No sign of flights returning but Victoria set to contract more hotels to quarantine program
The Victorian government is in final negotiations to contract more hotels to its hotel quarantine program, despite existing sites sitting almost empty and no indication when international flights will be allowed into Melbourne again.
The Age can also reveal that the government wants its alternative quarantine facility outside of metropolitan Melbourne to be built and hosting most of the state’s returning travellers by September or October, with Avalon Airport still the frontrunner.
New quarantine hotels are set to be added to Victoria’s existing supply of 15.Credit:Getty Images
In the meantime, hotels in Melbourne’s CBD will at some point resume hosting returned Australians, who have not been arriving since Premier Daniel Andrews blocked international flights in mid-February in response to another COVID-19 leak from a quarantine hotel.
On Friday, a government spokeswoman again refused to detail when flights would return to Melbourne, stating it was “appropriate that international arrivals remained paused” until a team led by Deputy Chief Health Officer Allen Cheng has finished a review of the new, more infectious strains of COVID-19. No timeline has been given for the review’s completion.
The city’s 15 quarantine hotels remain contracted on multimillion-dollar deals that are costing the state about $1 million a day – a price that will grow once new hotels are brought into the program.
Yet 12 are non-operational and only flight crews plus a handful of exempted travellers and local cases who cannot isolate at home are using quarantine hotels.
Premier Daniel Andrews blocked international flights in mid-February after another COVID-19 leak out of a hotel.Credit:Penny Stephens
In a sign the return of international flights may be imminent, two sources familiar with the negotiations said management of the Novotel/Ibis Melbourne Central, built in 2018, were deep in discussions with the state government, who view the hotel favourably because of its modern facilities.
Michelle Bradshaw, general manager of Novotel/Ibis Melbourne Central, told The Age she had not signed a contract with the government. “I can’t confirm or deny anything linked to the hotel quarantine program,” she said.
A COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria spokesperson said the agency was continually assessing the program, including accommodation sites, “to ensure we can meet the future demands of the program”.
Budget documents released last week showed hotel quarantine would cost taxpayers at least $377 million over the year since it was rebooted on December 7, almost six months after COVID-19 leaks from state government-run hotels triggered Victoria’s second wave.
Some hotels, such as the Grand Chancellor in the CBD, were newly contracted in late January but received few or no guests before the program was halted.
Opposition justice spokesman David Southwick repeatedly targeted the scheme in Parliament this week and told The Age it was a waste of taxpayers’ money and police who are “babysitting” empty hotels.
“Daniel Andrews is busy playing Monopoly with your hard-earned money, collecting hotels that just sit there gathering dust,” he said.
Hotel quarantine workers began receiving their second dose of the Pfizer vaccine this week and will be fully inoculated within a month – a crucial factor in the government’s decision to allow international flights.
The state government is also continuing work on an alternative quarantine site outside Melbourne, either to replace or work in tandem with quarantine hotels.
Construction giant AECOM, the company behind the Howard Springs facility near Darwin, has been contracted to run a feasibility study on which regional locations would be suitable for self-contained quarantine units. Avalon Airport is one of those sites, The Age can confirm.
Mr Andrews’ Department of Premier and Cabinet has advised interested parties that it wants the first village-style accommodation units completed by September or October, according to one source familiar with the negotiations who asked to remain anonymous as they were unauthorised to speak to media. The tender for construction is set to be put to the market next month.
Details such as the final location and number of units will be decided after the feasibility studies. However, Victoria is keen to build its own facility that will host hundreds, possibly thousands, of quarantine guests simultaneously, rather than use an existing resource such as an army base.
A Victorian delegation of engineering, property and health experts travelled to Howard Springs to examine the facility earlier this month.
A government spokeswoman said design, delivery and operational issues were being assessed and would determine a timeline but did not deny the deadline of September or October.
“Senior officials are undertaking planning work that could be used to construct a stand-alone accommodation hub, and further details will be provided as that work progresses,” she said.
October is the federal government’s aim for all Australians to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and Howard Springs’ capacity will grow from 850 to 2000 by late April, prompting questions from the state opposition over how necessary Victoria’s custom-built site will be.
However, Mr Andrews has previously said some form of quarantine will be necessary even after all Australians are vaccinated and more capacity could open avenues for international workers, travellers and students to re-enter the state.
Avalon Airport, owned by Mr Andrews’ friend and government business partner Lindsay Fox, has pushed hard to host the new facility and argued it would need just three months to set up hundreds of units. International travellers could essentially step off a flight and into their accommodation for 14 days.
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