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Quarantine overhaul call after SA medi-hotel breach

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Hotel quarantine is again in the spotlight after a South Australian “breach” today sent Victoria back into lockdown, with Police Commissioner Grant Stevens conceding a new approach “is certainly something that should be considered”.

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Confirming the week-long lockdown this morning, Victoria’s Acting Premier James Merlino was unequivocal about what sparked the growing outbreak, saying: “The reason why we’re dealing with this today is because of a hotel breach in SA – that’s not a criticism, just a fact.”

He also pinned blame on the Commonwealth for a sluggish vaccine rollout, urging Victorians to get the jab if they qualify for it.

An SA Health report into the Playford medi-hotel breach, released yesterday, found the most likely cause of the leakage – which saw a man repatriated to Melbourne only to later test positive to the virus – was through the “close timing of doors opening and closing between adjacent rooms”.

It also found “there was no high-risk single event or high-risk breach in infection prevention and control practices identified during this investigation” but concluded the virus was probably spread from one man to another when they both opened doors within a short time frame of each other to collect food.

In an interview with SAFM this morning, Chief Public Health Officer Professor Nicola Spurrier said that “every time we’ve had a problem… what we’ve done is instituted additional changes to try and counteract that possibility occurring again”.

“Even though we’re doing the best that we can do with the facilities we’ve got, people still need to be aware that there could be cases in our community – that’s exactly why we still have some restrictions in our community,” she said.

“If we have cases in our medi-hotels, it is possible for it to get out, so it’s everybody’s responsibility.”

But the latest breach has renewed calls for a reappraisal of Australia’s quarantine program, with the State Opposition arguing for more purpose-built facilities similar to Howard Springs in the Northern Territory.

Labor leader Peter Malinauskas, who pushed for such a move when a hotel breach prompted last year’s Parafield cluster, said today: “I was advocating at the time and have been consistently that Australia needs purpose-built quarantine facilities.”

“On last count there’s been 19 medi-hotel breaches in Australia, and they have very significant consequences – including up to a statewide lockdown,” he said.

“Hotels are built to house tourists and business travellers – they’re not there to contain a virus, particularly one as insidious and infectious as COVID.

“The Indian variant we know to be particularly contagious, and the consequences with Victoria at the moment are severe.”

Malinauskas said the “irony of the current situation is that hotel quarantine in this instance hasn’t contained the virus – it’s spread the virus”.

“The person who’s taken the India variant to Victoria was perfectly healthy, they didn’t have COVID, before they came into an Adelaide medi-hotel,” he said.

“They went into a hotel, caught the virus, and took it to Victoria – had this person not gone into quarantine this wouldn’t have happened.”

He insisted his “critique isn’t of SA Health or SAPOL” who he said were “doing the best they can with a model that’s broken”.

He said quarantine was a commonwealth responsibility and while purpose-built facilities would be expensive, “that cost is comparatively very minor compared to the cost of a lockdown”.

Spurrier agreed that a purpose-built facility was “something obviously that the Commonwealth would need to be involved in”.

She told ABC Radio “we have looked everywhere that we can in South Australia, and if we had something like Howard Springs indeed we would have had that set up”.

“What we have are the facilities that we have got, we only use the hotels where we know that the ventilation is excellent in the passageways and we really are trying the best we can,” she said.

“I know it may be poor consolation now for what’s going on in Melbourne, but there have been thousands and thousands of people that have quarantined in our hotel and there hasn’t been a problem.”

But the state’s emergency coordinator, Police Commissioner Grant Stevens argued in a separate interview with ABC Radio that if a suitable location could be identified “you could probably be moving towards that”.

“I think if we could identify the right location that provided the right level of facilities for those people who are required to quarantine, and also the staff who are required to accommodate those people’s requirements, then it’s certainly something that should be considered,” he said.

However he said he quarantine system was “an SA Health issue” and noted that “the existence of such a location hasn’t been identified at this point in time”.

“There were conversations about locations outside the metro area but there were complications with medical facilities [and] logistics… it’s difficult to provide staff,” he said.

“In principle, if you could find a place you could probably be moving towards that but the medi-hotels as we currently have them are the best solution at this point in time.”

The Australian Medical Association has also called for a review if hotel quarantine, with SA vice-president Dr Chris Moy arguing “we do need to reassess whether hotel quarantine is the right way to do this”.

However he conceded the location was problematic, telling ABC Radio: “From a medical point of view a lot of my medical colleagues are very concerned about the options of having something that’s too remote because unfortunately [with] these cases you do need to put in significant health infrastructure in those areas as well, so there has been… very serious concerns about taking it too far out of the city.”

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