Victoria has revealed plans for its Howard Springs-style quarantine hub in Melbourne – but told the federal government it should pay $200 million to cover its full construction costs.
Acting Premier James Merlino said the 500-bed facility could potentially open by the end of the year and the state would pay $15 million for its design.
Victoria’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. The state then pledged to introduce a purpose-built building in a more remote location to prevent future leakages.
Premier Merlino said on Thursday the proposed quarantine centre would be built on land adjacent to its pet quarantine facility in Mickleham, 30 kilometres north of Melbourne’s CBD, and would have the potential to be expanded to 3,000 beds.
The design would be ready by September, when a final decision would be made. If green-lit, it could potentially open by the end of the year.
“Our request is that they pay for the cost of the construction … the initial 500 beds is around $200 million,” Premier Merlino said.
“The cost of an expanded [facility] to the maximum of 3,000 beds is around $700 million.”
He added that if the federal government refused to pay, the state could potentially go back to a previous plan submitted by Avalon Airport.
It follows a row between state and federal governments as to which is responsible for quarantine. During COVID, this has been handled by states but some argue this is constitutionally a federal responsibility.
Victoria’s announcement comes after Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the country’s current system, using commercial hotels, was “99.99 per cent effective”.
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The state only restarted its quarantine program on 8 April after making changes to hotel ventilation systems thought to be responsible for a COVID outbreak in February.
The state’s acting Police Minister, Danny Pearson, said teams had “gone room by room, floor by floor” to make the necessary improvements to isolation facilities.
Minister Pearson also confirmed that quarantine employees can now only be based at one site and work one job.
Other changes to procedures include 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.
The program’s return comes despite Premier Dan Andrews arguing in late February that 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?
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.
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