Australia considers plan to quarantine arrivals in isolated rural camps

Australia has suffered repeated outbreaks from cases that have leaked out of quarantine facilities.
Australia has suffered repeated outbreaks from cases that have leaked out of quarantine facilities.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY - Australia is considering controversial plans to set up isolated rural quarantine camps for people entering from overseas as the country tries to plug the final gap in its efforts to combat Covid-19.

The proposal to relocate quarantine facilities away from hotels in dense city centres was first raised by the state of Queensland, which imposed a three-day lockdown in Brisbane, after a cleaner at a quarantine hotel in the capital was infected with the contagious British strain of the virus.

Following the lockdown, the state's Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk proposed setting up quarantine accommodation at mining camps in regional centres such as Toowoomba and Gladstone.

But the plan angered some locals in the towns, who said they did not want to be forced to deal with an influx of potentially infectious visitors.

Mr Robbie Katter, an outspoken Queensland state MP, said rural areas often have inferior health services but accept this as the price of living away from big cities. He said any remote camps should only be set up if they were at least 50-100km from a major town.

"People will often live in a remote area because they're protected from things like this virus, and they'll put up with not having a doctor or vital public services," he told the NCA NewsWire.

"Those people put up with a lot, living in a remote area, to have that barrier away from the negative influence of the cities."

Other states such as Western Australia have also said remote facilities should be considered.

The Federal Government was initially sceptical about the plan, saying city hotels were easily locked down and allowed international arrivals to be near medical services and testing facilities.

Following the protests by local communities in Queensland, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he believed it was unfair to "dump" the Covid-19 problem on remote areas, but had an open mind about remote facilities.

The largest state, New South Wales, has flatly rejected the move, saying it takes in more international arrivals than other states and that remote quarantining was not logistically feasible.

Australia is largely free of Covid-19 but has suffered repeated outbreaks from cases that have leaked out of quarantine facilities. On Wednesday (Feb 10), Australia had 11 new cases, including two locally transmitted ones, which are part of a cluster linked to a Melbourne hotel.

Australia has barred all international arrivals except for Australian citizens and residents and their families, and travellers from New Zealand. About 38,000 Australians abroad are still waiting to come home but the list is growing. Many are in badly affected parts of the world.

But the authorities have struggled to simultaneously bring back Australians quickly while preventing breaches at quarantine facilities.

Several public health experts have urged states to transfer quarantine facilities to remote, sparsely populated areas but say the housing must be near an airport and allow access to medical facilities and expert staff.

Professor Adrian Esterman, a public health and biostatistics expert from the University of South Australia, said setting up rural facilities would be costly but the expense should be measured against the costs of imposing further lockdowns in capital cities.

"It's very hard to make a quarantine station 100 per cent leak-free," he wrote on The Conversation website this week. "But if we move quarantine facilities out of cities to isolated places, any leaks would be much less likely to cause major transmission events."

Prof Tony Blakely, an epidemiologist at the University of Melbourne, said remote facilities should be used "as much as we can" to avoid housing all arrivals in hotels in the city centre.

"We also need to be realistic because we're not going to suddenly set up heaps of rural places and be able to ship everybody out there," he told 3AW Radio.

"What we do want to do is send the people there who come from the countries with the highest virus loads, so that they're in the best possible places."