Australians could quarantine at home for as little as a week when returning from overseas, a leading epidemiologist has suggested, once vaccination rates hit the 80 per cent target on the nation’s reopening plan.
Scott Morrison and Gladys Berejiklian are encouraging other state leaders to embrace the potential to wind back reliance on hotel quarantine, and are sweating on results from a home trial in South Australia.
Mary-Louise McLaws, an epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales, said the option could be a “generous” incentive for people to get the jab.
“I’m really pleased they’re starting to think about it,” Professor McLaws told The New Daily.
“It has to be done, but done carefully.”
Despite growing numbers of COVID cases, stubborn outbreaks and crushing lockdowns in NSW and Victoria, booming vaccination rates are giving reason for hope that easing of restrictions may not be far away.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has talked up hopes that her state would quickly allow international travel once 80 per cent adult vaccination rates are met, saying she hoped that would mean many Australians currently stranded overseas due to caps on international arrivals could be home by Christmas.
On Wednesday, Ms Berejiklian said she’d welcome a “different quarantine system” which was “less reliant” on health and police resources.
The national cabinet’s reopening plan sets out that Phase B at 70 per cent adult vaccination rates would include lifting inbound passenger caps and “new reduced quarantine arrangements for vaccinated residents”.
Phase C, at 80 per cent, includes abolishing arrivals caps and lifting restrictions on outbound travel for vaccinated Australians and opening travel to “safe countries”.
International travel set to return but questions remain
With those vaccine rates expected by year’s end, Qantas hopes to begin overseas flights by December, while Virgin is also working toward recommencing travel and encouraging Australia to “test and learn”.
But as TND reported last week, the travel industry is adamant that these also must come with reduced quarantine arrangements for vaccinated arrivals.
There are fears tourists or businesspeople wouldn’t see travel as an attractive option if they needed to keep doing two weeks’ mandatory hotel quarantine upon arrival in Australia.
Mandatory 14 days of hotel quarantine for all arrivals has been one of the key pillars of Australia’s strategy to repel COVID, but the system has experienced dozens of leaks and led to numerous outbreaks and lockdowns.
The federal Opposition has turned this into a key attack on the Coalition government, hammering Mr Morrison for not moving faster toward purpose-built quarantine facilities instead of relying on retro-fitted hotels.
Home quarantine’s role in reopening
Dedicated quarantine units are being built in Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia, but South Australia is also currently running trials of home quarantine.
The pilot scheme of about 50 people requires them to isolate at home, and use an app to verify their location at random intervals.
Professor McLaws said she saw home quarantine as an essential part of Australia’s future with COVID.
She welcomed the home trials, noting that numerous healthy people had actually contracted COVID inside hotel quarantine due to poor ventilation and infection management.
“I like the idea. It reduces the risk to people of acquiring the virus while under the same roof in a hotel, which has great merit, but it needs to be done safely,” she said.
PM backs home quarantine
Mr Morrison told Adelaide’s 5AA radio on Tuesday the SA trial would be “the model for the rest of the country”, painting it as necessary to bring more Australians home from overseas and allow international travel.
“That means you’ll be able to travel overseas once you get over 80 per cent and you’ll be able to return,” he said.
“That means we’ll be able to bring more people home from overseas. It also means students will start to be able to return.”
In Parliament on Wednesday, the PM called the South Australian trial “the most important challenge for quarantine right now”, and challenged other states to get behind it.
“Home quarantine is what is going to release Australians out of the lockouts, out of the lockdowns, and to ensure that safely, Australia can live with this virus,” Mr Morrison said.
Rapid antigen testing, GPS bracelets
Professor McLaws recommended arrivals be given rapid antigen testing (RAT) “the moment they arrive”, and then every two days in quarantine, and given GPS bracelets to ensure they don’t leave home.
She also suggested the quarantine period could be shortened – from the current two weeks, to potentially as little as 10 or seven days.
Professor McLaws said the Delta variant’s shorter incubation period meant it may not be necessary to quarantine people for as long, if combined with regular rapid testing.
“Two weeks’ quarantine came from outbreak management being based on two average incubation periods. The average [for earlier strains of COVID] was 6.5 days, so two periods was 14 days,” she said.
“But Delta is about two days shorter, so five days incubation. People might not even need to be in isolation for 10 days if they’re fully vaccinated. With testing every few days, quarantine could be seven days.”
Australia pivots to ‘reduced risk’ COVID approach
Professor McLaws said that with Australian potentially moving from an eradication or elimination approach to a less-stringent suppression approach, governments could look to slightly more relaxed measures once vaccination rates hit 80 per cent and borders open.
“We’re not looking at eradication any more. We’re going for reduced risk,” she said.
South Australia’s home quarantine trial involves a specially designed app, including features like “live face check-ins” to confirm a person is where they are required to stay, personalised testing schedules, daily symptom checks and health support resources.
The trial still requires people to quarantine for 14 days, the same as a hotel.
If they report symptoms, they will be checked by health staff; if they miss check-ins or break rules, they would be checked by police.
SA Premier Steven Marshall said in August it would be “implausible” for hotel quarantine to remain the only option for arrivals.