The other holes in Australia’s quarantine
From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.
Australia’s strict quarantine measures have dramatically slowed the spread of Covid-19.
But confusion between different levels of government has exposed flaws in the system, and they go beyond the case of the Ruby Princess.
Today, Karen Middleton on the other holes in Australia’s quarantine.
Karen - one of the things the government has put in place to enforce quarantine are these isolation declaration cards - can you tell me about them?
Well, these are cards that passengers coming in from overseas are now required to fill out with all their personal contact details and basic information.
Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.
That's the sort of information that they had to fill out on arrival cards anyway, but arrival cards were centrally deposited, generally only referred to if a person needed to be contacted later. But of course, in the situation with Coronavirus, people are being tracked as they come into the country and then move on to other destinations. So these cards were designed to assist in that process.
So this is the big card that Morrison held up at a press conference recently?
Yes. This was the card that Prime Minister Scott Morrison held up at a press conference on the 27th.
Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
This is the isolation declaration card for coronavirus. Everyone who has been coming into Australia now for some time has had to fill this out.
And he explained what they were and said that people were required to fill them out, and that that was a demonstration that you understood that legal enforceability of these quarantine requirements.
Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
This is enforceable by law. If you have come back into Australia, you need to live up to this pledge. And the state and territory governments are going to make sure you do.
They were introduced on the 20th of March, and that was five days after the federal government made it enforceable by law that everyone coming in from overseas had to self isolate for two weeks. And these cards were part of that process, so people had to sign them to say that they understood that they were now required to self-isolate. Because most of the cases, of course, of coronavirus in Australia have come from people traveling in from overseas.
Mm, so these cards were introduced to help authorities keep track of everyone arriving overseas and try and prevent further coronavirus infections… did they work?
Well, it turns out that the information on the cards wasn't getting through to all of the destination jurisdictions.
Now, the idea was people filled out this information and when they flew into Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, wherever they were flying into, and that then when they flew on to their onward destination, wherever that was around Australia, the government of the place they were flying to then knew where they were going to be. So they could be monitored during that period of self-isolation checked on and then, if necessary, have their contacts traced, if they turned out to have the virus or to be showing symptoms of that.
But the problem was it didn't seem to be happening with all jurisdictions. Some of the states and territories have told me that they didn't have a problem with the information flowing through. Some of them don't really know whether it flowed through or not because they introduced their own system with their own arrival cards. But some have said that they did have a problem in getting that information. And it seems to have been a matter of lag time where they realised that the information was being collected but not passed on and of course, that pretty much undermines the whole point of the exercise if you've got the information, but you're not giving it to the jurisdictions that are going to have to enforce the self-isolation, then they don't necessarily know where people are and it just makes that monitoring and tracking process much more difficult.
So when did it become clear this was a problem, and who is responsible for making sure important information like this gets communicated?
Well, one government official told me that in their jurisdiction they became aware of it after a couple of days, they raised it independently and had it sorted out. Others have said it wasn't until the leaders were in that national cabinet meeting that some of them realised that the cards were being filled out at all. So they were then asking, well, can we make sure that we get this information - the system isn't working very well.
The health department has said to me that, in fact, the way it works is that the cards are collected by Border Force officials, passed on to health officials from wherever the jurisdiction is - so if someone's flying into Sydney, for example, the New South Wales health officials would receive them - and those cards are then distributed by the state or territory health authority. So they seem to be suggesting that the state or territory health authority might be in the frame if things weren't being passed on properly.
But, you know, it's just another example, I guess, of some of the blame-shifting that has been going on through this whole quarantine process. And it has exposed a few of the holes in the system where it's not clear who's responsible for what.
And it's okay when we're in a situation where there's not an urgent need for information and when there's not a highly contagious virus that we're trying to stop the spread of. But in this situation, information is absolutely critical. And so any little gap in the quarantine process can be a problem.
We'll be back in a moment.
Karen, we're talking about early issues with Australia's attempt to quarantine Coronavirus arriving from overseas. Where are we at now?
Well, the system changed again on the 27th, and from just before midnight on the twenty eighth of March, there's been that compulsory hotel quarantine in place. So the cards are still being filled out by people who arrive in from overseas, but they're kind of redundant now because for the first 14 days of their time in Australia they are being held in hotels and under strict quarantine and under guard by police in most cases. So there's not as much of a problem about information flow to those final destinations now.
And a number of jurisdictions have closed their borders to all but essential interests. And so now we have these compulsory quarantine arrangements, they're keeping a lid on the infection spread much more thoroughly.
So at the moment - do these regulations mean that every single person who's coming into Australia is locked up in a hotel room for two weeks?
