Working to make government more effective


Australian-style quarantine is not an easy coronavirus fix for the UK

Lessons from the latest proposed policy import from Australia must not be lost in translation, Sarah Nickson argues

Lessons from the latest proposed policy import from Australia must not be lost in translation, Sarah Nickson argues

Brits could be forgiven for looking wistfully at their friends in Australia right now. Aside from the usual seasonal envy, life in the antipodes more or less resembles normality. With coronavirus largely tamed, (reduced) crowds are attending sporting fixtures, music festivals are going ahead and workers are returning to the office.

This success has been underpinned by strict, early lockdowns, backed up by measures introduced in March 2020 to stop the virus being re-imported into the country: the closure of borders to non-citizens and residents (New Zealanders, movie stars and tennis players aside) and a mandatory two weeks in hotel quarantine for anyone lucky enough to enter the country. The UK, on the other hand, has kept its borders open, applying a lightly enforced home quarantine for arrivals from high-risk countries. This has recently been widened to all countries, with incoming passengers required to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test before departure.

The UK government is now reportedly considering introducing hotel quarantine. Australia’s system has undoubtedly helped limit its case numbers and deaths: around 900 deaths have been attributed to Covid-19 with 28,000 confirmed cases, compared to 95,000 and 3.5m respectively in the UK. [1] But the Australian experience shows this is not a simple endeavour: without careful management, the virus can easily escape hotels and take-off again in the community, while tens of thousands of Australians overseas have been locked out of their country and several industries crippled without access to migrants and tourists. The UK is likely to find that loss of freedom for those detained in hotels is the least of its worries.

Hotel quarantine is an enormous logistical undertaking

Establishing hotel quarantine is far more complex than mass booking hotel rooms. Hiring suitably qualified staff, training them in infection control procedures, sourcing hotels with adequate ventilation and facilities, and attending to the health and welfare of those in quarantine have all proved enormous challenges for Australian authorities. Cracks in the system have seen the virus seep out of hotels and into the community, sparking fresh lockdowns, including in Melbourne where a second lockdown lasted over 100 days. These failures have already sparked a major inquiry and ministerial and senior official resignations.

The UK would not find running hotel quarantine any easier. Testing and tracing operations here have shown the difficulty of setting up new systems from scratch. And the government is reportedly considering using outsourced private security in the quarantine hotels, a move which was implicated in Melbourne’s failures. On the other hand, if the government drew on its own workforce – military logistics officers, police and health care workers – this would divert resources from the vaccine roll out.

Human and economic costs need to be considered

The UK will likely find that an effective hotel quarantine system will necessitate border closures. Logistical pressures limit the number of people who can realistically and safely be accommodated in hotels, so the government will need to find a way to ration demand. This in turn imposes significant economic and human costs. Australia has set caps on the number of citizens and residents who can enter the country: for instance, Sydney is permitting only 1,505 arrivals per week. For other cities, the weekly cap is in the hundreds. This is nowhere near enough to meet demand, locking out tens of thousands, and has led to drastically inflated fares set by airlines seeking to maintain revenue from sparsely populated flights.

As a result, some Australians stranded abroad have been left jobless and with expired visas, while others have missed weddings, funerals and other milestones. Those who do make it back are forced to pay their own quarantine costs, on top of the airfare. And in order to relieve pressure on the quarantine system, the government has barred Australians from leaving the country without a special exemption.

Barring non-citizens has had costs for Australia too: university budgets are under threat, owing to their heavy reliance on fees from international students currently locked out of the country. Seasonal workers from the Pacific islands, vital for Australia’s agricultural and horticultural industries, have also been unable to return in their usual numbers, while the tourism industry has been crippled by loss of the international market. If the UK banned foreign arrivals to keep quarantine numbers at manageable levels, it would face similar problems.

Hotel quarantine might be harder for the UK than it is for Australia

There are factors particular to the UK that might make this exercise even more difficult and costly than it has been for Australia. The UK would need to – once again – consider how border arrangements would work for Northern Ireland, in conjunction with the Northern Ireland executive and the Irish government. And it would feel the effects of border closures even more acutely than Australia: in 2018-19, the UK received 145 million international passenger arrivals, [2] compared to Australia’s 21 million. [3]

Hotel quarantine is a huge logistical operation that would force the UK government to make difficult decisions about who it lets in and out of the country. Consideration of hotel quarantine must be informed by sober appraisal of the full range of these costs.

Johnson government
Institute for Government

Related content