Victoria will restart its hotel quarantine program in two weeks despite earlier hints from Premier Daniel Andrews that it could be scrapped or reduced.
The state also confirmed it’s still considering introducing a new Howard Springs-style cabin system in a more remote location, with 10 sites now on the shortlist.
The state’s hotel quarantine program was suspended for a second time on 13 February after a breach at the Holiday Inn Melbourne Airport triggered a snap five-day lockdown.
On Thursday, Victoria revealed the program will return with several significant changes, including testing returnees on four separate occasions and reduced room capacity for family groups.
Tests will now be carried out on day zero, four, 12 and 14 and returnees will be encouraged to get tested again on days 17 and 21.
Victoria will initially take 800 passengers per week, rising to 1,120 after ventilation checks are conducted in hotels.
“We’ve taken [the] action and time necessary to ensure we have the most rigorous quarantine system possible in place to protect against these highly infectious, rapidly changing variants of concern,” said acting Premier James Merlino.
“The challenges of this virus will be with us for some time to come, that’s why we’ve listened to the advice of experts and made the necessary changes to ensure we’re keeping Victorians safe.”
In late February, Premier Andrews hinted the program might not return at all, arguing Australia needed to have a “cold, hard discussion” of how best to keep new variants of COVID out of the country.
“With this UK strain – and we haven’t even got on to South Africa yet, because it’s just as bad – should we be halving the total number of people coming home?” said Premier Andrews. “Or should it be a much smaller program that’s based on compassionate grounds?
“That’s a conversation we should have, particularly given that we’re so close to being able to vaccinate those who, if they get this, will become gravely ill.
“It’s not for me to make announcements about how many Australians get to come back to Australia. That’s for the federal government. What I’m saying is the game has changed.
“This thing is not the 2020 virus. It is very different. It is much faster. It spreads much more easily.”
Victoria also maintained it’s still considering a new quarantine centre modelled on the Howard Springs facility.
It follows Premier Andrews saying last month, “It’s just a matter of how big it is and the more precise details of where but Avalon and Melbourne airports are standout candidates and I’m very grateful to them for the partnership and work they’ve already done with us.”
The plan followed an idea pitched by Avalon’ chief executive Justin Giddings, who said the idea would allow repatriated Australians to cook their own meals, clean their own cabins and spend time outside.
The proximity of the airport means no bus transfer would be required and the nearest private home is more than 10 kilometres away.
NSW is currently taking the vast bulk of returned citizens, with Sydney quarantine hotels now accepting 3,000 entrants per week. The next highest is Queensland, taking 1,000.
The news comes after Australia’s arrival caps in February returned to their previously higher December 2020 levels, which were cut at the start of 2021 following a second COVID cluster in Sydney.
The January temporary cuts formed part of the biggest overhaul of the quarantine program since its inception, and also included a provision for passengers to wear masks on all domestic and international flights; for hotel staff to be tested daily and for ex-pats to require a negative result before boarding a repatriation flight.
Arrival caps were introduced in July and sat at 4,000, before increasing to 6,500 at the end of 2020 and then decreasing to just over 4,000 in January 2021.