As three fresh COVID infections are identified in Victoria the state is gearing up to lead a re-think of Australia’s hotel quarantine program in light of the UK strain of coronavirus, which now has its contact tracers in a frenzy.
The latest infections – two community transmissions and another identified in hotel quarantine – come amid the five-day “circuit-breaker” lockdown in response to an outbreak of the infectious variant at a Melbourne Airport quarantine hotel.
Premier Daniel Andrews on Saturday said he had asked his health experts to do a risk assessment of the “fast-moving” disease, which would form his position in a national discussion about hotel quarantine and when the long-awaited vaccine is rolled out.
Mr Andrews earlier said there needed to be a “cold, hard discussion” about reducing the number of travellers returning to Australia from overseas.
Chief medical officer Paul Kelly on Saturday said he and his state-based counterparts were constantly looking at quarantine protocols and safeguards.
He said the federal government could not ignore Australians stuck overseas for months on end, many of whom were already unable to secure flights home.
“The states and territories themselves at a national cabinet meeting very early on said it should be the states and territories – that is where the public health system is run; (they) have the various staff that are needed for this type of exercise,” Prof Kelly told reporters.
“(As to) whether we should be taking fewer people home … the Australian government does have a responsibility to Australians overseas and for those who are vulnerable and really desperate to come home, we need to factor that in.”
Victoria has paused all international passenger flights from Saturday, excluding those already in transit, until at least Thursday. The Victorian weekly cap of arrivals had been set to lift from 1210 to 1310 overseas arrivals.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week defended Australia’s state-led hotel quarantine program, arguing COVID-19 leaks – as have recently occurred in Sydney, Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide – were inevitable.
Prof Kelly said quarantine systems were complex but mostly effective.
“We have had a very small number of breaches but of course we can always learn from what happens,” he said. “That continuous quality improvement approach is what we are taking.”
The Melbourne outbreak can be traced back to a family of three who quarantined at the Holiday Inn, one of whom used a nebuliser device for his asthma, which is believed to have caused airborne virus transmission in the hotel.
Victoria’s quarantine authority has denied any medical staff knew about the nebuliser before it was used, despite the passenger himself telling media he declared the item.
The state currently has 14 cases linked to the Holiday Inn outbreak.
Ethnic communities targeted
Meanwhile, the federal government has pledged that its vaccine rollout will target diverse communities to ensure high vaccine take-up.
The vaccine program will have communications developed for culturally, ethnically, and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities. Information and services will be delivered in multiple languages and formats, and at appropriate locations, Health Minister Greg Hunt said in a statement on Sunday.
Medical workers administering the vaccines will be trained to work with people from CALD backgrounds to ensure services are delivered in a culturally safe way, Mr Hunt said.
NSW, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia on Saturday all reported no new local cases.
Victorian visitors to NSW are obliged to follow their home state’s “stay at home” orders. This does not apply to residents of NSW border communities unless they have visited Greater Melbourne.
NSW has strongly advised residents to avoid non-essential travel to Victoria.
Tasmania, Northern Territory, Queensland, WA and SA have closed their borders to Victorian travellers.