New South Wales and Queensland are following Victoria’s lead by calling on the Morrison government to help fund their proposals for purpose-built quarantine hubs.
More than 358,500 returned travellers have passed through Australia’s hotel quarantine program since March last year.
During that time, there have been at least 21 leaks of the virus into the community, prompting lockdowns of varying degrees.
Although Prime Minister Scott Morrison maintains hotel quarantine system is “99.99 per cent effective” at protecting the community against COVID-19, more and more states and territories are saying they’re not good enough.
They want medical-grade quarantine hubs to do the heavy lifting instead.
On Sunday, Labor leader Anthony Albanese reiterated purpose-built quarantine facilities should have been up and running last year.
“This needs to be fixed now, not wait until after the next federal election, which will occur perhaps as late as May of next year,” he told Sky News’ Sunday Agenda program.
“We can’t afford to keep having these lockdowns.”
He pointed out building quarantine facilities was Labor policy.
Deputy Labor Leader Richard Marles told ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday: “We should be having fit-for-purpose facilities doing the bulk of the work”.
However, he refused to say if hotel quarantine should be scrapped altogether.
In last month’s budget, the government came under fire for providing no new funds for open-air quarantine facilities beyond an already announced expansion at Howard Springs.
The Morrison government last week pledged $200 million to help COVID-hit Victoria build a 500-bed quarantine facility in outer Melbourne.
TND understands the Commonwealth will meet capital costs, while the Victorian government will cover operational costs.
The announcement came in the same week Victoria was plunged into its fourth statewide lockdown in response to a growing coronavirus cluster in Melbourne’s north, stemming from a leak in hotel quarantine in South Australia.
The federal government reportedly favours Avalon as the ideal location for the facility because the Victorian government’s preferred Mickleham site already has an animal quarantine facility.
Victoria’s 14-day lockdown is due to end on Thursday.
New South Wales
Since the pandemic began, NSW has done the bulk of quarantining returned travellers, taking more than half of all arrivals since March last year.
Remarkably, it has experienced less lockdowns than any other Australian state.
But now, the NSW government is also putting up its hand for a quarantine facility to help shoulder the heavy load.
Speaking to reporters in Sydney on Sunday, NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet said a purpose-built hub would help alleviate pressure on the state’s hotel quarantine system.
“The federal government has said it will support these types of facilities in other states and we want to work to a proposal that makes sense and keeps our people safe,” Mr Perrottet told reporters.
The state takes about 3000 people into quarantine each week.
Queensland has also been asking for a slice of government funding for a custom-built hub.
But unlike Victoria, which developed an 80-page proposal that Mr Morrison said was “very good”, Queensland’s proposal is believed to have been scant on detail.
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told Queensland’s state Labor conference on Saturday the plan to construct a 1000-bed centre near Toowoomba was not rocket science.
“We are not proposing construction of an international space station,” she said.
“These are reasonably basic structures, but they can provide the safety and the certainty our country needs.”
However, TND understands the site near Wellcamp airport doesn’t meet federal expectations because it’s too far away from an international airport, and existing hotel quarantine venues.
The facility would be about 150 kilometres from Brisbane, and Canberra also considers it too far from a tertiary hospital.
Why hotel quarantine will never be virus-proof
Last month during senate estimates, chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly revealed there have been at least 21 cases of virus transmission from hotel quarantine since March 2020.
Of those, nine cases have leaked outside the hotel, and seven cases led to wider community spread (meaning it spread beyond the household of either the worker, or the person who was released from quarantine).
Four of those leaks into the community have occurred since February.
Each of those outbreaks involved a so-called “variant of concern”, such as the UK or Indian strain.
There are also some outbreaks, including the one in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, that aren’t included in that tally.
Although health officials believe it’s most likely linked to return travellers, the root cause was never definitively established.
About 3900 of all returned travellers have tested positive to COVID-19.