NSW will introduce two new major quarantine rule changes for international air crew on Tuesday in response to an alleged breach of existing guidance.
Crews from Qantas repatriation flights will now be required to take a COVID test before being allowed to isolate at home, while those from non-Australian airlines will have to stay in two police-supervised hotels.
It follows NSW Police fining 13 crew members $1,000 each for allegedly visiting local businesses. That breach was not connected to the current Northern Beaches cluster, despite speculation it is a US strain.
The new Qantas rules, revealed by the SMH, will allow crew to immediately transfer to another domestic flight if they need to reach their own state before quarantine.
However, documents obtained by the newspaper say that travel must be in accordance with a “COVID safety plan” that includes “wearing a mask and suitable distance made available between the crew member and other people travelling on the flight”.
Meanwhile, international crews will now be subjected to similar restrictions to passengers, who have to quarantine in a supervised hotel or accommodation for 14 days.
NSW has so far designated two facilities and Victoria followed by designating three. Typically, arrivals spend no more than 72 hours in a city before catching a flight out of Australia.
The old rules allowed airline employees to self-isolate at a designated location approved by the airline, so long as details were also shared with authorities. Crews could catch a taxi to their accommodation, providing they sat in the back and wore a mask.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian defended the existing guidance, arguing that procedures are a “very complex set of circumstances”.
“The issue isn’t the guidelines that we have in place, it’s, unfortunately, a few occasions where people have breached the guidelines, or actually chose not to self-isolate when they should have,” Premier Berejiklian said on Tuesday. “From Tuesday, there will be no chance of disobedience.”
Health Minister Brad Hazzard argued that the situation was not clear cut, as the mental health of those arriving had to be considered. He also said it was important too stringent rules didn’t discourage airlines from repatriating Australians abroad.
“We actually don’t want them to say, ‘We aren’t flying into NSW,’” said Hazzard. “We want them to continue flying freight and Aussies coming home.”
The situation comes while Sydney’s Northern Beaches is in lockdown due to a cluster at Avalon, which has caused every state and territory to close their borders to the NSW capital.
Significantly, there is a suspicion the origin of that infection is from the United States, fuelling speculation aviation employees may have been involved, or there was a breach of hotel quarantine.
The closures have led to Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin cancelling 48 flights from Sydney Airport on Monday.
The escalating situation is a huge blow for domestic aviation, which was on the brink of a Christmas renaissance.
Late last month, Australian Aviation reported how Virgin Australia recorded its largest day of sales since COVID, shortly after Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said her state would open to Sydney.
The business added that more than 60 per cent of flights booked were for travel in the lead up to and during Christmas, with searches for routes between NSW and Queensland doubling.