At least six Australians returned home uninfected only to acquire the coronavirus while undergoing quarantine in hotels in Sydney and Perth.

Why is hotel quarantine failing?

Supervised quarantine was mandated by the federal government on March 28 last year. State and territory governments were given mere days to set up hotel quarantine systems.

During 2020, the focus of precautions was on preventing transmission via large respiratory droplets and surfaces. This was achieved through ensuring physical distancing by making hotel guests stay in their rooms, providing staff with surgical masks, and giving hand sanitiser to guests and staff.

However, an inquiry into the Peppers Hotel breach found it probably occurred by airborne transmission. This refers to very tiny virus-contaminated droplets that hang around in the air for longer, and spread further.

Policies haven’t kept up

Evidence suggesting airborne transmission is responsible for the majority of transmission within Australia’s hotel quarantine system continues to stack up. The two main measures to prevent this are improved ventilation and the wearing of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) by staff.

While staff in all states are tested daily, the number of times guests are tested varies considerably — four times in Victoria, three in South Australia and twice in other states.

This is important because in a state such as New South Wales where testing is done on days two and 12, guests who test negative on day two might be incubating the virus, then become positive and be infectious for up to ten days before being identified.

What’s the future of hotel quarantine?

As COVID-19 cases surge around the world, an increasing proportion of returned travellers will be infected. As of April 27, there were 255 active cases nationwide in hotel quarantine.

Given the high number of cases globally and the slow rollout of vaccines in most countries, Australia will need supervised quarantine for some time to come, most likely until 2023.

The Howard Springs facility in the Northern Territory is ideal. Single-storey cabins, separate air conditioning systems, outdoor verandas and a nearby hospital make it fit for purpose. And there have been no leaks despite high numbers of infected residents.

It’s now time to invest in similar facilities in every state and territory. Quarantine is our first line of defence against the virus. It needs to be 100% effective to maintain our hard-earned status of having zero community COVID cases. That achievement is what has put us in the enviable position of a growing economy and a public almost back to their pre-pandemic quality of life.

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