Why a move to home quarantine is long overdue

Written by:
1 September 2021
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For those stuck in their umpteenth lockdown – despair not! It seems that after 18 months of working from home, someone in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has finally found a copy of the Commonwealth government’s pandemic preparedness plan hidden away on the Department of Health website. 

While doing a radio blitz on Tuesday Prime Minister Scott Morrison gave some indication that his government might consider moving on from the hotel quarantine arrangement for arriving international travellers. 

“We need to move towards home quarantine,” Morrison said. “That’s exactly what can be introduced once we reach 70 per cent [vaccination coverage]. I want to see home quarantine become the norm.” 

This would be encouraging were it not for the fact that, the better part of two years into a pandemic, the Prime Minister is finally “pitching” the idea of home quarantine when his government’s pandemic plan (updated in August 2019) expressly states that this is the only appropriate form of quarantine for Australians returning from overseas.  

In the context of unwell travellers and their close contacts arriving into Australia, the 2019 Australian Health Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza states that “Returning Australians may quarantine themselves at home, however other arrangements would be required for other travellers.” It’s worth noting the use of the word “may” – this quarantine arrangement was supposed to be voluntary both for those who are symptomatic and those who are contacts of the symptomatic. 

“Ill travellers identified at the border… could be encouraged to isolate themselves as part of a broader policy of voluntary isolation of those with influenza-like illness,” reads the plan.

Voluntary home quarantine is the only appropriate measure for returning Australians according to the pandemic plan. It was voluntary because Australia is a liberal democracy, not a totalitarian communist dictatorship, and because the evidence from the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 demonstrated that Australians are willing to comply with reasonable requests voluntarily. “In a follow-up survey of 45 randomly selected quarantined passengers [from a cruise ship with H1N1 infections], only 2 reported refusing quarantine,” the plan notes. 

And the quarantine would be in the home because using hotels is “problematic”, a point made several times throughout the plan. Even voluntary home quarantine of contacts of symptomatic cases was deemed to “be highly complex to arrange and maintain” and “likely to draw significant criticism.” 

Morrison said that he would like home quarantine to become the norm, but it was his government that made it not the norm. According to the carefully prepared pandemic plan, home quarantine is a given for all Australian residents. Prior to the fog of war experienced in 2020, the Commonwealth determined that based on prior experience and the best available advice, home quarantine would be the norm. 

But, as I have written previously, “Almost all aspects of the federal and state response to the novel coronavirus – from interstate borders, mandatory isolation and quarantine, hotel quarantine, school closures, and mandatory masks – entirely contradict the evidence-based and balanced [pandemic plan].” 

The plan was thrown out in early 2020 as Western countries abandoned their core principles and adopted the Chinese Communist Party’s preferred strategy of disproportionate and devastating lockdown measures. 

But for some people, some aspects of the plan have been maintained. Actress Nicole Kidman and her singer husband Keith Urban were granted exemptions to complete their 14 days of quarantine at home after they flew in from the United States last year. Singer Danni Minogue had the same experience. 

For some, usually those with private jets, home quarantine is the norm. To make it so for ordinary Australians does not depend on increasing the vaccine uptake (or alternatively, increasing private jet uptake), but on the political class returning to the plan they had for this exact scenario in the first place.

Cian Hussey is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs. 

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