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Every Australian quarantine hotel should be reviewed for aerosol transmission risk, expert says | Health


The adviser responsible for a major review of the Australian quarantine system says every hotel currently in use should be re-assessed for the risk of aerosol transmission.

Jane Halton, a former health department secretary, said states and territories must learn from recent quarantine outbreaks, including in Western Australia, where the Mercure Perth hotel was deemed “high risk” due to its poor ventilation.

Halton was responsible for the last major national review of hotel quarantine, released in October 2020.

Asked whether she believed all existing hotel facilities should be reviewed for their risk of aerosol transmission, Halton told Guardian Australia: “Yes, yes I do.”

“That’s the lesson the Victorians learned,” she said. “They made mistakes around the risks of aerosols. Basically, they should all be looking to adopt best practice. That is what Victoria has done. Arguably, Victoria is now better-practice than most of the others.”

Recent research, including in the Lancet and Medical Journal of Australia, has suggested a greater risk from airborne transmission than previously thought, and some medical groups have urged the government’s main advisory group, the Infection Control Expert Group, to update its position.

The WA government announced on Wednesday that it would shut down three of its nine quarantine hotels due to poor ventilation and the risk of aerosol transmission, including the Mercure and the Four Points hotel, which was associated with a January outbreak.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, and federal health minister, Greg Hunt, have both defended the hotel quarantine system, saying it had proven effective 99.9% of the time.

McGowan acknowledged the hotel quarantine system was overwhelmingly secure.

But he added: “The problem with that 99.9% is that the consequences can be dire. That’s why we are going to do everything we can to ensure we are as secure as possible in Western Australia.”

McGowan has cut the state’s returned traveller intake by 512 per week. He has warned that will become permanent if the commonwealth does not do more to help support quarantine efforts.

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The WA premier has called for the re-purposing of immigration detention, including Christmas Island, and the use of airbases for quarantine.

Australia’s chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, has also defended the hotel quarantine system as “very successful” and fit for purpose. Appearing before a parliamentary committee on Tuesday, he said there had been “continuous quality improvement” throughout hotel quarantine.

Kelly said he was not aware of federal efforts to build new, purpose-built quarantine facilities, like that at Howard Springs in the Northern Territory, though that facility will be expanded to house 2,000 people, instead of 800, by the end of May.

Morrison, who toured the facility on Wednesday, said the expansion of Howard Springs would help the government with repatriation flights from around the world.

“For the next couple of weeks, as you know, we’ve had to suspend the flights out of India but we’ll be returning to those flights,” the prime minister said.

“We’ll be restarting those flights in several weeks’ time, we hope, and that means that the facility will be ready to take those returning Australians and we’ll be continuing to move as many Australians from around the world back to Australia as safely as we possibly can.”

Several states have either established or are attempting to build standalone quarantine facilities. The Northern Territory and federal governments re-purposed the accommodation village at Howard Springs in early 2020 to work as a quarantine facility, while Victoria is planning its own standalone centre at a site yet to be determined.

Queensland wants to build a similar facility at Wellcamp airport near Toowoomba, which would be privately owned by the Wagner family. The state government’s negotiations with the commonwealth on the Wellcamp proposal have stalled. Morrison refused to back the Wellcamp proposal on Tuesday.


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