Australians returning from overseas could soon be able to isolate at home, as the government considers alternatives to hotel quarantine as the policy comes under increased scrutiny over the legality of detaining people arriving in Australia.
As the number of active cases of Covid-19 steadily declines in Australia, with Victoria edging close to under 300 active cases, focus is now turning to how to reopen domestic and international borders without forcing everyone arriving into mandatory hotel quarantine for two weeks.
On Tuesday, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, indicated the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), which advises national cabinet, was considering whether requiring returning Australians to isolate at home was an option.
He said visitors from countries that have managed to get Covid-19 under control, such as New Zealand, South Korea and Japan, could be “triaged” as is done in Greece, based on the risk profile of the country.
“I think as time goes on, we will need a more flexible approach that gives us more options for managing this, so I think that is something that is under active consideration,” he said.
Aside from the expense and impracticality of running hotel quarantine long term, other issues with the program have been raised in recent weeks. The cap on international arrivals is largely due to not wanting to overwhelm the program, and had led to a backlog of at least 27,000 Australians stranded overseas.
State and territory governments are also facing questions about the legality of detaining people in hotels for 14 days.
The Victorian inquiry into the state’s botched program – responsible for Victoria’s second wave of Covid-19 – heard in closing submissions from counsel assisting, Ben Ihle, on Monday that questions arise as to whether the human rights of returned travellers was considered when they were placed into hotel quarantine.
Ihle said it was for the courts to determine “whether the detention and/or review of the returned passengers was unlawful or what flows from that legally” because it was beyond the scope of the inquiry.
The counsel assisting made these submissions off the back of evidence given to the inquiry by the Human Rights Law Centre executive director, Hugh de Kretser, who stayed at one of the outbreak hotels, the Rydges, in late June.
De Kretser noted that under the Victorian Public Health and Wellbeing Act, it is a requirement to check daily on those being detained to ensure it is still reasonably necessary for public health to detain the person. De Kretser told the inquiry that in his discussions with authorised officers at the hotels, he did not believe this was being done.
He told Guardian Australia on Wednesday he was pleased it was now the focus of attention.
“It is good that there is a more nuanced public debate around these issues, learning from the mistakes that have been made in Victoria to try and get this right.”
Any new model in the future, even home quarantine, would need those daily checks, de Kretser said.
“The guiding principle from human rights is that the restrictions should be no wider than needed to achieve the public health goal.
“And so that means looking at the period of detention, the place of detention, the conditions of detention, and whether things like electronic or other monitoring can be used in a way which achieves a less restrictive approach to detention.”
Australia’s chief midwifery and nursing officer, Alison McMillan, said any recommendation to national cabinet for a change to the quarantine program would need to be in proportion to the risk. Electronic surveillance could play a role in home quarantine, McMillan said.
On Tuesday, the Western Australian government announced people with exemptions arriving into Western Australia from Victoria would no longer have to isolate in a hotel, and could isolate at home.
As part of the monitoring of people isolating, the WA premier, Mark McGowan, said people would be given the option of downloading an app that allows police to check on the location of those required to be isolating to ensure they are still at home.
It is something already used for positive Covid-19 cases in Victoria. As part of Operation Sentinel, to monitor those who have tested positive for Covid-19, Victoria police have asked people to click a link on their smartphone that sends their GPS location back to police to ensure they are where they say they are.
McMillan said the quarantine model would be assessed by the AHPPC over the coming weeks.