This letter is written to point out some of the inadequacies and suggest improvements to the quarantine system and may be of interest to your readers.
Although Australia has handled this pandemic well by international standards, it must be recognised, given the increasing global population and the increasing conurbation and mobility of that population, this type of pandemic is likely to occur with more frequency – possibly every 30-40 years instead of every 100 lt is imperative therefore that as a nation we are better prepared to deal with future pandemics.
Also, while we have a number of inquiries in place, both state and federal, it is considered these are limited mainly to the mechanics of addressing current issues and only peripherally to some of the core issues identified in this letter.
Further, it is acknowledged that the NSW Ruby Princess Inquiry has been completed and while it dealt principally with the actions of NSW Health, Bret Walker SC made some prescient observations with regard to the actions of the Commonwealth and its officers as well as observations in relation to the Commonwealth Biosecurity Act (2015).
Observations:
1. Quarantine across Australia’s international borders is the responsibility of the Commonwealth as per the Australian Constitution and the Commonwealth Biosecurity Act (2015).
2. The accepted legal position has always been that until an individual has cleared quarantine at our international border, they have not entered the country and are therefore still subject to Commonwealth jurisdiction, not state jurisdiction.
The international border for these purposes has always been taken to be the gazetted or permitted point of entry whether a maritime port or an airport. It is not understood, therefore, why the Commonwealth has abrogated these responsibilities to the states.
It is a matter of record, for example, that port medical doctors were a feature of Australian quarantine prior to about the year 2000. These doctors were ordinary GPs who accepted, in addition to their ordinary duties, appointment by the Commonwealth to act for the Commonwealth in relation to the protection of public health.
The primary function of a port doctor in relation to their Commonwealth function was the detection, reporting, isolation and treatment of gazetted infectious diseases brought to the national border by the passengers and crews of ships.
It is understood that the Commonwealth then arranged with the states any additional health support which may have been required.
By 2000, however, the functions of port doctors had been reduced to the issuing of statutorily required Certificates of Medical Fitness in relation to the medical capability of seafarers both international and domestic to perform their assigned duties.
3. The current risk assessment process for granting pratique in relation to human biosecurity has proven inadequate.
Significant risk should always be deemed to exist until proven otherwise, particularly in relation to human health, otherwise there is no point to gazetting infectious diseases. The Commonwealth Biosecurity Act (2015) should be changed to reflect this.
It is noted that there is more attention paid at our borders in relation to plant and animal quarantine than to human quarantine. (See NSW Ruby Princess Report by Bret Walker SC).
Also, it would appear that the stated conditions to be considered within the Act in relation to not granting pratique appear to have been inserted to satisfy business interests rather than to protect the health of the population.
4. It is not understood why a Commonwealth appointed Human Biosecurity Officer (HBO) cannot unilaterally deny pratique on the basis of the presence of a gazetted infectious disease (COVID-19 may not have been gazetted at the time, but SARS the root virus certainly was).
5. Hotel quarantine is inadequate for both security and ventilation system reasons. Firstly, it is noted that cruise ship and hotel ventilation systems are similar and not designed specifically to prevent cross respiratory infection.
The caveat is, that it is a statutory requirement for the ventilation in ships’ hospitals to be able to prevent cross respiratory infection.
Secondly, security failures in relation to hotels have occurred in most states, some resulting in significant community transmission of the virus. Compare these failures with the performance of the NT Howard Springs facility.
6. Human quarantine stations should be re-established under Commonwealth jurisdiction and supervision. It is noted there are a number of under-utilised defence, illegal immigrant and refugee assets which may be adapted for this purpose, failing which purpose-built assets should be provided (such stations were first adopted by Venice in 1348 and closed in Australia around 1980, a proven concept one could say). Such facilities address the three requirements of quarantine which are isolation, security/enforcement of isolation and the segregation of infection.
7. It is noted that the Commonwealth made the correct decision to close the international border early in the life of the current pandemic.
Unfortunately, the Commonwealth then violated the very reason for closing the border by allowing returning travellers to arrive without strictly controlling numbers.
In future, numbers need to be controlled through quarantine stations limiting them to the numbers able to be processed through these stations.
8. It is recognised there might be objections to quarantine stations on the grounds of construction and running costs.
It is quite obvious, however, that these costs would be but a fraction of the economic and collateral costs, including the entirely preventable Commonwealth/state and state/state tensions over internal border closures.
There may also be objections in relation to human rights as expressed in some protocol, charter or convention. Such objectors need to recognise that the common good takes precedence over individual rights otherwise there is no point to legislation of any kind.
Captain Michael J Ashby, BAppSci (MarOps), Master Mariner, AFNI, LCDR RANR (Retd), Leongatha.