A growing chorus of voices is calling for Australia’s borders to be urgently bolstered, amid fears hotel quarantine will be helpless to prevent an outbreak of the UK virus superstrain.
Health experts are growing increasingly concerned about the threat of a local outbreak of the rapidly spreading variant that has already forced parts of Britain into a brutal third lockdown.
The Victorian government is considering a ban on UK travellers after the mutant strain was found in at least four returned travellers in Melbourne. It has also been detected in Sydney, Perth and South Australia, while a worrying strain from South Africa was found in a returned traveller in hotel quarantine in Queensland last month.
Australian Medical Association president Omar Khorshid told The Australian a superstrain from overseas could easily escape hotel quarantine.
“We’ve already seen our quarantine systems fail significantly with the virus escaping from quarantine in Victoria, NSW and South Australia. We’ve also seen breaches of quarantine in other places like WA although with no transmission occurring,” Dr Khorshid said.
“But with this highly transmissible variant of COVID, either the UK or South African one, there’s going to be more potential for that spread to occur from an infected traveller to a quarantine worker.”
Dr Khorshid said returning travellers should be tested before they left their country of origin.
“It’s not going to be foolproof because obviously people could test negative and still have the virus, but at least you would reduce the chances of somebody who’s already carrying one of these highly transmissible variants getting on an aeroplane,” he said.
Epidemiologist and public health specialist Tony Blakely from the University of Melbourne said Australia needed to “close the border or strengthen it as much as we possibly can”.
Dr Blakely proposed a raft of urgent changes to prevent the UK variant from entering the community, saying if “it gets on the ground in Australia, it will spread far more easily”.
“We can close the border, that’s quite radical, but it’s on the table as a possibility … or we strengthen the border,” Dr Blakely told ABC Breakfast.
“To strengthen the border, we test people before they get on the plane – that would weed out some of them, not all of them – (as well as) masks on the plane, very good processes in the transit. And then when you arrive here, really, really good quarantine.
“The extra measure I’m advocating now is urgently vaccinating the border. Customs, quarantine, airline, airport transport staff.”
Dr Blakely said he wasn’t advocating for Australia’s border to be shut but it should be on the table.
“However, if we did shut the border with the UK and South Africa, the variant that’s there will be in Spain, France, it’s worldwide soon,” he said.
“We could well end up shutting the borders to everyone.”
He has called for hotel quarantine staff to be among the first workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
“(We should be) getting our border staff vaccinated and getting our system for the nationwide vaccination as fast as possible, making sure we’ve got a really good program lined up to vaccinate the population,” he said.
“This new variant will become worldwide. The virus may keep mutating. It may be in two or three months time there’s another infectious version.”
However Damian Purcell, the head of the molecular virology laboratory in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at The Peter Doherty Institute, said hotel quarantine as an effective measure and Australians “don’t need to be terrified” of expected mutations of coronavirus.
“I think it does potentially have a higher rate of transmissibility, and we don’t fully understand all the reasons for that, but it’s important to realise that there’s no greater impact on disease from this particular strain,” he told ABC Radio.
“I think that the (hotel quarantine) system we’ve learnt to construct around incoming travellers has greatly increased in its rigour, and I think how transmissible and infectious this virus can be has been fully appreciated by people designing the system and monitoring and tracing the virus in our community.
“I don’t think that we should be locking people out, but making sure we’re prepared and capable of dealing with these versions of the virus in a system that’s able to stop them before they enter into the community.”
Victorian health authorities are concerned about the UK strain and Police Minister Lisa Neville said closing Australia’s borders to the UK should be considered by national cabinet.
The state’s Deputy Chief Health Officer Allen Cheng raised the issue with the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee on Tuesday.
“(Prof Cheng) is seeking for a national agreement to do the modelling, to look at the risk to each state of Australia,” Ms Neville said.
“Obviously that then impacts on international travellers if, ultimately, a risk assessment is done that shows the risk is much higher and we should look at closing the port.”
Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan said it would be a “no-brainer” to enforce pre-flight testing of travellers to Australia.
Mr McGowan confirmed yesterday three people in hotel quarantine in Perth have been detected to have the UK virus variant.
“I think it would be a great safety mechanism to ensure that people coming out of many countries around the world have a test and confirm they are negative before they board a flight with hundreds of other Australians,” he said.
Authorities in NSW are confident in the state’s procedures to contain the new strain.
NSW chief health officer Kerry Chant said there was “no one silver bullet” to avoiding virus variants, including pre-flight testing.
“Just because you’re tested a couple of days before you get on the plane, you can develop the infection on the plane, you can develop as you’re getting off the plane, or the next day,” Dr Chant said on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned testing before arrival could give travellers false confidence on arrival.
“Most of the airlines do it anyway and on all the flights that we’re bringing back to Australia directly as a Commonwealth, we’re doing it,” Mr Morrison told 3AW radio.
“But we should stress that that doesn’t change the risk.
“In some cases the argument is that it can be accentuated, it can highlight it, because people can be asymptomatic … or the virus hasn’t manifested itself yet at the time of travelling and that can create a complacency on the other side.”