants a temporary reduction in arrivals from India as hotel quarantine struggles to deal with increasing numbers of infected returning travellers.
Indian has become the new epicentre of the pandemic, with surging COVID-19 infection – including more than 300,000 diagnosed in the past 24 hours.
Mr McGowan’s call came as authorities investigated how two returned travellers contracted the virus while in hotel quarantine in Perth.
“We are very concerned about India and that’s why we have suggested a suspension, a reduction, in the number of people returning from India should be considered by national cabinet and I’ll raise that matter today,” he said.
NSW health authorities are investigating two similar outbreaks in Sydney hotels. On Thursday, that sparked a warning to other states, with people who had stayed in adjacent rooms returning to homes outside NSW, fuelling fears of a potential spread of the virus.
“We’re currently facing one of the most difficult periods of dealing with COVID-19 in our quarantine system since the height of the pandemic. Our system is under significant stress,” Mr McGowan said.
“We currently have nine hotels with more than 2000 overseas arrivals on any given day. It’s a major logistical challenge each and everyday. Unfortunately, we’re seeing more and more positive cases as the pandemic rages around the world.”
Mr McGowan said India was facing a severe third wave of the coronavirus.
“Just in WA, in the past month alone 40 per cent of cases in quarantine had recently been in India. In the previous month it was just 11 per cent,” he said earlier.
“With more and more arrivals coming from India, we need to seriously look at temporarily restricting travel of people who have been in or through India.”
COVID infections have also spiked among travellers returning from India to the Northern Territory. Chief Minister Michael Gunner said ahead of the national cabinet meeting that flights from India might need to be wound back to reduce pressure on the Howard Springs quarantine facility.
“There’s definitely a problem in India … our conversation with the Australian government is then about how do we practically handle that,” he told the ABC.
Health experts believe a new “double mutant” strain – dubbed B.1.617 – is likely to be behind the surge in cases on the subcontinent.
WA authorities are closely monitoring infections linked back to the strain, which has also been detected in other countries.
“Our thoughts are with our friends in India at this difficult time, as well as with our Western Australian Indian community,” Mr McGowan said.
“They are trying to put a stop to the third wave. However, in Australia we need to do everything we can to keep this double mutant variant away.”
An investigation is underway into how two returned travellers contracted the virus while in hotel quarantine.
WA Health had reported the infections as being acquired overseas, but genome sequencing has since confirmed transmission occurred at the Mercure Hotel Perth. Mr McGowan said the two families involved would complete their quarantine at the hotel, but it would take no more returned travellers.
“Unless people require hospitalisation, COVID-positive patients must remain in their place of isolation until they are cleared. This removes any unnecessary risk,” he said.
Eighteen other guests who stayed on the same sixth floor at the same time were previously released from the hotel after testing negative. They are being retested and directed to self-isolate until cleared.
Two people who were in rooms immediately adjacent to the infected people have been asked to self-quarantine for 14 days.
Nearly 50 other people – including hotel staff and security guards – are also being retested and asked to isolate.
Mr McGowan said authorities were still learning about the coronavirus, and how to minimise the risks of transmission.
“What is obvious is in this world of COVID, nothing is certain. We still don’t fully understand how the virus behaves,” he said.
“What has been tried and tested is our border controls. It is a key pillar in our defence against this virus and a protection measure, we won’t hesitate to use if we need to stop the virus.”
WA’s acting chief health officer has begun an investigation into how the transmission occurred.
“While similar transmission in hotels in other jurisdictions has not resulted in community transmission, the community must always remain vigilant,” the department said.