Australian scientist warns government over allowing quarantine hotel guests to leave their rooms
He was speaking after Melbourne went into lockdown following a COVID outbreak thought to be linked to quarantine hotel
UK minister appears to dismiss concerns, saying 'gulp of fresh air is reasonable'
An Australian epidemiologist has warned allowing quarantine hotel guests out of their rooms is “very risky” and could cause local coronavirus outbreaks.
Prof Michael Toole was speaking from Melbourne, Victoria, which has just gone into lockdown after an outbreak of COVID-19 infections thought to be linked to a quarantine hotel.
From Monday, UK and Irish nationals returning to England who have been in one of the government’s 33 “red list” countries over the previous 10 days must isolate for 10 days in a hotel designated by the government.
Non-UK and Irish nationals are banned from entering the UK if they have been in red list countries. Travellers from elsewhere must isolate for 10 days at home.
However, England's quarantine hotel rules are more relaxed than Australia’s system, which doesn't allow people to leave their rooms during the 14-day stay.
Watch: Police and security staff to help enforce hotel quarantines
UK government guidance says one of the “very limited circumstances” in which someone can leave their room is “to exercise but only with special permission from hotel staff or security”. The guidance adds “this is not guaranteed”.
A Number 10 spokesman also said it will be up to hotel staff to determine when people are allowed out of their rooms. He said: “Travellers must quarantine inside their room for 10 days, they are allowed outside for exercise with permission from hotel staff."
But asked about the prospect of guests leaving their rooms while accompanied by guards on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday, Prof Toole said: “We’ve learnt that that is a very risky procedure.”
He warned there have been COVID-19 cases in Melbourne where an infected guest opened their room door and “with the positive pressure this kind of fog of virus went out into the corridor, travelled down and infected hotel staff”.
Last week, there was also a small cluster of cases linked to a quarantine hotel in Auckland, New Zealand.
New Zealand, a country famed for its handling of the pandemic – there have been just 1,970 confirmed COVID infections during the entire pandemic – is also a country which allows people in quarantine hotels to "take part in planned outdoor exercise", "in a strictly controlled manner".
When Prof Toole’s concerns were later put to UK Home Office minister Victoria Atkins on the same programme, she appeared to dismiss them.
Atkins said “we have to look at our own measures in our own country”.
“I think allowing someone a gulp of fresh air during a 10-day visit in a hotel, with all the very strict measures that we have... is reasonable.
"But of course we will keep these measures under review.”
Travellers from countries on the red list can only arrive at one of five airports: Heathrow Airport, Gatwick Airport, London City Airport, Birmingham Airport and Farnborough Airfield.
The online booking portal for the hotel quarantine system – which will cost travellers £1,750 – went down shortly after it was launched on Thursday afternoon, and is not expected to be up and running again until later on Friday.
Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown