The Morrison government should ditch hotel quarantine and fund purpose-built coronavirus quarantine facilities in every state, experts say.
On Friday, Victoria’s Acting Premier James Merlino announced the state had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Commonwealth for the new centre, which will likely hold 500 beds.
The quarantine facility will be similar to the Northern Territory’s Howard Springs site, which has not seen a single breach.
But public health expert Bill Bowtell, an adjunct professor at the University of NSW, said Australia needs purpose-built quarantine facilities in every state.
“We’re going to have to use these facilities for the foreseeable future, not just Howard Springs but near Melbourne and other capitals – they have to be close to the airport, they have to be close to a hospital,” Adjunct Professor Bowtell said
Hotel quarantine has outlived its emergency function – and is now putting Australians at risk, he said.
“If we are to return stranded Australians the quarantine has to be effective at scale and there can be no breaches,” Adjunct Professor Bowtell said.
The Victorian quarantine announcement comes as pressure mounts on both state and federal governments to either fix hotel quarantine issues or get more of the vaccine into people’s arms to avoid more lockdowns.
On Friday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that all Australians aged 40 to 49 would be able to get their COVID vaccinations from June 8.
The PM also brought in the Army to boost the troubled rollout, appointing Lieutenant General John Frewen to help oversee the vaccine program.
Mr Morrison told reporters the change would “give us the opportunity to step up another gear”.
Australia’s COVID vaccine rollout has been besieged by delays, forcing the government to abandon both targets it had set – the first of which was to have 4 million Australians fully vaccinated by the end of March, and the second guarantee that all willing adults would have a shot by the end of October.
Adjunct Professor Bowtell said it was time for the Morrison government to hand the rollout reins to the states.
“The people have faith in the states and territories. Let them take over supply and distribution of the vaccine,” he said.
“They should say to the feds, ‘You fund it, we’ll run it’.”
The PM’s Victorian deal has angered some members of the Queensland government, which had its own plan to build a quarantine camp near Toowoomba before the idea was shelved by the federal government.
On Friday, Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said her plan for the quarantine facility was not dead despite the Morrison government’s deal with Victoria.
“We’ve actually been speaking very regularly with Commonwealth officials. There’s a lot of negotiation still happening,” Ms Palaszczuk said.
“I can understand that the federal government wants to prioritise that facility, considering what Victoria is going through. We will continue to work with our regional quarantine facility, with the federal government.”
Corridors of contagion
Australian Medical Association vice-president Dr Chris Moy said more purpose-built facilities would be needed.
“We need to shift to quarantine facilities which are outside of towns, designed much more like Howard Springs, which uses the great outdoors and open-air to its advantage,” Dr Moy said.
“You don’t have enclosed corridors. Staff don’t work within closed spaces – those things have been key in transmitting the virus.”
Dr Moy acknowledged the cost of building the facilities, the challenge in staffing them, and the concerns around facilities providing adequate health care, but said “the AMA position’s is clear, the risk of outbreaks has become too great”.
He said Australia had to plan for COVID being with us into the foreseeable future.
“We don’t know what the world is going to be like,” Dr Moy said.
“We’re trying to outrun the changing variants with a combo of quarantine, testing, tracing and vaccines. But we have to plan for a landscape where it is still not safe to bring travellers in without quarantine.”