A coronavirus outbreak in Melbourne which has forced the city into a five-day lockdown and shut fans out of the Australian Open has been blamed on a piece of medical equipment that allowed the virus to linger in hotel corridors.
The lockdown across the state of Victoria is coming into force tonight in a drastic response to an outbreak which has caused only 13 known infections.
Brett Sutton, Victoria’s chief health officer, said the virus had ‘sat in the air’ of the quarantine hotel in Melbourne after a guest used a nebuliser in their room, a device similar to an inhaler that turns liquid medications into an aerosol spray.
The ‘aerosolised’ virus could have escaped into the corridor when the door was opened to deliver a meal, Sutton said, before infecting a worker at the Holiday Inn who tested positive on February 7.
Since then, a dozen more cases of the feared UK variant have been linked to the cluster, including two household contacts who were not at the hotel – days before Britain introduces a similar hotel quarantine system.
Protests erupted in Melbourne today after Victoria premier Daniel Andrews announced the ‘short, sharp circuit breaker’ as he seeks to avoid a repeat of last year’s 111-day lockdown in Melbourne that was also linked to a hotel outbreak.
Victoria, which has recorded only 20,640 cases and 820 deaths since the start of the pandemic, will close schools and ban private gatherings while masks will be required everywhere – and supermarket panic-buying has already resumed.
Tennis players can continue competing at the Australian Open, which will be designated a ‘workplace’, but fans will be shut out during the lockdown.
Melbourne ‘s Covid cluster has now climbed to 13 cases after five more positive tests linked to the Holiday Inn Melbourne Airport (pictured) were recorded
A hotel quarantine worker without a mask at the Intercontinental on Collins Street in Melbourne. The picture, which was taken by a guest and sent to Nine News on Friday, has sparked fresh concern about Australia’s hotel quarantine system
Australia’s infection rate is still extremely low compared to most wealthy countries – after a major wave of cases and deaths in Victoria last summer which was similarly blamed on virus cases leaking out of hotel quarantine
A protester holds up a placard in front of a line of police officers in Melbourne today to protest against the lockdown
How Britain’s hotel quarantine compares to Australia’s
WHO HAS TO QUARANTINE IN A HOTEL?
All arrivals in Australia, except for some from New Zealand.
In England, only those who have recently been in a ‘banned list’ country such as South Africa and the UAE. But Scotland is sending all arrivals from outside the UK and Ireland into hotels.
LENGTH OF QUARANTINE
14 days in Australia, 10 in Britain.
Australia typically charges £1,680 for one adult, with a further £560 for each additional adult and £280 per child.
In the UK, the fees are £1,750 for a single person, £650 for other over-12s and £325 for children aged five to 12.
In Victoria, people are tested on day 3 and day 11. In New South Wales, it is day 2 and day 12.
In Britain, people must get a test ‘on or before day 2’ and ‘on or after day 8’.
Neither country allows people to leave the hotel early if they test negative.
CAN PEOPLE LEAVE THEIR ROOMS?
In Australia, not unless they have an emergency or a medical reason.
The UK government says hotel staff can give people permission to exercise but that ‘this is not guaranteed’.
Australia has introduced staggered meal times to reduce the chance of guests inadvertently coming into contact when they open their doors.
Britain merely says that room service will follow ‘best practice’, according to a document seen by BBC News.
PROTECTION FOR HOTEL STAFF
Hotel staff in Victoria have to wear medical-grade N95 masks, which are also being considered for guests.
The UK policy only calls for standard surgical masks.
Australian hotel staff are tested every day, while Britain does not say this will happen.
Fans arriving at the Australian Open on Friday before the lockdown took effect were instructed at the entrance to maintain social distancing, sanitise their hands and pull their masks up over their noses.
Tournament chief Craig Tiley said he was hopeful fans would be permitted back on site in the latter half of next week, provided the lockdown ‘has done its job.’
Australia is one of the few places in the world where large crowds have been permitted at sports events, with strict border controls keeping virus deaths down to 909 out of a population of 25million.
