When the world’s elite tennis players arrived in Australia for the first grand slam tournament of 2021, it was not the usual warm welcome from the country known as being one of the friendliest on the otherwise grinding year-long world tour.
More than 70 Australian Open players, including some of the world’s best, have been confined to hotel rooms for 14 days since landing over a week ago, after some passengers on special tennis charter flights returned positive tests for coronavirus.
Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut, who reached the Australian Open quarter-finals in 2019, complained the hotel confinement was “the same” as being in prison “but with wi-fi”, while world number one Novak Djokovic demanded players to be moved to “private houses with tennis courts”.
But for Australians, mandatory hotel quarantine – which requires travellers to spend two weeks in hotel rooms immediately after arrival – has been a way of life since it became one of the first countries in the world to introduce the system in March.
It has been both a life-saving success, which has left the island nation with an enviably low death toll on a global scale, and a costly failure, with breaches directly leading to the country’s deadliest Covid-19 outbreak, while tens of thousands of Australians have been stranded abroad.
In May, Australia’s then chief medical officer claimed hotel quarantine had saved 14,000 lives, adding that the country could have reduced community transmission even further if it had introduced stricter controls earlier in the pandemic.
Melbourne’s deadly leaks
“The answer is no,” Daniel Andrews, the premier of the state of Victoria, said when asked about easing quarantine for Australian Open tennis players. “They knew what they were traveling into and we are not cutting corners or making special arrangements.”
Andrews had good reason to stand firm. Failures of the hotel quarantine system in Melbourne, Australia’s second most populous city, triggered a second wave that killed around 800 people and forced millions into one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns of 2020.
The state’s decision to use poorly trained private security guards instead of police and the military to enforce the hotel quarantine system, as other states had done, proved deadly. The respected Australian Financial Review newspaper called the decision “perhaps the biggest failure of public administration in Australian history”.
Victoria’s quarantine bungle is perhaps the biggest failure of public administration in Australian history.Australian Financial Review editorial from December 22, 2020
In December, an official inquiry issued a series of damning conclusions. It found casually employed security guards were “particularly vulnerable” because of their lack of job security and training. Infection control, meanwhile, was left to the hotels and commercial cleaners who had no experience in controlling a deadly virus like Covid-19.
“There was simply too much at stake for the state to have conferred such responsibilities on private service providers, whose ordinary roles were so far removed from infection prevention and control measures,″ retired judge Jennifer Coate wrote in the report.
Images also emerged allegedly showing quarantine guests walking to a convenience store (by grim coincidence, near Melbourne’s “Rona Walk”), another was seen with what appeared to be a takeaway coffee, while others were pictured exercising.
Unsurprisingly, the inquiry recommended “a 24/7 police presence on-site at each quarantine facility.”
Even now, Australia’s coronavirus statistics make for sobering reading for Victorians. Of the 28,780 total cases and 909 deaths in Australia, Victoria accounts for 20,443 and 820 respectively, almost all due to breaches at Melbourne’s quarantine hotels.
“If I could turn back the clock and receive daily reports on what happens in hotel quarantine as I do now, then, of course, I would,” Premier Andrews said in December. He refused to resign, however the state’s health minister and a senior public servant both stood down after the inquiry heard evidence of their involvement in the bungled programme.
While Victoria’s failures have undoubtedly had the most deadly consequences, the Australian state has not been alone in struggling to plug leaks and contain outbreaks.
A breach in New Zealand’s system plunged Auckland, the country’s biggest city, into a strict lockdown in August. Reports emerged of one NZ guest escaping a hotel through a hedge, while others were able to visit supermarkets and liquor stores, forcing the police and the military to step up patrols.
The examples highlight the incredible pressures both Australia and New Zealand have faced in implementing and maintaining an entirely new system of international arrivals, including the strains mandatory quarantine has placed on existing infrastructure.
Other Australian cities including Perth and Brisbane also experienced “break-outs”, while in August more than 350 people were removed from a Sydney quarantine hotel after complaints from guests about rooms covered in “clumps of hair” and “sticky handles”.
Australians stranded abroad
For thousands of Australians unable to return home, however, those stuck in “filthy” rooms and “jail cells” are the lucky ones.
“I would give anything to be sitting in a tiny hotel room with terrible food and no fresh air, if it meant I was home,” stranded Australian Amy Webster told HuffPost Australia from the UK.
A key plank of Australia’s quarantine system is a 4,000 weekly cap on arrivals, which has allowed authorities to contain returnees in a set number of hotels, but has left an estimated 40,000 Aussies stuck overseas, and others scrambling in competition for flights home.
In addition to the $3,000 (£1,700) cost of mandatory hotel accommodation, Australians trying to get home have reported spending thousands of dollars booking flights, only to be bumped at the last minute in favour of business and first class passengers.
The flight caps have seen all but a few airlines pull out of Australian international routes, making booking flights an ultra-competitive process and leaving many out of pocket. One family alone reported spending $50,000 (£28,000) on a two-week return journey from Saudi Arabia.
Exemptions for high rollers, such as Hollywood star Mark Wahlberg, who paid a reported $400,000 (£255,000) to quarantine privately, and elite tennis players have further added to the send of “betrayal” felt by Australians unable to return. Others have labelled the system “inhumane”.
Amy Webster and her fiancé moved to Edinburgh before the pandemic. In October, a sick relative back home and hardships in the UK meant the couple were forced to cancel the lease on their flat, sell their car and book flights home. They were bumped off their January 21 flight but with the next seats only available in May, Webster is homeless, jobless and “sick with stress” at the thought of what to do for the next five months.
“Right now we are hoping for a repatriation seat otherwise we have no idea what we will do,” Webster said.
“It makes me wish I could go back in time and work on my ball boy skills and maybe I’d be home by now.”