Public health experts have pleaded with the nation’s political leaders to find an urgent fix to the problems with hotel quarantine, while the Western Australian government calls on the commonwealth to repurpose immigration detention facilities and airbases.
The outbreak in Western Australia has again prompted frustration over the continued problems with transmission in hotel quarantine and the reluctance of the main federal advisory group, the Infection Control Expert Group, to better acknowledge the significance of airborne transmission in spreading Covid-19.
The Australian Medical Association and the Public Health Association of Australia have in recent days called for the ICEG to update its advice to reflect the importance of ventilation and airborne PPE, like N95 masks, in managing the risk during quarantine. They have also called for the upgrading of the quarantine system.
Several states have either built or are attempting to build purpose-built quarantine facilities, to avoid the dangers posed by poorly ventilated hotel quarantine systems. The Northern Territory government-operated Howard Springs facility maintains open air separation between quarantine rooms and has been praised as the “gold standard” for infection control.
Queensland has long been pushing for a similar facility at the Wellcamp airport near Toowoomba, which would be privately owned by the wealthy Wagner family. The state government’s negotiations with the commonwealth on the Wellcamp proposal have stalled, prompting frustration at the state level.
“We will continue to see more lockdowns in our capital cities unless we give due consideration to regional quarantine facilities,” Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said on Tuesday.
“This is absolutely critical, we are by no means out of the woods yet.”
Victoria is also pushing ahead with plans for a dedicated quarantine facility, modelled on Howard Springs, and is expected to announce the successful bidder soon, according to the Age, which also reported that government-owned land at Cherry Creek near Avalon airport is one option.
The WA premier, Mark McGowan, said on Tuesday there were numerous commonwealth-owned sites that could be used for quarantine, without the need for new facilities to be constructed. They were not being used, he said.
Speaking after the state recorded another four cases in hotel quarantine, McGowan nominated Curtin airbase and the Yongah Hill and Christmas Island immigration detention centres as examples of commonwealth-owned sites that could be used for quarantine.
“I would like a cooperative approach,” he said. “But the way it works at the moment is, the commonwealth says: ‘That is a state responsibility’, even if the constitution says it is theirs.”
He said immigration detainees could easily be moved to other facilities and asked the federal government to “use a bit more thought” to help find an urgent solution to quarantine problems.
“Frankly, to make all these things work requires a bit of work, and flexibility. And effort. Not just pushing back and saying no.”
The Public Health Association of Australia president Tarun Weeramanthri, who conducted the recent review of WA’s quarantine arrangements, said the single biggest risk in hotel quarantine was airborne transmission in poorly ventilated closed hotel environments.
Weeramanthri said this Friday’s national cabinet meeting was likely to be a “watershed” moment for the future of the quarantine system and urged for an end to the political blame game that has so far characterised the quarantine debate.
“If we don’t do it now we’ll be back here in one month, in three months, in six months,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
“As someone said, the best time to have started this conversation was probably six months ago. The next best time is now. We need to act and we need to do so for the good of the public in Australia, that’s why I’m speaking.”
The federal government has so far continued to resist calls to establish additional dedicated quarantine facilities. The health minister, Greg Hunt, on Monday described Australia’s current quarantine system as the “the best in the world”.
Hunt said 500,000 Australians had returned using hotel quarantine since March last year. The system had proven itself more than capable, he said.
“That’s why in a world of 800,000 cases a day, Australia has zero. Zero not just once or twice or three times, but 69 times already this year,” he said.
“So I think it is very important that we put into perspective we already have arguably the best and most effective system in the world.”