COVID-19 and future quarantine arrangements - Federal Council Communique

18 May 2021

FEDERAL COUNCIL COMMUNIQUE

COVID-19 AND FUTURE QUARANTINE ARRANGEMENTS

Australia’s geographic location and the closure of its international borders have played a very significant role in the successful containment of COVID-19. As an emergency response, the use of hotels to quarantine incoming travellers has proven relatively successful.

Internationally, COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly. A number of countries have seen the resurgence of the virus and it has mutated into several variants, some of which appear to be more contagious and/or more virulent. The World Health Organisation (WHO), after reviewing the available evidence, has also attached much greater significance to the aerosol spread of COVID-19, particularly in poorly ventilated and/or crowded areas where people spend longer periods of time.

The roll out of vaccines continues around the world, although these are mostly benefiting the more developed nations. It is likely to take a number of years to vaccinate the global population and this  timeframe will be dependent on a number of factors including:

  • the global supply of vaccines,
  • equity of access to vaccines for poorer nations,
  • the longevity of protection that available vaccines afford,
  • the emergence of variants, and
  • the extent to which booster shots may be required.

Australia cannot rely indefinitely on emergency hotel quarantine arrangements. These were set up as a result of necessity rather than being the product of well-planned long term pandemic response arrangements.

Despite efforts to across all jurisdictions to improve the robustness of hotel quarantine, hotels were never designed or constructed with this purpose in mind and the escape of COVID-19 into the community remains an ever present risk. This risk is amplified by the significant easing of restrictions seen across the country, creating an ideal environment for the rapid spread of the virus when leaks occur.

The health system, particularly our public hospitals, is operating beyond capacity and appears ill equipped to deal with any surge in demand resulting from any community spread of COVID-19. 

The recent decision to temporarily ban arrivals from India and persistent breaches of hotel quarantine arrangements are a stark illustration of the limitations of our system of hotel quarantine. It is not equipped to manage anything beyond a small number of infections nor cope with the pressure of arrivals from countries where the rates of COVID-19 infections are high. This makes it more difficult to repatriate Australians from overseas and leaves Australia ill equipped to relax border restrictions as the world looks to gradually open up and international travel is increasingly encouraged.

Over time, Australia must aim to reduce its reliance on hotel quarantine and transition to new arrangements where quarantine requirements are based on a risk based approached, including the level and sophistication of designated facilities.

The AMA calls on National Cabinet to commit to:

  • The national adoption of best practice measures, as an interim step, to further strengthen hotel quarantine including improved ventilation, strengthened Personal Protective Equipment and completion of vaccinations;
  • Undertake an urgent stocktake of existing facilities (outside of hotel quarantine) that could be repurposed and used to quarantine incoming arrivals, particularly those from higher risk countries or those that are repatriated as part of an emergency response;
  • Put in place arrangements to fast track the approval of any existing proposals for dedicated quarantine facilities for COVID-19 that are assessed as being suitable;
  • Agree to the establishment of longer term dedicated quarantine facilities to manage the risks of COVID-19, backed by a comprehensive National Partnership Agreement that assigns operational and funding responsibilities between various levels of governments; and
  • Improving the capacity of the Australian health system to keep up with ongoing growth in demand for services, particularly in our public hospitals, while also ensuring that there is sufficient surge capacity available to deal with future community outbreaks.