Victoria will resume accepting international flights from 8 April, despite its plans to build a standalone quarantine facility expected to take at least six months to complete.
The government will in the meantime relaunch its hotel quarantine program with additional security precautions aimed at combatting highly contagious variants.
In a fortnight the state will start accepting 800 international passengers a week and will scale up to 1,120 per week by mid-April as the government completes ventilation reviews and upgrades to hotel quarantine locations.
Around 93% of hotel quarantine worker in Victoria have now received the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, with the administration of second doses under way. A spokeswoman for the premier told Guardian Australia that only those who have had the first dose of vaccine will work in “red zones” with face-to-face interaction with travellers.
Testing for guests will also be ramped up from two to four times during their stay, with follow-up tests recommended after they leave.
In early February, premier Daniel Andrews announced all international flights landing in Melbourne would be paused after an outbreak of the UK variant of Covid-19 at a hotel quarantine facility threw the state into a snap five-day hard lockdown.
Although this outbreak was successfully contained, flights did not resume after the lockdown ended and the premier pledged to build a purpose-built quarantine facility, suggesting Avalon or Tullamarine airports as possible locations.
The acting premier, James Merlino, said on Thursday that the government had not given up on building a purpose-built quarantine village in the style of Howard Springs in the Northern Territory.
Merlino said there was a shortlist of 10 potential locations for the facility.
“A business case to narrow this to one location is expected by the end of this month,” he said.
The government made the decision to resume hotel quarantine in the mean time as planning and construction for the purpose built facility is expected to take at least six months.
“It’s about time. You have got to locate the site, do the business case, make a decision and then construct it,” he said.
“And then, how you construct it? Whether it’s a fully permanent facility, or whether it’s designed and constructed in a way, for example, that you can pick up some of those buildings and go around … a major bushfire or a flood, where you need to deliver some of that accommodation.”
Merlino said he would also ask the Morrison government to consider allowing returned travellers to quarantine at their homes if they were vaccinated and deemed low risk.
Asked if this would render the proposed newly-built village-style quarantine facility unnecessary, Merlino said it would be a multi-use facility.
“That goes to my point that we need to be smart in terms of the decisions we make, and what we’ll ultimately build, and that is a facility that will deal with an epidemic or pandemic in the future, but also other crises – bushfires, floods – where we need to provide accommodation and support for our citizens.”
The state government has also released its response to the final report from the hotel quarantine board of inquiry.
Of the 81 recommendations, 49 have been implemented, four have been implemented in part, eight have been committed to and 20 will be referred to the national cabinet.
The government has developed a Victorian standard for ventilation in quarantine facilities, which includes ensuring the air pressure in hallways and room are equalised so viral particles can not be sucked into communal spaces.
Ventilation reviews and upgrades have been completed in three hotels so far, with two more partially operational. Eight more locations are expected to become operational in April.
PPE requirements will now be standardised across all facilities to ensure that workers at regular hotel quarantine facilities, where travellers have so far tested negative, are donning the same level of PPE as those working at “health and complex care” hotels where positive patients are housed. This will include increased use of N95 masks.
The previous outbreak, at the Melbourne Airport Holiday Inn hotel, was in a regular facility.
This renewed focus on ventilation marks a significant shift from the government’s previous public statements about the outbreak. When the state went into lockdown Andrews repeatedly claimed that infections were caused by the unregulated use of a nebuliser machine by an infected guest and not because of inadequate ventilation within the hotel.
But on Thursday, deputy chief health officer Prof Allen Cheng conceded it was a mix of factors.
“I think there’s more than one thing… I don’t think we can say that if a nebuliser had been used in a different room that the outcome would have been different,” he said.
“There’s not really a smoking gun, no one’s saying there’s one thing that’s the issue. It’s about putting layers of protection.”