Vaccines are one tool in the fight against COVID-19, quarantine is another.
Expecting the federal government to change its position on hotel quarantine seems an exercise in futility, with the Commonwealth repeatedly pushing back against overtures from state premiers.
Given the impasse, Western Australia’s business sector needs Mark McGowan to come up with immediate and longer-term solutions to manage the quarantine of people who have acquired COVID-19, either in the community or overseas.
For the past year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been in lockstep with the NSW government’s position that mitigation and containment, not eradication, is the way to manage the virus.
Mr Morrison’s view on hotel quarantine is well known.
He has acknowledged that hotel quarantine is not 100 per cent effective, which means there could be occasional breaches.
If NSW continues to believe it has the systems in place to manage breaches, while its population gets vaccinated, it is doubtful the Morrison government will give any support to quarantine alternatives proposed by other states, including WA.
It is presumed that, once a sufficient percentage of the NSW population is vaccinated, and its health system can withstand a surge in COVID-19 hospitalisations of people who have decided not to get vaccinated, the national border with NSW will progressively reopen.
NSW will be the stick that motivates the rest of Australia to follow.
The catch is, no-one knows if the virus will eventually be eradicated, become endemic like the common cold, or mutate into something more contagious, virulent, vaccine resistant or cause severe illness in a younger demographic.
It all depends on the degree of immunity people acquire through infection or vaccination, and how the virus evolves.
There are now several variants of COVID-19 circulating throughout the world.
Some are more transmissible than the original strain that emerged in Wuhan, but there is little evidence these strains are more lethal, and the vaccines developed so far seem to prevent serious illness.
Experts, however, are continuing to find and track the emergence of new variants every week.
It is feasible a SARS-CoV-2 variant will emerge next week or next year, forcing Australia to scramble back into lockdown and close borders while the science fraternity races to rejig and distribute a booster vaccine.
The capability to quarantine large numbers of people, at short notice, could be an ongoing requirement for years.
Australia’s draconian quarantine system has proved to be one of the most effective in the world.
The use of hotels for quarantine, however, was made when there was limited understanding about the virus and management of the more contagious variants was not an issue.
During the past year we have learned hotels are poor at preventing the virus escaping from COVID-19-positive rooms, which has led to the infection of others.
Managing people who are positive and negative for the virus within the same hotel is proving difficult.
Even hospitals try to isolate and group COVID-19 patients together to limit staff exposure.
WA must move towards a system that treats the virus as a highly infectious airborne pathogen.
When people staying at a quarantine hotel test positive to the virus, every effort should be made to safely move them to a facility that only has COVID-19-positive cases, within a few hours of identification.
Longer term, WA requires a dedicated open-air quarantine facility that has separate ventilation for individual rooms.
The Woodman Point Recreation Camp, eight kilometres south of Fremantle, started its life as a quarantine station in 1901 and continued in that capacity until 1979.
The parcel of land the camp sits on is underutilised, is in an isolated position, and easily secured by perimeter fencing with single road access.
The camp is close to all medical and other critical support services.
Some buildings have undergone extensive refurbishment, with utilities installed to cater for dormitory style accommodation of up to 200 people.
Some of these buildings could be upgraded to meet modern quarantine requirements, with additional buildings constructed to increase capacity.
It will probably take 24 months of construction work but having a large, multipurpose beachside holiday facility, owned by the government, would be handy if we ever do need a dedicated quarantine capability in the future.
A mini-Rottnest on the mainland.
- David Kobelke spent 15 years managing CCIWA’s Australian industry participation unit