Howard Springs, Australia’s prize COVID quarantine facility, on Monday began a large shift in how it operates.
The facility, which a little over 12 months ago was an obscure and dormant mining camp on the outskirts of Darwin, has seen a lot of change since it first screened Australian coronavirus evacuees from Wuhan in February 2020.
A makeshift quarantine centre at the beginning of the pandemic, Howard Springs developed into what health experts have dubbed a “gold standard” purpose-built infection control facility, safely quarantining thousands of arrivals, including domestic travellers, overseas fruit pickers, international students and repatriated Australians.
The upcoming change in management, which started on Monday, will see the Commonwealth’s specialist Australian Medical Assistance Team (AUSMAT) begin to transfer operational control of the international quarantine program at Howard Springs over to NT health authorities.
It means many of the people at Howard Springs celebrated for keeping the Northern Territory free of community transmission and safe from COVID will slowly start to leave the building.
These are some of the questions the handover raises, and why it has many in the NT community concerned.
Why change a good thing?
The NT government has claimed it was the Commonwealth’s wish for it to take over the facility, while the Commonwealth has suggested it was the NT’s own initiative.
But while neither government has taken responsibility for the change, both support the move.
Chief Minister Michael Gunner has asserted the new management will offer a “clearer governance structure and clear certainty of who is accountable for what” inside Howard Springs.
Throughout the pandemic, NT Health has been managing the domestic section of the facility, where no cases of coronavirus have been recorded in people arriving in the NT from interstate.
The man in charge of AUSMAT, professor Len Notaras from the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre, has previously said AUSMAT was always going to hand control of the facility back to NT authorities when the time was right.
What exactly are people worried about?
A key concern raised over the Howard Springs handover has been a perceived step down in infection-management expertise inside the facility
This point was raised last week by the NT’s Australian Medical Association branch president, as well as the Opposition Leader, who said she had “grave concerns” the facility would become “staffed by under-qualified people”.
The other issue is understaffing.
On Monday, the NT government confirmed it had hired 160 staff out of the estimated 400 it needs to ultimately manage the facility itself.
NT Health Minister Natasha Fyles said recruitment was ongoing and “we’ve had hundreds of people apply for these positions”.
Ms Fyles also said the changes would be phased in.
“They (AUSMAT) will only leave the facility when they believe it is clinically safe to do so.”
The AMA said it was reassured by the phased-in approach.
The questions over staffing at Howard Springs come as the facility continues to ramp up its intake of returning Australian travellers from overseas, after the NT government agreed to expand its intake to 2000 per fortnight, up from 850.
“The increase in staff means that the facility will be equipped to accept an anticipated peak of around 1200 arrivals in May,” Ms Fyles said in a statement last week.
What is actually changing?
The NT government has released little information about what exactly will change in the facility’s operations once it assumes full control.
One thing that is known is that the handover will see the integration of quarantine operations for both international and domestic arrivals.
Giving an example of what this would mean, Ms Fyles last week said that integration would see domestic and international arrivals going “through the same processes and same physical infrastructure”, such as entries and exits, once they enter Howard Springs.
The other gradual change within the facility will be the slow exodus of AUSMAT staff as NT Health recruits and trains more people to safely manage quarantine operations. On Monday, Ms Fyles said some AUSMAT staff, including some in senior roles, would be part of the “new model”.
“People have put their hand up to come across to this new model,” she said.
Ms Fyles also stressed there was no “end date” for when other AUSMAT staff would leave the facility.
“AUSMAT are still on site and there is no end date for them to leave. They will remain there until it is felt that the Northern Territory facility can fully manage all of the repatriation flights,” she said.
Should the NT government be more concerned?
The NT government has staked its political reputation on its management of coronavirus, and has credited itself with making the Territory “the safest place in Australia” during the pandemic.
But in the face of constant scepticism over its ability to safely manage Howard Springs, the government has remained outwardly confident it is up to to the task.
“The Howard Springs Centre for National Resilience will remain the gold standard under the expansion and the clinical model will not change,” Ms Fyles said last week.
On his visit to Howard Springs last week, the Prime Minister also backed the NT government to safely manage Howard Springs – and an intake of repatriated Australians that will soon become 15 per cent of Australia’s total quota.
“We’ve worked carefully through these arrangements with the NT government,” Scott Morrison said.
“We wouldn’t have entered into those arrangements unless our expert advisors and our medical experts were comfortable with those arrangements. “