Billionaire businessmen and health experts are pushing for changes to Australia’s COVID-19 quarantine systems, and the Victorian government is already moving away from using hotels.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced on Tuesday morning that his government is “actively pursuing a purpose-built quarantine centre based on the Howard Springs model”.
This would be a cabin-style facility with open air that would reduce the risk of virus transmission among residents. He said Avalon and Melbourne airports were “stand-out” candidates to host the facility. Victorian officials will travel to the Northern Territory to inspect the successful Howard Springs facility, a former mining camp situated outside Darwin.
The Australian is reporting that Avalon airport, owned by Linfox’s Lindsay Fox, has been “negotiating with the commonwealth and the Victorian government to accommodate up to 1000 international arrivals”.
The airport, located in open space near Geelong, 55km from Melbourne, would build and manage a “temporary town” within walking distance of the main terminal. It could be operational within months.
Avalon Airport chief executive Justin Giddings said by emulating Howard Springs, with returnees cooking and cleaning during their 14-day stays, the risk of transmission of the coronavirus would be “remarkably lower”.
“There would be no need for anyone (outside the guest) to go into these rooms,” he said.
Queensland businessman John Wagner is backing a proposal to situate a quarantine facility next to Toowoomba’s Wellcamp Airport, which could accommodate up to 1000 returnees.
“The Wagner Corporation would build a dedicated quarantine facility to be operated by the Palaszczuk government and charge guests a capped fee. That fee would be paid by the Commonwealth, with guests expected to reimburse the government those costs,” Mr Wagner said.
The federal government is resisting calls to take a greater role in existing quarantine programs being run by the states.
“We’re not going to be running it,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said, insisting states are doing a good job, reports The Age.
Federal Labor argues that the international border is a federal responsibility and the government has “gone completely missing”.
Chief medical officer Paul Kelly has backed state-run quarantine despite ‘leaks’ from the system causing lockdowns, including the current five-day restrictions in Victoria.
“The states and territories themselves, actually, at a national cabinet meeting very early on, said that it should be the states and territories [running quarantine],” he said. “That’s where the public health system is run.”
Epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely has told ABC News the federal government should implement a “national auditor” for the nation’s hotel quarantine.
“I’m putting on the table an independent agency to audit and even accredit those facilities,” he said.
“Why aren’t we having an independent agency in Australia that goes round and routinely visits quarantine sites? Sees where the mistakes are, sees where the improvements can be and reports on it openly and transparently.
“That is something the federal government could lead.
“I’m also suggesting we need to flip the paradigm and rather than just say we’ll bring in 20,000 people per month, we actually work out how many facilities we’ve got of an adequate standard and bring in that number of people [that can be processed by those facilities].”
He says the system is not working “as well as we would like”.
“I think it’s hard to point a finger at anybody in particular. We’ve got hotels being used for quarantine, and that’s not what my textbook in public health medicine said prior to this epidemic,” he said.
“Normally what you would do [in a quarantine scenario], is you’d put people into small houses separated by natural air, somewhere out in the regional or rural area, i.e., what we do at Howard Springs.”
The former mining camp near Darwin has been hailed as an example of quarantine working better away from hotels and cities. The proposed expansion of Howard Springs from hosting 800 to as many as 3000 returnees has been postponed due to the cyclone season.
Professor Peter Collignon, a microbiologist and member of the government’s Infection Control Expert Group, believes proposals for remote facilities are misguided.
“Howard Springs is only 25km from a major airport with 200,000 people to service it,” he said.
He said few other regional locations would be able to support a quarantine site and the medical needs of those staying there.
The government has said quarantine facilities need proximity to airports, hospitals, quarantine workers, food supplies and other support services.
Prof. Collignon agrees that there should be a national standard for hotel quarantine.
“I’m of the view we need some ongoing, quality assurance of quarantine hotels and quarantining,” he said.
“It should be a co-operative venture, where you’re learning from each other,” he said.
“New South Wales could check on Victoria one week, Victoria could check on South Australia another week.”
A spokesperson for health minister Greg Hunt told the ABC’s PM program strengthened national guidance for state and territory health departments on hotel quarantine was under consideration.
“This guidance to states and territories is currently under development and is taking into account the available evidence including the anecdotal reports of transmission in quarantine hotels,” the spokesperson said.
“The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee reviews hotel quarantine across all jurisdictions on a weekly basis against the principles of shared learning and continuous improvement.”
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