Epidemiologist takes aim at PM's '99.9%' quarantine claim

·4-min read

A leading epidemiologist has criticised Australia’s “insecure quarantine system” and Scott Morrison’s consistent claims that it has been 99.9 per cent effective during the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite the PM’s adamance, the country’s quarantine system for international travellers has led to 24 leaks and subsequent outbreaks across Australia, Mary-Louise McLaws, professor of epidemiology at the University of NSW and WHO adviser, told Yahoo News Australia.

Roughly 21,000 cases — 70 per cent of total infections — have been confirmed since Australia closed its border, she said. They are a direct result of hotel quarantine leaks.

“When the authorities try to take credit for a 99.9 per cent safe quarantine system, what they’re failing to account for are all of the cases we’ve had since our borders have closed,” Ms McLaws said.

A return traveller (centre) exits a Skybus upon arriving to the Intercontinental quarantine hotel in Melbourne. Source: AAP
An epidemiologist has criticised Australia’s “insecure quarantine system” and Scott Morrison’s claims that it is 99.9 per cent effective. Source: AAP

“And if you take away all international cases, you’re left with just over 21,000 cases that have gotten into the community.

“The only way they’ve gotten through is the failures of the program. That does not tell me that it’s 99.9 per cent perfect at all.”

Hotels are not built for infectious agents

The quarantine system would be more effective and save the government money if purpose-built facilities were constructed and rapid antigen tests were conducted, Ms McLaws said.

The epidemiologist said hotels are not built for an infectious agent due to the airflow being half of what is expected in a hospital – 10 full clean air changes per hour, per person, per ward, she said.

A woman places a Covid-19 testing swab in her mouth as others line up behind her at a pop-up testing site. Source: Getty
Roughly 21,000 cases — 70 per cent of total infections — have been confirmed since Australia closed its border, Ms McLaws said. Source: Getty

“When you have a couple in a room and they’re positive, their airflow change is not increased like at a hospital.

“Particles build up fast and when you open the door it enters the corridor.”

She said people should also not be given rooms across the hall from one another.

Spending hundreds of millions on a special facility would still cost less than the $1 billion a week Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said it costs the economy when the borders are closed and Melbourne is in lockdown.

Rapid antigen testing would cost less

Another improvement would be performing rapid antigen tests, which take 15 to 20 minutes for a result, on travellers as soon as they land.

Those who return a positive result would then be taken to the prepared facility and those who did not would be taken to hotel quarantine, Ms McLaws said.

Both groups should be tested repeatedly during their stay.

Rapid antigen tests work well when people are pre-symptamatic, while the PCR tests currently used work well when they have symptoms, she added.

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Quarantining hotel guest at the Holiday Inn near the  Airport are moved to a new location in Melbourne. Source: AAP
The epidemiologist said hotels are not built for an infectious agent due to the airflow being half of what is expected in a hospital, she said. Source: AAP

While some pathologists have argued that the rapid antigen tests can produce false positives, that result “is so much better than a false negative because it can be followed up with a PCR test, which can have false negative,” the epidemiologist said.

Rapid antigen tests also cost between $15 and $30, while Medicare must rebate $110 for each PCR test, she added.

It can cost $100 million in testing every time there’s a breach and an outbreak in the community, Ms McLaws said.

States should send Pfizer vaccines to Victoria

In an effort to help Melbourne squash the newest outbreak, all other states should donate their Pfizer vaccines to Victoria, the professor said.

“Every person in Victoria who is 20 to 39 yeas of age should get it now, next should be 40s and 50s,” she said.

Melbourne is at a disadvantage during the Covid pandemic because it is highly mobile, sociable and has a large young population, she added.

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese on Saturday also condemned the government's defence of hotel quarantine.

"Scott Morrison speaks about the success rate. What he doesn't say is that with every failure, there are very serious consequences - for health, for our economy and for people being able to go about their lives," he said.

Given they "failed dismally" to protect Victoria, Mr Albanese added, the government must introduce financial support for people during the lockdown.

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