Australia’s Perth ends snap COVID-19 lockdown as quarantine debate heats up

Sydney: Australian authorities on Monday lifted a snap three-day lockdown of Perth, but faced pointed questions about how the coronavirus leaked from a quarantine hotel for returning travellers.

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Stay-at-home orders for Perth and surrounding areas will expire at midnight Monday, after just two people contracted COVID-19 out of thousands tested in the region.

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“It was a circuit breaker we needed to limit community spread and keep our community healthy,” Western Australia state premier Mark McGowan said.

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The virus reportedly spread from a man who recently returned from his wedding in India to other travellers at a quarantine hotel, including one who then unknowingly infected people in the community after being released from isolation.

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The cases have prompted a fresh debate over the effectiveness and fairness of Australia’s hotel quarantine system, which is now being copied in several countries around the world.

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Australia closed its international borders to most non-citizens in March 2020, with those allowed to travel subject to 14 days in quarantine, a policy that effectively curbed the spread of COVID-19.

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But quarantine hotels have been the source of each outbreak in Australia since early in the pandemic, leading to a series of snap lockdowns across the country and ever-tightening travel rules.

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Canberra last week reduced the number of flights from virus-hit India, while some are pushing to ramp up already strict limits on international travel for Australian citizens.

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McGowan has slammed the quarantine system, saying hotels were “not fit for purpose” and calling on the conservative federal government to find alternative sites away from populated cities.

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His demand was backed by the Australian Medical Association’s Western Australia branch president Andrew Miller, who described the system as a “human rights catastrophe”.

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But the federal government has so far resisted calls to take over quarantine – despite having responsibility for border control – with Health Minister Greg Hunt saying the system was among “the best in the world”.

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And other leaders, such as New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian, said “we have to accept” there would be inevitable failures with the system “from time to time”.

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Australia has recorded less than 30,000 cases and 910 deaths since the pandemic began, with no major outbreaks since last year and most regions enjoying few restrictions.

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