Hospital Pass: how Scott Morrison foisted quarantine responsibility on the states

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Illustration: Alex Anstey

Like aged care, quarantine is the responsibility of the federal government. Yet the Morrison government forced that role onto the states and territories, and deployed a submissive media to snipe from the sidelines. Australia now has the glory of tackling the deadly pandemic with the best in the world yet, as Rhonda Boyle. reports, throughout the whole Covid-19 saga, Scott Morrison and his federal colleagues have been followers, followers of the New Zealand PM, state and territory leaders, scientists and health experts.

Experts warned us that pandemics would increase in frequency and severity due to the growth in the global population and international travel, the incursion of human settlements into wildlife habitat, the live animal trade and modern livestock management practices.

A review after the 2009 H1N1 pandemic recommended the clarification of the roles and responsibilities of all governments for the management of people in quarantine, both at home and in other accommodation, during a pandemic, but that was not done.

So while there were plenty of pointers to the likelihood of a pandemic occurring and its potentially devastating consequences, Australia was poorly prepared for Covid-19.

Despite the federal government having complete responsibility for quarantine; despite it being in charge of all international arrivals, both how many and where from; and despite it controlling the many immigration detention centres around the country, it still had no plan.

The Coalition government did not coordinate a national approach. It abrogated all responsibility to the states and territories – even ordering them to take more international arrivals – and yet it has berated, targeted or praised selected jurisdictions on their shortcomings or otherwise.

Compare this with the planning to ensure pets relocating to Australia have the best possible experience in quarantine. In 2015 the federal government opened the Mickleham animal quarantine station near Melbourne airport.

Costing $380 million, the state-of-the-art facility is “one of the nicest animal quarantine facilities in the world … made up of sleek, modern buildings for each type of animal, with wonderful caretakers who will look after your pet and carefully follow any special food or medication accommodations they require.” The kennels include floor heating and all pets are “housed in their own private, climate-controlled pens”.

Quarantine a federal responsibility

The federal government’s responsibility for quarantine is conferred under the Constitution.

As former Liberal Opposition Leader John Hewson noted:

“Quarantine is a clear national responsibility explicitly designated as such by S51 of the constitution.”

And academic and political editor Peter Van Onselen:

“The Australian Border Force is in charge of incoming arrivals, with the commonwealth given constitutionally articulated responsibility for quarantining. The Constitution, in section 51 (IX), lays out in black and white that the commonwealth, not the states, has oversight for quarantine.”

We were warned

Experts have warned of the likelihood of a pandemic for years.

This 2004 CSIRO report writes:

“Infectious diseases previously unknown in humans have been increasing steadily over the last three decades. More than 70 per cent of these emerging diseases are zoonotic in nature – passing from animals to people, for example influenzas from poultry or pigs…”.

And a 2004 report by the Chief Medical Officer also notes the potential for exotic viruses to spread around the world:

“SARS reminds us that new diseases will continue to arise as infectious agents mutate and adapt to exploit new ecological opportunities. We cannot assume, as was widely trumpeted in the 1960s and 1970s, that we have conquered communicable diseases. No one can predict the next emergency, although we can all be wise after the event.”

Nonetheless, the federal government was unprepared and had no plan.

National Cabinet meeting

By mid-March 2020, international arrival numbers were slowing down, but were still more than 25,000 a day. By late March, Australia was approaching a total of 4,000 coronavirus infections, overwhelmingly acquired or sourced from overseas, with typically two to four new infections arriving each plane load.

Furthermore, some returned travellers who had tested positive were not self-isolating as directed. Something needed to be done to stem the growth of community transmission.

The National Cabinet met on 27 March.

The Prime Minister arrived at the meeting wielding full control of international arrivals and federal detention centres, and biosecurity legislation that gave extremely broad powers to the Commonwealth, powers that superseded those of the states. As a previous immigration minister, he had extensive personal experience in border control.

However, as reported by Paul Bongiorno, the state premiers were shocked when Scott Morrison arrived at the meeting with no quarantine plan.

State and territory leaders had no choice but to devise their own plan. That meeting resulted in two major decisions, apparently from a proposal by the premiers of NSW and Victoria, the two most populous and vulnerable states:

  • As of 28 March 2020 all incoming travellers would be required to undertake a 14 day supervised hotel quarantine period.
  • The eight states and territories were required to run the hotel quarantine system.

The system was to be operational in 36 hours.

The Coate Inquiry later noted that the lack of planning and short notice was a most unsatisfactory situation from which to develop such a complex and high-risk program.

The inquiry also noted that:

“It would be unfair to judge Victoria’s lack of planning for a mandatory quarantining program given the commonwealth, itself, had neither recommended nor developed such a plan.”

Nor should the other seven jurisdictions be so judged.

PM orders premiers to accept more international arrivals

So while the commonwealth controlled the number of arrivals it did not, it seems, offer access to or establish remote centres for quarantining. Moreover, in mid-September the state and territory leaders learned, without any consultation, that there would be more arrivals from overseas.

As the ABC reported:

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the number of people allowed into Australia each week will increase by 2,000 next Friday, even though the Government is yet to get agreement from states that will have to house the extra people in hotel quarantine.

 

Morrison said states would effectively be forced into accepting the arrivals into their quarantine systems, as the decision was set in stone. “The planes will land with people on them, and they’ll be arriving,” he said.

Scott Morrison’s decision was not a request but an order.

The Prime Minister through Border Force has control of all passengers into Australia, including disembarkation, immigration and egress from customs. The federal government has effectively been dumping arriving passengers into airports for the state health authorities to look after. Flights were allowed to continue from major hotspots such as the US, the UK and India without special constraints, increasing the chance of infected arrivals.

As John Hewson wrote:

“A clear acceptance of its responsibility would have seen the Morrison government establish quarantine centres around Australia for all incoming arrivals.”

No federal offers of immigration centres

Despite using Christmas Island early in the pandemic, the federal government seems to have made no similar offers. Except for Howard Springs in the Northern Territory, the states and territories have been stuck with CBD-based systems that they might have to operate for some years to come.

In relation to securing our borders and quarantine, Peter van Onselen wrote in July that these “are the responsibilities of the national government, not the states”; that failure occurred “once power was abdicated to them”; and that the “fingerprints of failure by the commonwealth are nowhere to be seen, leaving state governments to wear the odium for mistakes made”.

It defies logic that the state and territories strive to rid their communities of coronavirus, with huge effects on the lives of the citizens, while the federal government lands more arrivals on top of them on a daily basis. Why has the federal government not put in place ways to stop infectious people boarding flights?

Meanwhile, international flight crews were allowed to follow their own rules, and the states – rather than Border Force – had to negotiate with individual airlines. The Department of Home Affairs approach to air crews was simply advisory, not mandatory, using words such as “advised to” rather than “must”.

Where to from here?

The CBD-based system must be phased out. There are many other options including upgraded federal detention centres, mining camps and tourist resorts. These quarantine centres would employ well paid fly-in fly-out/drive-in drive-out staff on site. Outside pandemics, these specialised facilities can be used for other purposes.

The costs of setting up remote centres need to be balanced against the extraordinary ongoing disruption caused by local lockdowns and border closures, including the costs of testing tens of thousands of people each time there is an outbreak and having to extend support such as JobSeeker.

We need to overhaul federal and state planning and coordination for pandemics, in particular mass quarantining. Had proper planning been in place we would have experienced a much more cost-effective, humane and cohesive approach.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Pearls and Irritations.





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