Experts have criticised the “cruel” decision to slash international arrivals as part of national cabinet’s new roadmap out of the pandemic, urging the federal government to reform the quarantine system instead.
By July 14, Australia will reduce its cap on international arrivals from 6000 passengers a week to 3000 in a move designed to take the pressure off the hotel quarantine system which is struggling with the new, highly transmissible Delta variant.
Both the Prime Minister and New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian stressed the reduction in caps would not necessarily stop more lockdowns.
But the move was a “prudent action” against the Delta variant, the PM said.
The roadmap will take Australia from the current situation of constant lockdowns to a ‘new normal’ where we can live with the virus just as we do the seasonal flu. But the PM refused to say when the nation would be in a position to move between each step.
While the plan is a good start, Burnet Institute epidemiologist Mike Toole said the glaring issue is the absence of any concrete timeline.
“It’s better than nothing, but it’s not what I would call a plan. There are no targets or indicators,” Professor Toole said.
“It demonstrates they are thinking about the future but it lacks a lot of things.”
Professor Toole said state and federal governments had missed the opportunity to actually fix the issues with hotel quarantine.
“I think it’s a real cop-out. Instead of fixing it, they’ll take the easy way out. Halving it is cruel for people who want to get back,” Professor Toole said.
“The systems are faulty. Queensland is the gold medalist in leaks. Five in the last fortnight is ludicrous.”
Professor Toole called on the federal government to implement a nationwide approach to hotel quarantine which all states and territories can abide by.
“The main things are ventilation, and making sure all frontline staff have the right masks. It’s not rocket science and it’s not expensive,” Professor Toole said.
“You just need to do it.”
How do we prevent more lockdowns?
This week 11 million Australians, nearly half the population, were plunged into some form of lockdown.
In response, both the Victorian and Queensland premiers pushed the national cabinet for a reduction in the number of Australians allowed back into the country.
Their argument was simple – with fewer people coming, there is less chance for the virus to enter with them.
Deakin University epidemiology chair Catherine Bennett said the number of outbreaks would fall as arrivals plunges, but they would not cease entirely.
“All you need is one error,” Professor Bennet said.
However, there is an opportunity to update hotel quarantine so it works into the future when travel numbers rise, she said.
“The hotels have to operate optimally, and we have to find the energy and resources to tighten it up,” Professor Bennett said.
“It’ll still be the backbone. It has to be done.”
Everything hinges on vaccines
Public health expert Bill Bowtell, an adjunct professor at the University of NSW, said the public needed a clear timeframe for when more of the population would be vaccinated.
“It’s good to have a plan but a plan without targets is just aspirational words,” Adjunct Professor Bowtell said.
“This is 18 months into the pandemic. When will people be vaccinated?
“We have to increase vaccination. We need commitments on when Pfizer will arrive because we don’t know at the moment.”