The new public health orders for children in quarantine were introduced on December 21 amid alarm about the spread of a new highly contagious UK strain of COVID-19.
Unaccompanied children were previously allowed to self-isolate at a private residence under the supervision of a parent or guardian.
Parents can still apply for a special exemption, as did a Sydney parent whose nine-year-old child arrived in Australia this month from Europe.
NSW Health rejected the application. In a letter explaining the decision – seen by The Sydney Morning Herald – it said its “default position” was that unaccompanied minors must enter hotel quarantine because of the mutations making the virus more transmissible.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the parent said the policy was “inhumane”.
“It seems completely outrageous,” said the parent, who ultimately decided to enter isolation as well so their child would not be alone.
“They’re going to risk me getting COVID-19 and kids have incredibly stressful experiences while Nicole Kidman is flying in and out of the country.”
In the letter, NSW Health said it was their “preference” that a parent or guardian enter quarantine with the child but they acknowledged this was “not always possible”.
The Herald has been told the policy has affected children are as young as six, but NSW Health on Sunday declined to disclose the age of the youngest child quarantined in this way or the total number of children now isolating alone in hotel quarantine.
“For privacy reasons, NSW Health does not comment on individual cases,” a spokeswoman said.
She also declined to reveal how many applications there had been for exemptions this month or their outcome.
“Each case is assessed on its own merits to ensure both the safety of the minor and risks associated with COVID-19 are mitigated,” the spokeswoman said.
She added that “ideally” unaccompanied minors would quarantine with a parent or guardian.
The children are being held in Special Health Accommodation, a type of hotel quarantine run by NSW Health staff instead of NSW Police.
Returned travellers diagnosed with COVID-19 are also transferred to Special Health Accommodation, along with community members who test positive but are unable to self-isolate in their usual place of residence.
At least one NSW patient in Special Health Accommodation was recently confirmed as having the UK mutant variant of COVID-19.
The NSW Health spokeswoman said the Sydney Local Health District had “extensive paediatric services” that supported patients in Special Health Accommodation.
“These include placing the minor in a room close to the nurses’ station to allow for frequent observation.
“Allied health and nursing staff will monitor their wellbeing and provide them with activities, including encouraging completion of schoolwork where relevant.”
The parent of the nine-year-old child said the pair were initially told there were “no COVID cases here” when they entered Special Health Accommodation.
The parent was stunned when a care package was placed under the door stating, “You have tested positive to COVID-19.”
“I said: ‘Hang on why I have got this thing?’ ” the parent recalled. “They said very sorry, that must have been an error.”
The parent said authorities finally admitted they were co-located with COVID-19 patients only after a second care package arrived, and a family member spotted COVID-19 patients arriving at the facility in a patient transport van.
The parent suggested that authorities should develop better ways of policing home quarantine, such as the use of ankle bracelets, so children could return to home isolation.
The NSW Health spokesperson said Special Health Accommodation included more than 600 apartments, with a mix of one to three bedrooms, totalling about 750 rooms.
“There are designated floors for patients who are positive, negative or pending a result,” the spokesperson said.
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Carrie Fellner is an investigative reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.