• John McDonnell

The Victorian lockdown shows need for purpose-built quarantine



Victoria’s acting premier, James Merlino, had no option but to impose a lockdown on the state. The number of Covid positive Victorians had increased from 5 to 26 in two days. Those 26 had more than 10,000 first and second-tier contacts.


The contact tracing and testing requirements are enormous and the risk of it spreading through the community is extremely high. Health authorities say that the incubation period for the 'Indian' strain of the disease is 24 hours.


At the time he announced the lockdown, Acting Premier Merlino was emphatic that the current wave of infection emanated from hotel quarantine in South Australia. He said that the medi-hotel where the infection was transmitted, was a facility that met the highest quarantine standards. He said that this demonstrated the need for purpose-built quarantine facilities where high-risk individuals who had variants of concern could be isolated.


The acting premier said that the Victorian quarantine facility was moving along expeditiously. He said that the commonwealth had given Victorian authorities access to land at Avalon so that a brief for the architects and builders could be finalised. Expressions of interest had been sought from companies who might be interested in building the facility.


At a press conference following the Merlino presser, prime minister Scott Morrison said that his government was working actively with the Victorians and he believed that it could be built faster than the current Victorian timelines predicted.


However, it is questionable how useful this facility will be in the short term. There are no commercial flights coming directly or indirectly from India at the present time. Howard Springs has now been extended and can now take 2,000 returning passengers. The prime minister indicated in question time on Thursday that returning DFAT flights from India will not fill the facility to capacity.


At the moment the high-risk returning Australians are going into Sydney and Darwin. It is unlikely that if anyone tested positive, they would be shifted interstate to go into the Victorian facility. On the other hand, Victoria could become an access point for high-risk returning Australians once a large proportion of its population has been vaccinated.


At the moment there is no suggestion that hotel quarantine should be dispensed with. In fact, state governments have suggested that there should be two tiers of quarantine for incoming passengers. High-risk passengers (those that have not been vaccinated and come from high-risk countries) will be sent to the purpose-built facility, while low-risk passengers such as fully vaccinated international students could be put in medi-hotels.


None of this settles the medical debate about how Covid19 is transmitted. Chief medical officer, Professor Paul Kelly, said that he believed a combination of factors was common to most hotel transmission: aerosol dispersal of the virus; human behaviour; and proximity to infectious people.


All of these are dealt with at the Howard Springs facility, but what is often overlooked is the fact that this facility has been managed until recently by the Australian Medical Assistance Team (Ausmat), which has extensive experience in managing quarantine facilities for diseases like Ebola. A question remains whether purpose-built facilities elsewhere will achieve these same high standards.