Continued leaks from hotel quarantine are “a frustration to all Australians” and state governments are not doing enough to prevent it, the president of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Omar Khorshid, has said, while the Western Australian premier called on the federal government to “step up and help”.
WA’s Perth and Peel region on Saturday began a snap three-day lockdown after the latest hotel quarantine outbreak led to community transmission. The virus spread in the corridors of the Mercure quarantine hotel in Perth, infecting a man who was staying adjacent to a couple with the virus who had returned from India.
The man had tested negative before returning home to Victoria, spending time in venues across Perth – and infecting a friend. He has been staying at a Victorian “health hotel” for international arrivals with Covid-19 since Thursday, before his positive test came back on Friday morning. Victorian authorities are contacting people who were on the same flight from Perth to Melbourne as the man.
Speaking to Guardian Australia from lockdown in Perth, Khorshid said: “The best way to avoid lockdown is to avoid breaches of hotel quarantine and, unfortunately, state governments are not doing absolutely everything that can be done in order to protect those facilities and the people within them.
“The prime example of that would be the report that was commissioned by the WA government after the last breach here, which identified aerosol spread of the virus as the most likely issue. An engineering review of the hotels has subsequently taken place over a couple of months with the Mercure hotel identified as unsuitable for the purpose in which it is being used just one week ago. The ventilation in these hotels wasn’t up to scratch.”
Khorshid said the Australian Medical Association had been informed that hotel quarantine workers were still not always using the appropriate levels of personal protective equipment when exposed to Covid-positive patients, and that positive patients were not being kept in separate sections of hotels from negative ones.
“Victoria does that, but Western Australia does not,” Khorshid said. “We also understand there are still a number of quarantine workers that are not vaccinated. So there’s a number of fairly simple measures that could be taken that haven’t been taken that are increasing the risk.”
Khorshid said the bigger question was whether hotel quarantine should be used at all.
“We’ve been saying from the start that it wasn’t an appropriate emergency measure for the long-term,” Khorshid said. “It’s done extremely well at protecting Australia, but it’s not perfect. These hotels were never designed for this purpose. And there is an increasing realisation I think in the community that we need some other solution.”
The WA premier, Mark McGowan, defended the system, saying on Saturday: “Hotel quarantine is an imperfect system but largely it has worked well, with around 45,000 returning Australians being processed through the West Australian system.”
But he agreed with Khorshid that the system was not fit for purpose.
“I have been calling for the commonwealth’s assistance with quarantine for many months now,” McGowan said.
“CBD hotels are not fit for purpose quarantine facilities, and quarantine is the responsibility of the commonwealth government under the constitution. There are a number of commonwealth facilities that would be more suitable for quarantine purposes. The pandemic will be here for at least the rest of this year. It is time for the commonwealth to step up and help.
“I have said before and I will say it again, we pay for these hotels. The state governments, not the commonwealth, are picking up the costs of these hotel quarantine facilities.”
He said that no new cases of community transmission had been identified overnight and that a total of 24 guests were on the affected floor at the Mercure hotel. Five guests have left Australia. The remaining 19 have been tested and 18 tested negative. The one positive is the Victorian man. On Saturday, Victorian health authorities said the state’s almost two months of zero local coronavirus cases had not been ended by the case because it was acquired interstate.
Khorshid said the hotel quarantine facility at Howard Springs in the Northern Territory was the only one that appeared “fit for purpose”. While he acknowledged the Northern Territory was not receiving the volume of international travellers as other states, it was nonetheless “a pretty good template for what we need going forward”. At the Howard Springs facility, people are kept further apart, reducing the risk of spread between rooms through corridors or ventilation.
The Howard Springs disused mining camp has gradually increased its capacity over the past few weeks to take 15% of people arriving on repatriation flights – up to 2,000 Australians each fortnight. Rooms are single accommodation, with no internal connecting doors between the rooms.
McGowan has asked the prime minister, Scott Morrison, if the state can halve the number of weekly international arrivals over the next month, from 1025 to 512.
“Howard Springs is a facility fit for purpose,” Khorshid said. “Everything that can be done in hotel quarantine needs to be done right now and unfortunately in Western Australia as in some other states, that is not the case. There are still holes that can be plugged and the report from the last outbreak have underlined some of the things that need to be done in WA.”
Personal protective equipment needed to be taken more seriously, sick people needed to be cohorted further away from other people, and all workers should be vaccinated, he said.
“Facilities like the Mercure Hotel which have been identified as being inappropriate shouldn’t be used at all,” Khorshid said. “The last lockdown in WA occurred because a security guard was sitting in a corridor and wasn’t even wearing a surgical mask, let alone any other form of PPE.”
People who had been staying at the Mercure hotel have now been sent elsewhere. On Saturday, Victoria’s Covid-19 response commander, Jeroen Weimar, said the four household contacts of the Covid-positive man have tested negative. Of 265 people who had been on the flight with him from WA or who had worked as ground crew for the flight, 200 have been tested and 49 have returned negative tests.
New Zealand, which last week opened a trans-Tasman travel bubble, on Friday announced a pause on travel from WA due to the Perth outbreak.
NSW Health has announced it will screen all flights from Perth to identify those who had visited WA venues of concern. Meanwhile, NSW Health said all 15 Sydney dock workers who boarded a ship, the Inge Kosan, that had Covid-positive crew members on board have tested negative for the virus.
“NSW will reflect the stay at home restrictions that apply to Western Australia,” NSW Health said in a statement.
Tasmania has declared Perth and Peel high-risk regions, with travel and quarantine rules imposed for those coming into the state who may have been in those regions.
The Northern Territory has also declared Perth and the Peel region COVID-19 hotspots.
Queensland from midnight will require any resident who has been in Perth or Peel since April 17 to enter hotel quarantine for up to 14 days while non-residents will require an exemption to enter and also must quarantine. Anyone entering Queensland before midnight is required to obtain a Covid test and remain at home until 2am on April 27, only going out for essential reasons once they have received a negative test.