The Queensland government has finally signed a deal to construct a purpose-built regional COVID-19 quarantine facility near Wellcamp Airport, without Commonwealth support.
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced on Thursday the state government had struck a deal with Wellcamp Airport owner Wagner Corporation to build the new 1,000-bed facility on vacant land owned by the Wagner family, adjacent to the airport.
Construction is now already underway, with the first 500 beds to be available by the end of this year. The facility will be entirely completed by March next year, according to the Wagners.
The Wagner family first pitched the idea of constructing the purpose-built facility on unused land near the airport terminal, also owned by the Wagners, in January, and promised it could facilitate construction to be completed within “the next four to five weeks”.
While the details on the funding of the project remain confidential, Queensland has signed a one-year lease for the facility, with the option to extend an additional two to three years.
“Our hotels were not built for the Delta strain of this virus,” Premier Palaszczuk said during the announcement.
“This is going to be a great boost for our defence against the Delta virus in this country, and in fact I believe we need regional facilities, right across the country. I have been advocating for this for a long, long time. It is a no-brainer.”
The design of the facility will mimic that of the Howard Springs quarantine facility in the Northern Territory, and offer self-contained cabins with balconies, and no adjoining rooms or hallways.
Deputy Premier Steven Miles said single, double and family-sized rooms will be available, and the facility will be designed to minimise unnecessary transmission between people in quarantine or to staff members servicing the centre.
While the state government has long been in full support of a regional facility to keep positive COVID cases leaking into its busy Brisbane CBD, the plan has been delayed by the Commonwealth, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison repeatedly snubbing the Wagners’ proposal.
PM Morrison has said the site does not meet the criteria for a Commonwealth-funded quarantine centre as it is too far from a tertiary hospital.
Commenting on the Queensland government’s decision to go it alone at Wellcamp, PM Morrison said Premier Palaszczuk has “been at liberty” to fund and construct the facility “for months”.
“We’ve made it very clear that that facility did not seek to meet the national guidelines and that’s why we’re going together, forward together, at Pinkenba,” he said.
“They’ve made that decision and they could have done that months ago if that’s what they wish to do, but it’s good for them and I wish them every success.”
The federal government could still somewhat impede the success of the Wellcamp facility by refusing to allow regular international passenger flights directly into Wellcamp, however even without such approvals, Deputy Premier Steven Miles said the centre will still operate.
Deputy Premier Miles said once the Wellcamp facility is up and running, travellers will be transported via bus from Brisbane Airport.
“We currently bus arriving travellers from Brisbane to hotel quarantine accommodation on the Gold and Sunshine Coast, and so that would remain an option to get people here safely,” he said.
The news comes less than two weeks after another purpose-built quarantine facility for overseas arrivals in Queensland was officially given the green light, with construction set to be completed by mid-2022.
The state government signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the federal government to begin constructing the 1,000-bed facility on a 30-hectare site at the Damascus Barracks in Pinkenba, just metres from Brisbane Airport.
Under that deal, the Commonwealth will foot the bill for the design, construction and fit-out of the facility, while the Queensland government will cover the centre’s running costs.
However even at that time, the Queensland government continued to urge the Commonwealth to back its proposal for a regional facility at Wellcamp.
“If we have two facilities, we will not have to use hotels for quarantine,” Premier Palaszczuk said, stating that an additional facility at Wellcamp “would be of great assistance” to Queensland’s COVID response.
“Following countless breaches from the nation’s hotel quarantine system it’s clear there is an urgent need for more fit-for-purpose quarantine facilities throughout Australia,” Deputy Premier Miles added.
“With NSW and Victoria in lockdown, we cannot afford more leaks from hotel quarantine.”
“Until all Australians have been offered a vaccination, quarantine facilities will remain Australia’s frontline in preventing deadly new strains of COVID-19 from entering our community,” he said.
It also follows the news that the Queensland government has announced a two-week pause on its hotel quarantine system for interstate arrivals, due to overwhelming demand.
In fact, Health Minister Yvette D’Ath said on Thursday that if the Wellcamp facility had been approved and built sooner it may have prevented the government’s decision to pause interstate arrivals.