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New South Wales and Victoria have announced a quarantine crackdown on international air crews arriving in Sydney and Melbourne after allegations of serious breaches and expert warnings that air crew arrangements were a “weak link” in the nation’s Covid-19 response.
The new Sydney coronavirus outbreak has prompted scrutiny of quarantine arrangements for air crew, who represent a significant proportion of Australia’s international arrivals during the pandemic. A national review of quarantine arrangements found air crew made up 4,808 of Australia’s 13,089 international arrivals in the last two weeks of August.
Air crew arriving in New South Wales have been allowed to skip the usual government-mandated hotel quarantine and instead quarantine at home or at accomodation arranged by their employer. The quarantine lasts for 14 days or until their next flight out of Australia.
The crews must give contact and accomodation details to NSW Health before leaving the airport, and provide a written declaration that they have no symptoms and have had no Covid-19 contact. Crews are allowed to take taxis or Ubers from the airport as long as they “sit in the back seat”, wear a mask, and do not stop anywhere along the way.
Similar exemptions exist in Queensland, the Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria.
On Friday the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, announced significant changes to air crew quarantine, to come into force on Tuesday. Victoria quickly followed suit, announcing crew would be confined to a few hotels in Melbourne.
Overseas air crews arriving in Sydney on international flights will now be compelled to stay in just two designated hotels near the airport, instead of the 25 currently used, and will be monitored by health authorities and police.
“That will mean there will be better compliance,” Berejiklian said.
“The issue isn’t the guidelines that we have in place, it’s unfortunately a few occasions where people have breached the guidelines, or actually chose not to self-isolate when they should have.
“From Tuesday, there will be no chance of disobedience.”
At Berejiklian’s media conference with the health minister, Brad Hazzard, and the chief health officer, Kerry Chant, it was alleged that one international air crew had been out visiting venues in recent weeks, in direct breach of their requirement to quarantine.
The changes to quarantine arrangements appear to have been in train for several weeks, but were only acted upon recently.
Prof Adrian Esterman, a biostatistician and epidemiologist at the University of South Australia, said the treatment of air crews was a weak link in Australia’s quarantine system.
Speaking before Berejiklian’s announcement, Esterman, who has worked with the World Health Organisation and was the South Australian government’s principal epidemiologist, told the Guardian: “It definitely is a weak link and needs to be tightened nationally.
“Air crew are a bit different, in that they are constantly flying in and out of the country, but nonetheless, while in Australia, they should be in secure quarantine until their next flight,” he said.
He also suggested that rapid antigen testing be conducted of aircrews before departure and on arrival, which could potentially give room for “a more relaxed quarantine regimen for air crew”.
Berejiklian said testing for locally-based international air crew was under consideration.
The issue of air crews was discussed by federal, state, and territory governments at last week’s national cabinet meeting.
The federal government and NSW pledged to “work to strengthen standards regarding quarantine and testing arrangements for international air crew”.
The driver working for the flight crew was not from the northern beaches and was wearing a mask while transporting them to their accommodation. Three members of his household later tested negative and genome testing has not linked his case to the northern beaches cluster, the NSW chief health officer, Kerry Chant, confirmed on Friday.
Hazzard, said on Thursday that about 2,000 international air crew members were touching down in Sydney each week. Most had turnarounds of up to 72 hours before flying again.
Hazzard said if national cabinet did not establish a nationwide regime for arriving air crew, NSW might implement its own changes.
Mike Toole, an epidemiologist at the Burnet Institute, told the ABC this week it made no sense to treat air crews as any less risky than passengers.
“Hindsight is always 20-20, but it seems to me that the risk of airline crew being infected is no lower than the risk of an arriving passenger,” Toole said.
“Many of them are coming from countries that have very high rates of Covid infection.”
He said their movement to hotels and accomodation should be monitored by police or the ADF.
Foreign diplomats and Australian government officials, including those from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, are also allowed to quarantine at home after returning from abroad.
Source: The Guardian
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