But the quarantine hotels have been seen as a weak link, with Andrews suggesting that Australians abroad should only be allowed to return for compassionate reasons.
‘Should we be having the total number of people coming home? Or should it be a much smaller program that’s based on compassionate grounds? That’s a conversation we should have,’ he said.
‘This is the second lockdown caused by Victoria’s hotel quarantine system, it must not be as long and destructive as the last,’ said the head of Australia’s business lobby, Jennifer Westacott. ‘We must get hotel quarantine working properly.’
Up to 500 people have been deemed ‘close contacts’ of the 13 confirmed cases ta the Holiday Inn.
About 135 of them included quarantine workers at the Holiday Inn and returned travellers.
And fresh concerns about the system have been raised after a worker at the Intercontinental on Melbourne’s Collins Street was pictured walking through the hotel without a mask on Friday.
Ahead of the lockdown announcement, prime minister Scott Morrison offered his government’s full support for Victoria’s decisions on containing the outbreak.
‘I think that proportionate, targeted responses are the most effective way to deal with this,’ he said.
Other states including Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania that have practically eliminated the virus, closed their borders to Victoria.
Sydney’s state of New South Wales, which recorded a 26th day with zero community cases on Friday, has so far kept its borders open.
Victoria endured one of the world’s longest lockdowns last year after an outbreak that killed more than 800 in the state, the vast majority of the national death toll.
Two other Australian state capitals, Brisbane and Perth, recently underwent similar snap lockdowns in response to cases of the UK strain leaking from hotel quarantine.
In both instances, the outbreak was quickly contained.
Protesters wave flags during an anti-lockdown protest in Melbourne on Friday
Workers in full PPE disinfects the Holiday Inn Hotel Melbourne Airport which has been blamed for the latest outbreak in Victoria
Supermarkets in Victoria were packed on Friday afternoon as residents rushed to stock up on supplies ahead of a five-day coronavirus lockdown
Victoria’s latest outbreak began on Monday when a hotel quarantine worker at the Holiday Inn at Melbourne Airport caught the virus on Monday. Pictured: Panic buying
Coles and Woolworths stores were rammed with shoppers buying food and essentials. Pictured: Empty shelves in a Coles
Andrews, the Victoria premier, said the virus was likely ‘moving at a velocity that has not been seen anywhere in our country over the course of these last 12 months’.
He explained he decided to include regional Victoria in the lockdown to stop Melbourne residents fleeing to the countryside and taking the virus with them.
‘I know this will be difficult. I know it will be painful. But there is no option. This things moves so fast,’ he said.
He added: ‘We must assume that there are further cases in the community than we have positive results for.
‘We will be able to smother this. We will be able to prevent it getting away from us.
‘I want to be here on Wednesday next week announcing that these restrictions are coming off, but I can’t do it on my own. I need every single Victorian to work with me.’
Two fans enjoying the final day of the Melbourne Open before lockdown. The tournament will proceed without fans from Saturday
Fans enjoyed Friday at the Australian Open – the last day before lockdown
Andrews warned that the state’s contact tracing team was struggling due to the rapid spread of the virus.
‘By the time we find a case as positive, they’ve already infected their close contacts. Their family. People they live with, people they’ve spent time with. That makes it incredibly difficult, incredibly difficult to do contact tracing,’ he said.
The so-called Stage Four restrictions introduced during the Southern Hemisphere winter have been re-imposed with residents confined to their homes except for two hours of exercise, essential shopping, care-giving and work.
Schools will be closed, masks must be worn everywhere except in the home and private and public gatherings are banned.
Supermarkets in Victoria were packed on Friday afternoon as residents rushed to stock up on supplies ahead of the five-day lockdown.
Asked about the Australian Open, Andrews said: ‘There are no fans. There are no crowds. These people are essentially at their workplace.’
‘The minimum number of staff for it to be run safely – not just for the virus but other reasons – will be there.’
The event had already been limited to 50 per cent of usual capacity and was dogged by earlier complaints from some tennis stars, who were forced to spend critical preparation time in quarantine.