Australia Why the future of coronavirus quarantine for overseas arrivals may be less onerous

21:40  29 october  2020
21:40  29 october  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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Since early March, nearly every traveller stepping foot on Australian soil has spent two weeks in mandatory hotel quarantine.

But the quarantine system that has helped keep COVID-19 at bay has kept citizens, residents, workers, students and tourists at a distance, too.

More than 30,000 citizens are stranded overseas wanting to come home, hundreds of thousands of overseas students can't come to Australian school and university campuses and the agriculture sector is desperate for workers.

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With a vaccine still some way off, National Cabinet is looking at different approaches to quarantine that are less onerous — and less expensive.

The Prime Minister and state and territory leaders will be looking at two main factors: how quarantine is managed and who it applies to.

Why not keep the current system?

It has been the "cornerstone of our protection for Australia," according to Australia's Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer Alison McMillan, who has been at the centre of discussions around future quarantine options.

"It's very effective, but it's very resource intensive … and very expensive."

The Federal Government recently released a review of hotel quarantine arrangements by highly regarded former health official, Jane Halton.

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The Halton Review found that from March 28 to August 28, 130,000 people went through the mandatory two-week hotel quarantine regime, the vast majority having arrived from overseas.

Of those 130,000, 851 tested positive for COVID-19, which is a 'positivity rate' of just 0.66 per cent — and that rate has been lower in more recent times.

New South Wales has been frustrated by shouldering the greatest burden of financing and supporting a large proportion of the quarantining.

Expanding the quarantine-free bubble beyond NZ?

The Halton Review notes that travellers coming from countries with a low infection rate, such as Singapore and New Zealand, "pose a very low level of risk for importation of the virus".

Allowing travellers from countries with low case numbers would "provide net capacity within the system with no or very little risk".

The Federal Government is already allowing New Zealand travellers to forgo quarantine requirements, a move that has seen Kiwis flock across the Tasman.

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"We're currently looking at how we might examine all of the countries across the world and, based on their risk, how you might consider quarantine," Ms McMillan told the ABC.

But it's not an easy calculation.

A traffic-light system is being contemplated, where arrivals from low-risk countries get a green light and don't have to quarantine at all (like New Zealand) and a red-light for countries where COVID-19 cases are high and two-week hotel quarantine will still be mandatory (like the UK).

An amber light could be included, where some arrivals face less onerous quarantine requirements.

"Somewhere in the middle, there are some other countries that may pose a lower risk and then you might say, 'Ok, these people can do 7 days in hotel quarantine and perhaps 7 days at home," Ms McMillan said.

She says factors such as the number of cases, mortality rate, testing levels and data reliability from each nation would need to be considered — and constantly updated — when deciding on the traffic lights.

Can different approaches keep us safe?

The ACT has allowed diplomats and some crucial government workers in Canberra to undergo home quarantine.

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Their residence has to be suitable and their journey from airport to home is carefully managed.

Once in home quarantine, authorities check on them regularly, both in person and over the phone.

The ACT's Chief Health Officer, Kerryn Coleman, has found compliance issues to be "very, very minimal".

The few occasions where people were not at home when checked on, it was for legitimate reasons such as attending medical appointments.

"We've never had a case that has generated transmission — so there's never been a bad outcome that's needed following up," Dr Coleman said.

She is proud of the success of home quarantine in the ACT, but acknowledges it will not work in all circumstances.

"This is one option that works really well for specific cohorts," she said.

"Not everybody has an appropriate home to go to, particularly people who have been overseas for a while.

"There's still going to be a very high need for alternative quarantine models, such as providing hotel quarantine."

Other group quarantine arrangements are in the mix, too, including 'on farm' for agriculture workers and 'on campus' for international students.

The recently opened Howard Springs accommodation facility in the Northern Territory for returning travellers is a model that could be used at other locations around the country.

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What about electronic monitoring devices?

The Halton Review points to "the use of devices to monitor location, including through smartphone applications or wearable monitoring devices [on a voluntary basis]" as an option.

Singapore has adopted this technological approach to quarantine.


It requires some travellers isolating at home to wear an electronic monitoring device, in the form of a wristband that communicates with a mobile phone app, to determine if they are staying within their residence.

It would be a more controversial approach in Australia, but it hasn't been ruled out.

"Ultimately that will be the decision of the state and territories," said Ms McMillan, but "everyone is open to options and ideas".

"We need to be cognisant of what that [wearing a monitoring device] means for someone's general wellbeing … Is that right? What will it mean for them?

"These are all options that can be considered … we'll watch with interest what some other countries are doing."

When will new arrangements be in place?

There is no set timeframe for new quarantine rules, though the growing list of overseas Australians wanting to come home is pressing.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is eager to have more freedom of movement for Australians by Christmas.

There's more confidence in domestic circumstances, with the number of COVID-19 cases in Victoria dropping and contact tracing improving.

But given the resurgence of the virus in many countries, it will be a challenge to loosen quarantine arrangements before the end of the year.

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This is interesting!