He said the hub would be modelled on the Howard Springs site in the Northern Territory, and revealed senior officials were well advanced in planning, which will include investigating parcels of land near Melbourne and Avalon airports.
Weeks after imploring other Australian states and territories to replicate Victoria’s hotel quarantine model that has since suffered three leakages of COVID-19 in the past month, Mr Andrews said he had decided bespoke accommodation hubs outside Melbourne would be the safest quarantine system, possibly running alongside some hotels.
The Premier cited the new threat posed by more virulent strains of coronavirus from Britain and South Africa, similar to his justification for the state’s five-day lockdown – although members of the national infection control committee this week said errors within hotels, rather than the new strains, were the “real issue”.
“It would be a cabin-style, village-style environment, where there would be fresh air, where there would be not zero risk but lower risk,” Mr Andrews said.
He could not offer a timeline on a Victorian site but said senior officials would travel to Howard Springs, 30 kilometres from Darwin, to inspect the 67-hectare facility built by Japanese oil company Inpex in 2012 to house workers across 875 accommodation units.
The Northern Territory government took over the dormant site at a cost of $350,000 a month in 2019 – a dead weight Mr Andrews said Victoria would avoid because bespoke quarantine facilities could be used in future for emergency bushfire accommodation or other pandemics and health crises.
Avalon Airport boss Justin Giddings reiterated his keenness for quarantine units to be built on the airport’s more than 1000 hectares of available land on Tuesday and said they would be a permanent installation next to the international terminal.
He told The Age the construction price would be in the millions, but would vary depending on the number and size of the units.
“I’d say the government will likely want to build and pay for it themselves,” Mr Giddings said.
“It could easily be bigger than Howard Springs and I certainly would be very comfortable with having the likes of international students here, if that’s what the government wanted.”
International students contribute $13.7 billion to the Victorian economy in a normal year, while a shortage of workers has resigned farmers to leaving up to 30 per cent of fruit rotting on trees this season.
A spokeswoman for Melbourne Airport said it was too early to assess whether a quarantine site was feasible.
“While Melbourne Airport has a large land bank, significant work would need to be undertaken to assess whether a facility to the government’s standards could be developed on airport land, what approvals would be required from Commonwealth and state governments, and in what timeframe any of this could be delivered,” she said.
University of Sydney infectious diseases expert Robert Booy said building a new quarantine facility would take time and would not solve the problems that have plagued hotel quarantine.
While he stressed adequate air ventilation was a critical element, Professor Booy argued much of the virus leaks from hotel quarantine could be traced back to human behaviour.
“It’s often human error that’s the problem, not the facility, so we need to get better at managing quarantine within the settings,” he said.
“We will still have the same old problem of people who need excellent training and surveillance.
“Whether you’ve got a new facility or an old one, you need to get the best quality out of your people.”
He added that while Victoria had lagged behind other states “and seemed to struggle with doing hotel quarantine as well” it was improving its system all the time.
“It seems a somewhat hopeful and simplistic approach to a nuanced problem,” he said.
Australian Medical Association Victoria president Julian Rait welcomed the news and said ventilation in many inner-city hotels “just isn’t up to the standards we expect from our hospitals or indeed many other health facilities.
“Ultimately, though, best practice infection-control is more important than where quarantine might be located,” Professor Rait said.
The AMA’s Northern Territory president, Rob Park, said the staffing at the Howard Springs facility by Australian Medical Assistance Teams (AUSMAT) was more important to its success than its layout.
“It’s the standard of preparation support that the AUSMAT people have, which is why Howard Springs is way ahead and some of the [other quarantine facilities],” Professor Park told radio station 3AW on Tuesday afternoon.
“AUSMAT people have been involved in the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone a couple of years ago, and there’s no more dangerous disease than Ebola. So if you can train up for Ebola then really, it’s reasonably easy to train for the COVID preparation.”
Victorian Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien called the announcement a “distraction” from the failures of hotel quarantine and contact tracing that led to a third lockdown in Victoria.
“The problem isn’t that we’re doing it in Melbourne, the problem is we’re doing it incompetently in Melbourne and that’s why the virus is getting out,” he said.
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Michael is a state political reporter for The Age.
Sumeyya is a state political reporter for The Age.
Melissa Cunningham is The Age’s health reporter.