Since March 2020, more than 211,000 people have returned to Australia through hotel quarantine.
While some coronavirus cases have leaked out into the community in Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia, so far the outbreaks have been able to be controlled.
The National Cabinet continues to focus on hotel quarantine as the model for ensuring that people returning to Australia don’t spread the virus and its infectious variants inside the country.
On Friday the federal government announced the Howard Springs quarantine facility in the Northern Territory would more than double its capacity to allow more stranded Australians to come home.
But with more and more people wanting to return to Australia, some in the community are asking if it’s worth taking another look at allowing those travellers to quarantine at home instead.
Has home quarantine been formally suggested before?
Yep, it has. The interim report of the hotel quarantine inquiry in Victoria led by Jennifer Coate last year suggested a mix of hotel quarantine and quarantine in the home.
It wouldn’t be for everyone — only those who were at minimal risk — presumably those coming from low-risk countries.
“Where a person can safely quarantine at home this avoids the risk of putting that person in physical proximity with others who are suspected of having COVID-19,” the report said.
“It also reduces the number of workers required in the quarantine facility, thereby reducing the number of people potentially being exposed to the risk of contracting the virus.”
Others think it’s a good idea too.
Sara Condron is a healthcare worker at a Perth hospital.
She travelled to Melbourne to see her father when he was seriously ill. Now she’s back in Perth and quarantining at home.
Clearly there’s a big difference between a person who travels within Australia and someone returning from overseas.
But Ms Condron said the benefits of home quarantine are clear for everyone to see.
“Quarantining is quite feasible at home — and you’re not costing the government and you’re not costing yourself — provided you’ve got some support,” she said.
“At home you’ve got everything. And you’re not a drain on any resource. No need for security guards.”
Ms Condron said the mental health benefits of quarantining at home were enormous.
“If you’re in a hotel room and you’ve got nothing … then it’s very difficult. I think anybody coming back from overseas if they had a preference would do home quarantine,” she said.
Epidemiologist Catherine Bennett, from Deakin University, said Victoria had had thousands of people isolating at home as secondary or close contacts and by and large, most of them had complied with their obligations.
“It’s something that has worked for the management of local outbreaks,” Professor Bennett said.
“We know it can work. We’ve got smart tech solutions to keep it secure and randomised checking indicated that people … were doing the right thing.”
What about when more people are vaccinated?
Tony Blakely, an epidemiologist from The University of Melbourne, said home quarantine may be appropriate when we get about 60 per cent of the population vaccinated in Australia.
“Then there should be little risk from infected folk arriving, because the virus is unlikely to take off and spread much,” he said.
He said the returned travellers should probably be from low-risk countries, like China, South Korea and New Zealand, who are already vaccinated.
But there is still a risk, even if people are vaccinated, in high-risk countries like the UK.
“The vaccine is not perfect at stopping you getting infected and being able to pass it on,” he said.
“So maybe for someone coming from a low-risk country such as China or South Korea and they are vaccinated, then the risk is low enough to use home quarantine.
But Professor Blakely doubts Australia could develop such a “nuanced” border policy.
Professor Bennett agrees that home quarantine may become a more viable option when vaccination rates increase.
She believes the focus at the border will be on keeping the more infectious variants out of the country where the vaccine might not be as effective.
“In those situations you might say those people with that strain … they might go into managed quarantine facilities,” Professor Bennett said.
“Other people who have common garden varieties of COVID that we now know won’t get very far in the community because more people are vaccinated — that’s when we might rely more on home quarantine.”
If the variants did get into the country that’s when the international border quarantine program would play an important role, Professor Bennett said.
What about using technology?
If we wanted to use home quarantine to allow more people to safely return home to Australia, electronic tracking is one way to ensure they comply with COVID-19 quarantine obligations.
That system is being used in Singapore, Hong Kong and Abu Dhabi. Israel has also started a pilot project with electronic tracking devices.
Researcher Marietta Martinovic from RMIT University has studied the use of GPS technology to monitor convicted criminals for 20 years.
She said there had been big advances in GPS technology which could determine if people were confined to their homes by wearing devices that looked much like a hospital bracelet.
“You just cut [them] off at the end of use,” she said.
“They cost less than $100 and they’re already being used in places like Singapore.”
In Singapore, people are given the bracelets at the airport and the devices are activated by an app or via a wall socket when they get home.
“And voila, they are monitored for 14 days in the confines of their home,” Dr Martinovic said.
“I think something like that absolutely makes sense moving forward.”
There would have to be a broader framework in place to determine who could qualify for home quarantine and who needed to go into hotel quarantine.
“There have to be clear rules and regulations about those options,” she said.
Meanwhile, Sara Condron’s keeping busy sewing, cooking and doing craft as she finishes her two weeks of quarantine at home in Perth.
“I think anybody coming back from overseas — if they had a preference — would do home quarantine,” she said.