‘Ludicrous’ reason for Sydney outbreak
Now the nation's most populated and fastest growing state is scrambling with a "serious situation" after a quarantine worker tested positive to COVID-19 after working across two Sydney hotels.
NSW's heady 25-day virus-free streak has come to an end and you can sense the buoyancy evaporating as instantly as Gladys Berejiklian's long overdue holiday.
Yet like so many of our outbreaks, the cause seems so ludicrous, so shortsighted when juxtaposed against the potential deaths and economic damage.
A woman working between two hotels - one for quarantined returned travellers - and travelling to and from work on two rail systems, shows how vulnerable we are if we don't learn from previous mistakes.
As the Premier calls the situation "very serious" and contact tracers scramble to alert those who came into contact with the woman either at the Ibis or Novotel hotels, or on public transport, there's incredulity that a critical frontline worker could work between a quarantine hotel and one simply serving members of the public.
Have the blunders in Victoria and South Australia not taught us anything? There's not a politician or a public health official still in a job who doesn't know that hotel quarantine is like a Petri dish for the virus. Mismanage even the slightest factor and suddenly deaths are skyrocketing, borders are slamming shut and ordinary lives are brought to a standstill.
So where are the rules preventing cleaners, cooks and suchlike from working multiple jobs across multiple facilities when one of those workplaces is a quarantine hotel?
Of course, there are issues. People simply want to make a living and will work multiple jobs to maximise their income. But with borders now opening and shutting as frequently as the front door of a brothel, it's imperative we learn something from our botched quarantine processes and put better protocols in place.
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Should hotel workers be prevented from working in multiple facilities just as aged care employers were given additional entitlements to enable employees to work at a single site?
Should we abandon hotel quarantine in densely populated cities and instead house returning travellers on Christmas Island or rural military barracks?
Surely this is the time to capitalise on our "tyranny of distance", both from the rest of the world and across our vast barren land.
Should returning travellers be isolating at home under an electronically tagged home quarantine system enforced by strong sanctions?
Or should we operate a quarantine program where all those who work inside the facility are accommodated within and they themselves have to undergo a fortnight quarantine before returning home? Costly, yes, but not as crippling as a statewide lockdown.
Indeed, haven't Aussies overseas been given enough time to get home? The Prime Minister urged them to return at the beginning of the pandemic. Can we continue to risk lives - and livelihoods - especially when we've responded so successfully compared to other nations? Could they return via island quarantine or be banned until vaccinated?
Should those in hotel quarantine do their own cleaning before they leave and, in return, have the savings deducted from their bill? It's not as if they have anything else to do.
Or should we simply accept that these cases will continue to pop up and that we need to focus on fast and effective contract tracing?
There is no perfect system, but with a vaccine still months away it's clear we need a better one.
The Ruby Princess debacle, the grave and systemic failures with Melbourne's hotel quarantine, and the errors in South Australia have provided adequate examples of how not to manage our response. Months ago officials could claim a lack of pandemic readiness but as we round out the year far too many stupid and seemingly avoidable stuff-ups continue to occur.
And while they're at it, health officials might want to think about their messaging. You can't tell a state that the virus has been "virtually eliminated" then have to back-pedal hours later when a case pops up forcing health authorities to scramble.
As we head towards Christmas, we don't need upbeat missives or empty promises from our leaders and officials. What's required now, and in the months to come, is refined policies, vigilance, clear-headedness, honesty and a quick response when something goes wrong.
Angela Mollard is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation @angelamollard
Originally published as 'Ludicrous' reason for Sydney outbreak