Why not build a national facility?

Why not build a national facility?

Key points

  • The establishment of dedicated federal quarantine facilities of the required scale are not a short or even medium term solution.
  • It’s not possible to rapidly establish facilities capable of receiving tens of thousands of arrivals per month with the required proximity to major hospitals and airports. 

A lot of commentators suggest that international arrivals should be sent to a facility or facilities like Howard Springs or Christmas Island, imagining that would solve the stranded Aussies crisis. It won’t.

A federal facility – Howard Springs

In October 2020, the Australian federal government released a ‘National Review of Hotel Quarantine’ by Jane Halton. One of her recommendations, apart from developing a system of home-based quarantine, was the construction of a national quarantine facility. Ms Halton mentioned Howard Springs in the Northern Territory and claimed that it could hold 3,500 people. Otherwise she did not elaborate on the required size or number of any such facilities or any other logistics.

In practice, factoring social distancing measures, Howard Springs’ maximum capacity is 1,700 to 1,900 per month. If we base a sustainable quarantine capacity in Australia on the best practice examples of Taiwan and New Zealand, Australia requires at least 56,600 quarantine spaces per month. That’s the equivalent of 30 Howard Springs Facilities.

Prohibitive logistical issues

Disappointingly, media articles that cover proposals for dedicated facilities never raise the numbers of quarantine spaces needed. At least this article on dedicated camps as a future quarantine solution looks at other logistical issues. 

“…mainland facilities, not too far from appropriate levels of healthcare, are definitely worth considering in the longer term,” [AMA president Dr Omar Khorshid] said, while adding that by the time new facilities were completed, they may no longer be needed.

While more facilities like Howard Springs would be ideal, experts point to a number of issues that rule out any large scale establishment of such facilities in time to help stranded Aussies. In short, they would be prohibitively costly, difficult to locate and take years to construct to the capacity required.

  • Location
  • Facilities must be close to major hospitals. Coronavirus infections and other complex medical events that can rapidly escalate are inevitable among large numbers of residents.
  • They must be close to airports. Transfer of arrivals to the facility must be as short as possible to minimise transmission risk to other travellers and transport staff.
  • Residents need to make post quarantine journeys from the facility to their intended destination within Australia. Remote facilities would make this extremely difficult and expensive.
  • A large workforce of health professionals and other staff are required. The costs and logistics of relocating and, if necessary, accommodating such workforces are enormous.
  • Timing and cost
  • Construction of facilities to the size and specifications required would take months or years.
  • According to news reports, Howard Springs cost $400m to build. Estimates for constructing a similar facility in Victoria are that it would cost up to $170m. It’s estimated that a facility capable of taking 300 arrivals at a time could be completed in four to six months if the project was rushed.
  • Victoria would need 19 of those 300 bed facilities to bring it to par with New Zealand’s quarantine capacity per capita.
  • Politics
  • There is no guarantee such facilities would be any better run than hotel quarantine.
  • Given Australian political leaders’ inordinate level of risk aversion, resistance to public health expenditure, and callous disregard for Australians abroad, it’s possible that even with such facilities available, they would not have the capacity to meet demand and the government would still maintain draconian arrivals caps. 

In short, the establishment of dedicated facilities is not possible in the short to medium term and would not be adequate to solve the stranded Aussies crisis.

On the other hand, both the Halton report and the Victorian Inquiry into Hotel Quarantine made recommendations to implement home-based quarantine as the safest and most humane system. Home-based quarantine was implemented very quickly in Taiwan – a country with a population close to Australia’s. By April 2020, the Taiwanese government was efficiently managing 55,000 people quarantining at home.

There was no reason that Australian governments could not have cooperated to develop a similar system. The talk of constructing facilities, a year into the pandemic, is too little and too late.

See also: World leading quarantine systems  and The politics of the flight caps