We’re stuck with quarantine hotels. But can we fix the flaws?
Sydney seems to have done better. The list shows six violations in the NSW hotel quarantine but no community transmission. Unfortunately, no one can be sure the list is conclusive. The hotel quarantine could be the root of two of the state’s epidemics – northern beaches cluster in the summer and the man from the eastern suburbs who went shopping at Barbecues Galore.
Even so, the numbers suggest NSW has implemented a larger hotel quarantine system with fewer problems than other states. Of the 385,600 people who have gone through the system so far, NSW has quarantined about 168,600. That’s 44%. 100 of the total. And it has done so without a single statewide lockdown since the early months of the pandemic.
Victoria has so far quarantined 45,900 people in a hotel. It’s 12%. 100 of the total.
The pandemic makes it brutally simple to compare political leaders and their governments because the measurement of their performance is all in the numbers: violations, cases, deaths. Case by case, epidemic by epidemic, Victoria is doing less well.
Is the Victorian experience bad luck or bad management? Each lockdown makes it harder for the state government to blame the numbers on random factors.
Morrison, meanwhile, has denied his share of responsibility. The Prime Minister has maintained for weeks that the hotel quarantine is going smoothly with an efficiency rate of 99.99%, as if the remaining 0.01% is acceptable.
He stopped using that number in Parliament this week. Maybe he finally noticed the wrath of the Victorians.
The problem with 0.01% is that the breaches are small but the costs are enormous. Morrison is able to help with both glaring flaws. First, healthy people are quarantined in hotels and catch the virus there. Second, infected people come out of quarantine without being caught.
While Morrison and his ministers have been talking about the Howard Springs quarantine center expansion for more than six months, progress has been slow. The center, near Darwin, is still below its capacity of 2,000 places. Earlier this week, it had around 1,200 residents, according to locals.
The center is expected to be expanded to 3,000, the figure mentioned by former Health Secretary Jane Halton in her quarantine review, but it won’t get there under the federal plan. So it looks like a flagship of government complacency.
Why not build more centers, faster? In quarantine, as with vaccines, Morrison never plans any emergency. He stopped saying ‘this is not a race’ when talking about the vaccine rollout, but he stopped too late. He basically told voters he was in no rush.
Too sure of themselves, Morrison and his ministers believed they could blame the states and not do more themselves. It was clear when Defense Minister Peter Dutton rejected the Victorian proposal for a new center near Melbourne. It was only later that Morrison realized the need to help states build their capacity.
The Victorian project would become the model for a new approach: federal funding, state management, with Morrison now seeking to build as soon as possible. An agreement is so close that there is talk that it could be reached on Friday.
This is not a way to replace the hotel quarantine, but only to increase it. Morrison’s public remarks reflect his private belief that he thinks quarantine in hotels is a good system. The debate should be about how to change it, not about the junk.
An option ? Do it three weeks. The incubation period for COVID-19 can sometimes be longer than 14 days. Liberal MP Katie Allen, a pediatrician and MP for Higgins in Melbourne, made the point in parliament this week, although she did not plead for a three-week quarantine.
Many will not agree to a three week quarantine rule. Either way, longer stays could only increase the number of people catching the virus in the hotel. So, other options should be discussed, such as mandatory COVID-19 testing soon after a person leaves hotel quarantine.
The other step must be better contact tracing. What if the Wollert man had been tested earlier and better followed?
There is a remote but guaranteed probability that some of those coming out of two weeks of hotel quarantine will have COVID-19. That may not have happened in Howard Springs yet, but it seems dangerous to assume it won’t.
There is no easy alternative to hotel quarantine and its ‘coronavirus distribution centers’, unless it is to deny Australians who want to return home, to prevent international students come in and slam the door on other essential travelers.
A fix therefore needs to be found, and it cannot be found only in Canberra. Like it or not, we have to live with the hotel quarantine. State and territory leaders must do their part to make this work better.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent.