Victoria restarted its quarantine program on Thursday 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.
It comes after the program was suspended for a second time on 13 February when a breach at the Holiday Inn Melbourne Airport triggered a snap five-day lockdown.
The first of four flights to arrive in Melbourne was an A330-343, 4R-ALM msn 1583, which departed Colombo, Sri Lanka, at 2:17pm on Wednesday and landed on Thursday morning at 4:22am.
It will be followed by flights from Doha, Singapore and Dubai, which will in total take 106 passengers today.
The ABC reported those onboard boarded a Skybus on the tarmac and were driven to the Intercontinental hotel in Melbourne’s CBD.
Returning citizens were greeted by medical staff wearing full PPE including N95 masks and face shields, while the footpath they walked on was cordoned off by police wearing gloves and standing guard.
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.
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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 in March, when announcing the program’s return.
“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.”
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?
“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.”
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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