Push to overhaul hotel quarantine after virus outbreak

Victoria’s latest COVID-19 leak from hotel quarantine has ramped up calls to completely overhaul the system, with one expert warning the current system can’t be trusted to keep the community safe from future breaches.

Leading infectious disease expert Professor Lindsay Grayson said Premier Daniel Andrews’ current approach to hotel quarantine is “placing the rest of the country at risk”.

“It should be removed from the national quarantine program until proven safe,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Victoria recorded no new locally acquired COVID-19 infections on Wednesday, a positive sign that the state’s snap lockdown will end tonight.

On Tuesday, the state recorded two new cases of local transmission, which were linked to the Melbourne Airport Holiday Inn cluster though a private dining event in Coburg.

The total number of coronavirus cases linked to the Holiday Inn outbreak is now 19.

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During the hotel quarantine inquiry, which was established last year following Victoria’s deadly second wave, Prof Grayson was called on to give advice on how the system could be improved in order to avoid another wave of infections.

But now it seems many of those suggestions have yet to be introduced, he said.

“Why is it that there have been no breaches in those facilities that have been run by hospitals, versus what we’ve seen at [the Melbourne Airport] Holiday Inn?” he said.

One of the issues experts have raised is the lesser standards for those working in what in Victoria’s “cold” quarantine hotels, compared to the “hot” ones.

Returned travellers that are confirmed to have COVID-19 are housed in the “hot” hotels, with staff at these facilities required to wear an N95 mask and face shield when working with guests.

“The whole purpose of a quarantine program is that you treat everyone as though they’re positive until they’re proven to be negative, so the concept of ‘cold’ and ‘hot’ hotels is irrelevant” Prof Grayson said.

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) has joined the calls for Victoria’s quarantine system to be revamped, saying new highly infectious mutant strains of COVID-19 have “blown open the cracks” in the system.

AMA President Dr Omar Khorshid claimed the recent outbreak is likely due to airborne spread of the virus and criticised the government for continually playing down the risk of airborne transmission in these hotel settings.

“The AMA and much of the wider medical profession have been calling for better responses to the risk of airborne spread of COVID-19 for months,” he said.

“News regarding the Holiday Inn is more evidence that these calls should have been heeded earlier.

“The virus has now escaped hotel quarantine arrangements in most states and we are incredibly lucky to have not yet seen a mass outbreak of one of these new, more transmissible strains.”

Dr Khorshid said changes around airflow needed to be implemented in quarantine facilities and staff needed to have better PPE, including N95 masks and eye protection.

“If hotels cannot be made safe through PPE and other controls, alternatives must be found now that will allow some travel in and out of Australia while protecting all Australians from this virus, including the new strains,” he said.

“There have been too many hotel quarantine breaches, and lives are being put at risk. We need action now.”

Yesterday, Mr Andrews said Victoria was “actively pursuing” the construction of a purpose-built quarantine centre, potentially near Avalon or Melbourne airports.

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The facility will be a cabin-style, village-style environment, based on the Howard Springs model in the Northern Territory.

The Premier told reporters that a delegation will be sent to Howard Springs to see how the facility is set up.

“We are going to get on and build a facility,” he said.

“It’s just a matter of how big it is and the more precise details of where, but Avalon and Melbourne Airports are standout candidates and I’m very grateful to them for the partnership and work they’ve already done with us.”

He said the new purpose-built facility would serve to replace, although maybe not entirely, the work of inner city hotels.

“I think there is a compelling argument for this, not just in Melbourne, not just in the Northern Territory,” he said.

“I know the Queensland Government are working in partnership with the around a facility of similar structure.”

As the debate over hotel quarantine ramps up, Victorians are anxiously waiting to hear whether the state’s snap five-day lockdown will end tonight.

On Tuesday, Mr Andrews said the state was “well-placed to make changes” to restrictions, but said the next 24 hours would be “crucial” to deciding whether the lockdown will end tonight.

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