Questions have been raised over the NT Government’s preparedness for COVID-19 hotspot declarations after a bizarre series of events unfolded in Alice Springs Tuesday night, following an influx of travellers from SA looking to take up the free quarantine offer that expired at midnight.
The Alice Springs COVID-19 quarantine facility quickly filled beyond capacity on Tuesday, as hundreds fled by air and road into the NT, forcing the government to announce it would charter a flight to Darwin for roughly 80 people to quarantine at the Howard Springs facility, as cars full of other travellers continued to flood in.
But that plan was scrapped before midnight, after the plane that was supposed to pick up the travellers was grounded after reportedly being hit by birds, forcing the government to set up foldable beds at the Alice Springs airport for some, while telling others to go to “suitable” accommodation if they had it and others still forced to seek shelter at a local Aboriginal drug and alcohol facility.
It capped a long day that saw queues to get into the Alice Springs quarantine facility last up to nine hours.
“It’s a nightmare,” one returning Territorian told the NT Independent from Alice Springs Tuesday night. “There’s people in tears, while others are angry and frustrated.
“They’re going to have to do better than this if they call a border closure with no notice.
“The workers were caught completely off guard and they’re the ones who have to deal with this. The government’s intel was completely off the mark, they’ve completely underestimated the amount of people trying to get back.”
The exodus from SA came a day after Chief Minister Michael Gunner and chief health officer Hugh Heggie made a snap decision to classify South Australia as a coronavirus hotspot forcing all travellers from that state into supervised 14-day quarantine.
Mr Gunner said on Monday morning that while the hotspot status came into effect immediately, those travelling from SA would not have to pay the $2500 fee, provided they arrived by midnight Tuesday.
Alice Springs quarantine confusion raises questions of government preparedness
The NT Independent spoke with people on the ground in Alice Springs Tuesday night, who said they had been in line ups for hours, with stories of others who had gone into quarantine there on Monday not being given food for more than 24 hours, as health authorities grappled with the flood of people entering the NT.
Alice Springs residents returning home were initially told they could not return to their homes to self-isolate and would instead be put on the charter flight to Darwin to quarantine for two weeks before being allowed home.
Those travelling to the NT by road from SA on Tuesday morning were told to report to the Todd quarantine facility, formerly the Mercure Hotel, where they waited for hours before being told they would need to leave their cars in Alice Springs to be transported by plane to Darwin for 14 days.
But that flight was later cancelled and authorities allowed people to leave the airport if they had “suitable” accommodation.
“Now the army are bringing in stretcher beds to the airport,” a person waiting for the charter flight said. “It’s like a war zone.”
The Alice Springs facility only has space for roughly 140 families, the government has said. It’s understood the government also used the Aurora in Alice Springs for extra quarantine, but that too filled up quickly with roughly 180 people on buses and in cars lined up at the Todd facility at one point on Tuesday.
Some took to social media to describe the chaotic scene.
“[It’s] complete pandemonium in Alice Springs,” one man wrote late Tuesday night. “Passengers arrived from SA at 2:30pm still sat on buses outside the Mercure. Mercure overflowing. People literally everywhere. No-one has been given any water. Government employees have been allowed off bus. Special treatment for them. Even those who could self isolate at home sat there going nowhere.”
SA authorities reported 34 coronavirus cases linked to the recent Adelaide outbreak as of Tuesday night, however the entire state has been listed as a hotspot by the NT Government.