Well, theoretically, it does accept there are some exemptions. Diplomats are exempt. For example, maritime crew, airline crew have been exempt, but people can get an exemption on medical and compassionate grounds as well. Now, I did ring around the states and territories and inquire how many exemptions people had been given. One said about four, one said a dozen or so, a number of others said, oh, only a handful, and interestingly Tasmania said 140 exemptions on compassionate and medical grounds. And that's the highest number that I've been told of from any of the states and territories.
Other than that, everybody else is being locked up in hotels for 14 days, and the first lot were being let out just over the weekend and were then allowed to go on to their final destinations wherever they were around Australia, but they were then going to be paying their own way. And they're also going to be subject to whatever restrictions there are in those states or territories for incoming people. So some of them may be facing another 14 days in quarantine just to get to their home city.
Do we have any examples of what compassionate grounds could include?
People with mental health issues, people who find it very difficult being in a very enclosed space, some of them have got underlying medical conditions that put them under much greater stress when they're in this kind of confined environment. So I think it's been a case by case basis. Those people are still required to quarantine, but they can quarantine themselves in their homes or in a designated place, and they will be monitored. So they're not just being allowed to wander off anywhere, but they're not being confined in hotel rooms under such strict guard as others.
Karen, can we go back to the rules for airline crews. Surely they're exposed to a lot of risk in this crisis, so how does quarantine work for them?
Yes, it's interesting. They have been, as I mentioned, exempt up until the last few days. But the case of a handful of Qantas crew that emerged last week that tested positive. I think four crew members who'd been off a flight from Chile, from Santiago in Chile, have now prompted a review of that exemption rule.
Archival tape -- news reader:
The plane arrived in Sydney nine days ago after collecting a group of Australians stranded in Santiago. The passengers are in hotels for mandatory quarantine, but because of a federal government exemption, crew are not required to do the same.
While maritime crew other than cruise ship crew are exempt still - there are some complications about maritime crew that are moving freight and the like - airline crew have had that exemption reviewed, and the government announced on Thursday airline crew coming into Australia would now be required to quarantine themselves for 14 days between flights.
There's clearly a risk if crew members are coming in with the infection, then they're at just as much risk of spreading it as anybody else if they're not under reasonably strict quarantine.
So the tension here is between the need to close our borders to seal ourself off from coronavirus. But we still need to bring in goods and people from overseas, so it's kind of a balancing act.
That's right. I mean, there are still some flights coming in from overseas with passengers on them, but not very many. We know that many, many countries have clamped down on international travel and the whole international travel system has virtually ground to a halt. There is still freight cargo going back and forth between countries. So it is a really difficult balancing act. We can look at other countries and how they've managed it. We can see countries around the world like Italy and Spain and now the UK and the United States, certainly, that perhaps didn't manage it as well early on and didn't clamp down enough on incoming travelers and on the domestic spread of the virus. And they're paying a terrible price for it now.
Australia has done a better job. There are some arguments that we moved quickly to limit, particularly passengers coming from China initially, but then perhaps didn't move quickly enough to stop the domestic spread, and so we have seen a rise in cases. But we've also been told in the last few days that there is considerable success showing up from the restrictions that we've been undertaking. It's very difficult for everyone being confined to home, and people have lost jobs and businesses, and it's a terrible situation, but it does seem to be working.
So these quarantine arrangements and the restrictions on incoming freight and incoming passengers and then what happens to people once they get here are crucially important; a part of that system, along with those restrictions closing down of businesses and restrictions of movement, physical distancing to really try and get on top of this virus.
Karen, thanks for talking to me today.
Thanks very much, Ruby.
Also in the news:
5,000 people in northwest Tasmania have been placed under quarantine as authorities in the state scramble to combat an outbreak of Covid-19.
There are 144 cases of Covid-19 in Tasmania and 60 of them are linked to two hospitals - The North West Regional Hospital and North West Private Hospital in Burnie.
Both hospitals were shut yesterday, with patients being transferred elsewhere.
About 1200 staff from the hospitals have been ordered to quarantine for two weeks along with their households.
Victoria Police issued over 400 fines over the Easter long weekend to people breaching public health orders.
The number of fines issued in Victoria this past weekend exceeded the total number of fines across the rest of the country. NSW police issued just over 100 fines.
Victoria's Human Rights Commissioner Kristen Hilton has said that some of the fines that had been issued are unfair, and that the Government should continually review the restrictions it has in place.
And federal Health Minister Greg Hunt says the government is now working on a strategy of "eradication" of Covid-19.
He said there were 6,335 cases of the virus in Australia, with 3,338 having officially recovered.
Hunt said that this was a “cause for real hope”, however, added it was "still too soon" to talk about lifting restrictions on gatherings or leaving home.
I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.
Australia’s strict quarantine measures have dramatically slowed the spread of Covid-19, but confusion between different levels of government has exposed the system’s flaws. Today, Karen Middleton on the other holes in Australia’s quarantine.
Guest: Chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper Karen Middleton.
7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.