“But mainland facilities, not too far from appropriate levels of healthcare, are definitely worth considering in the longer term,” he said, while adding that by the time new facilities were completed, they may no longer be needed.
Support for alternative models of quarantine has been growing, buoyed by the threat of a more infectious UK strain of coronavirus, and continued leaks from city hotels across the country.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has plans to quarantine returned travellers at regional mining camps, with a number of options on the table, including in Gladstone and Toowoomba.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews also backed a potential collaboration with the Commonwealth this week, saying there was an argument to have a series of large facilities for thousands of people, similar to Howard Springs.
He said the facilities could also be used for bushfires and other future emergencies.
“We couldn’t build a facility that say housed a couple of thousand people safely with all protocols without the federal government’s help. But there’s an argument I think, to maybe do that.”
The issue of quarantining people in regional Australia was briefly raised at Friday’s National Cabinet, according to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who said he was keeping an open mind on the Queensland government’s proposal.
Camp-style quarantine facilities offer a number of benefits, including access to fresh air and better separation of returned travellers. They are also challenging to set up and run.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said earlier this month she did not think it would be a good idea to move hotel quarantine to regional areas, citing the risk posed by transporting people over longer distances and the fact that police, health staff and ADF personnel all needed to participate.
“When you have people travelling for long periods of time, you’re more likely to spread the virus than when the trips are shorter,” she said.
“All you’d be doing is simply moving those challenges somewhere else, perhaps with greater difficulty.”
However, a number of experts are now arguing the new facilities don’t need to be located far from cities.
“Preferably it would be a location or a facility where people can get some sunshine and some fresh air,” said University of New South Wales epidemiologist Professor Mary-Louise McLaws.
Professor McLaws said high-rise hotels and apartments were not built with infection control in mind and this would be a greater risk with the emergence of the new more contagious strains of the virus.
“On a COVID ward, they’re supposed to have 12 complete airflow changes per hour but in most hotels, they’re probably lucky to have a third of that,” she said.
“I’m very pleased that some of the authorities in some of the states and territories are reconsidering where they place quarantine because it is our biggest single risk now.”
Dr Ian Norton, who previously led the World Health Organisation’s Emergency Medical Team Initiative and has given expert advice on managing Howard Springs, said the complexity of running a quarantine camp couldn’t be underestimated.
“There’s so many moving parts. And it’s got to have a health focus … to make sure it’s safe, but it’s mostly about the logistics [such as] making sure the food is the right quality, and good enough to keep people happy,” he said.
“It’s incredible how people focus on the tiny things when they’re in solitary confinement for two weeks.”
However, Dr Norton also said there was no reason the camps had to be placed in remote locations, where they could overwhelm any local health facilities. He said they could be safely operated in the city, if the right site could be found.
“We went though this so often in West Africa with Ebola where the community kept on trying to drive the Ebola treatment centres out into the bush,” he said.
“There is no risk to you, as long as we control the boundaries of this health facility, whether it is in this suburb or 400 kilometres away.”
Howard Springs, a former workers camp lauded as a quarantine success story, is less than 30 kilometres from the centre of Darwin.
Run by the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre, it has welcomed more than 3050 international arrivals since late October and has seen 61 confirmed coronavirus cases, without any leaks into the community.
Guests are allowed to sit on their balcony to get fresh air, but can not interact with others.
There have been a number of high-profile breaches out of high-rise hotels in Australia’s major cities, accepting larger numbers of travellers. Recent outbreaks in Adelaide and Brisbane led to temporary lock downs, and there is growing concern about the impact of poor hotel ventilation.
Victoria’s deadly second wave has also been linked to infection control breaches in hotel quarantine.
A statement from the Victorian government on Saturday indicated that there were no plans to change the state’s revamped hotel quarantine model, even as it prepared to accept more travellers.
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Aisha Dow reports on health for The Age and is a former city reporter.
Caitlin Fitzsimmons is a senior writer for The Sun-Herald, focusing on social affairs.
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