Sweeping changes are coming to hotel quarantine systems at the centre of the nation’s latest COVID outbreaks, with overhauls including new secure facilities, staff restrictions and tighter rules.
South Australian Premier Steven Marshall has announced his state will transfer infected travellers to special new medical premises under police guard, and ban hotel workers from second jobs, despite shrugging off calls for such rules only days ago.
Victoria’s Daniel Andrews has also unveiled similar rules to be enforced in his hotel quarantine system for returning travellers. It will resume on December 7 after being paused after it helped spark the state’s devastating second wave of COVID.
Premier Marshall announced on Wednesday that anyone who tests positive to the virus while in hotel quarantine will be transferred to a specialised medical facility – likely a private hospital.
Safeguards for employees will also be enacted to avoid leaks of the virus into the general community, following errors in SA’s quarantine procedures.
Police, not private guards, will provide security at that location, while all employees will be barred from working at other high-risk locations such as prisons or aged care centres. Workers will also be offered special hotels in Adelaide, so they don’t have to return to their homes.
“What we must do is put as many shields as possible between the virus and the community,” Mr Marshall said.
This comes after SA’s latest outbreak was triggered by a security guard at the Peppers Hotel contracting the virus from a returned traveller, and inadvertently spreading it in the community. It’s unclear how the guard caught the virus, but chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier stressed that analysis of CCTV footage from the hotel had found no breach of safety rules.
Mr Marshall said the state would conduct an inquiry into its quarantine failings, once the outbreak fears were squashed.
The rule changes are an abrupt backflip from the Premier. Just days ago, Mr Marshall said he was “disappointed” with calls from SA Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas to radically reshape the state’s quarantine, claiming the proposal “makes no sense”. Mr Malinauskas had suggested more restrictions on employees at hotels, and putting travellers in specialised facilities instead of city accommodation.
Those calls had been supported by leading epidemiologists and public health experts, including UNSW’s Bill Bowtell. He told The New Daily Australia’s systems needed improving.
Acting chief medical officer, Professor Paul Kelly, said last week that hotel quarantine was the “major risk now of reintroduction of COVID-19” into Australia.
More Australians than ever are returning, as airport arrival caps lift and more states take on more passengers. Victoria will resume hotel quarantine in December, after asking the federal government to stop planes landing in Melbourne during the second wave.
Mr Marshall has asked for international arrivals to be paused in SA for the foreseeable future. He also went further in his plans to change the quarantine system, saying he would ask national cabinet to consider testing all Australians returning from overseas before they were allowed to board their flights.
A negative test would be required before anyone was permitted to travel.
It’s unclear at this stage whether any other states would support this call at this week’s national cabinet meeting.
Victoria resumes quarantine
The Victorian Premier has also vowed to shake up his state’s hotel system, implementing restrictions to stem the virus’ ability to escape into the community.
“We’ll have an exclusive workforce. They can only work for us – they won’t have any second jobs,” Mr Andrews told the ABC on Wednesday.
“We may well have … some staff members who live at the actual hotel, a bit of a fly-in, fly-out type arrangement.”
Mr Andrews said health officials would “advance contact trace” the staff, to find out who they lived with and what those people did, to avoid cases of a hotel worker potentially bringing the virus home and infecting an aged care worker they lived with.
Victoria will welcome 160 returned travellers a day, about 1100 a week. The system will resume just weeks before the final report of the judicial inquiry into the state’s hotel quarantine is due on December 21.
The inquiry was told the program was responsible for more than 17,000 infections and 750 of Victoria’s 809 deaths.