Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack has pledged to look into the circumstances around the two positive COVID-19 cases reported within the group of foreign and Australian military officials quarantining at a Darwin CBD hotel.
Mr McCormack was in Darwin on Thursday morning and said Defence Minister Linda Reynolds and Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne would look into the matter of a 19-year-old man and a 30-year-old woman who were reportedly asymptomatic and taken to RDH from their Darwin hotel after testing positive on Wednesday.
“We don’t want to see any outbreaks of COVID-19 such as we saw in Victoria last year,” Mr McCormack said.
“There will be, unfortunately, be chinks in the quarantine armour. We want to make sure we keep all Australians as safe as possible.”
The NT Independent first revealed last week that ADF members and foreign military personnel and their families travelling from globally recognised COVID-19 high-risk regions across Europe and Asia would be completing their quarantine at a local hotel rather than at the federally-funded Howard Springs quarantine facility.
The decision to allow the now estimated 300 people to quarantine at the Travelodge in the CBD has caused strife within NT Health, with some health officials raising concerns about the increased risk of an outbreak in the community by using a hotel to quarantine potentially high-risk individuals.
NT health authorities have avoided questions about the two positive tests since Wednesday.
Chief Health Officer Hugh Heggie backed out of a planned ABC Radio interview on Thursday morning and the government said Health Minister Natasha Fyles was still on a holiday break.
The ADF said in a statement on Wednesday that contact tracing had been conducted and 19 close contacts of the two positive cases had been transferred to the Howard Springs Quarantine facility.
They added the two COVID-19 positive patients had no interaction with the local community.
The NT Government said in a statement there had been no breach of Defense’s COVID safety management plan.
Opposition calls for explanation as medical experts continue to warn about the elevated risks of hotel quarantine
Deputy Opposition leader Gerard Maley said Chief Minister Michael Gunner owes Territorians an explanation on why he has allowed the military members and their relatives to quarantine in a hotel, despite it being identified as one of the weakest links in the quarantine program.
“The Chief Minister needs be up front with Territorians and explain why he has authorised alternative quarantine arrangements at hotels in the centre of Darwin instead of the designated Howard Springs facility,” Mr Maley said.
“Howard Springs has been identified to accept the bulk of repatriated Australians and is much more secure than alternative quarantine accommodation. So, why are exemptions being granted to ADF personnel to quarantine in Darwin CBD, where the risk of community transmission is increased?”
Mr Maley said the recently announced funding boost from the Federal government to ensure the Howards Springs quarantine facility is adequately resourced to take more international arrivals should be sufficient to ensure ADF personnel can be housed at the same facility.
“The fact that two people have now tested positive for COVID-19 while in hotel quarantine should be sounding alarm bells for the Gunner Government,” he said. “The safest place for international arrivals is at Howard Springs.”
Infectious Diseases Specialist from Australian National University Dr Sanjaya Senanayake had earlier in the week suggested using the Howard Springs facility rather than hotels would be a safer option.
“Purely from an infection point of view, Howard Springs has been working for so many months, use Howard Springs,” Dr Senanayake told ABC Radio on Tuesday.
“I think if you look at the broader picture in Australia. If you look at all the major outbreaks we’ve had — so, the outbreak currently that’s going on in Greater Brisbane, the one that’s going on in Sydney, we never found the index case but it’s a USA strain that’s almost certainly come from hotel quarantine and then going back a few weeks to South Australia that was related to hotel quarantine and of course the big Metropolitan Melbourne outbreak, which was related to two quarantine hotels.
“Hotel quarantine [brings] the risk of COVID  spilling over into the community in Australia so you have to, if you are going to start a hotel quarantine program, you have to be very very careful and make sure there are no holes through which a case can spill over into the community,” he said.