The defence minister, Peter Dutton, has slapped down the Western Australian premier Mark McGowan after he called on the commonwealth to “step up” and take responsibility for quarantining returned travellers.
Dutton, who is in home quarantine in Queensland after visiting Perth last week, said the WA government had made a “mistake” by using the Mercure hotel where the latest Covid-19 leak originated. He said the facility had previously been identified as not being suitable for returned travellers.
Perth and the Peel region entered a snap three-day lockdown from Saturday after the first new case of community transmission WA in 12 months. McGowan criticised the commonwealth for not doing enough to help the states manage returned travellers.
But Dutton accused McGowan of being unnecessarily defensive. He said the state was responsible for quarantining and the federal government was not equipped to manage the program.
“Nobody is being critical of him for that. He doesn’t need to be defensive. He doesn’t want to be the next Dan Andrews where they had significant problems,” Dutton told ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday.
“They have got other hotels that have been perfectly fit for purpose. WA had already identified the Mercure was not fit for purpose and so they are moving away from that. I am not critical of that. The lesson has been learned and they can move on from that.”
Dutton rejected suggestions the federal government should use federal facilities to house returned travellers and said states had agreed to take responsibility for the program and were best placed to do so.
“The facts are that the premiers agreed last year on medical advice to conduct the hotel quarantining in the way they are doing,” the defence minister said.
“I’d love to tell you that airbases or the Christmas Island facility is fit for purpose but it is not. The accommodation is quite austere at our airbases. There is not the segregation of facilities such as the mess and where people need to come together in blocks for … showers or toilets or whatever it might be.”
The Australian Medical Association has said ongoing leaks from hotel quarantine are a “frustration” and the states are not doing enough to prevent leaks.
Concern about “aerosol spread” of the virus in hotels has been an ongoing issue and after an earlier WA breach an engineering report identified the Mercure Perth as unsuitable for the purpose of hotel quarantine.
It was a sign of the mining industry’s influence in Perth that the city’s latest three-day lockdown was revealed by the WA Chamber of Minerals and Energy before the premier announced the move publicly.
McGowan was still in crisis meetings on Friday when the chamber told its members and the news was soon on Twitter – which meant panic buying was underway by the time the premier stepped up to the podium.
McGowan acknowledged he had advised relevant stakeholders about the lockdown, including the mining industry and the RSL, prior to facing the media.
The premier said Anzac Day services were being cancelled for the second year running and the long weekend would be stymied by restrictions starting at midnight on Friday. But social media was already abuzz with the news and residents were jamming supermarkets, liquor stores, and the freeways out of town.
The current lockdown in Perth is the first since vaccines became available – and it appears that Covid jabs are the new toilet paper in WA.
On Saturday, people were queuing at vaccination centres from 7.30am, the WA health minister, Roger Cook, revealed. “Clearly, I think people have had a bit of a wake-up call that the virus is still out there,” Cook said.
Long lines at testing clinics, empty train stations and deserted city streets mirrored scenes from the previous snap five-day lockdown in February.
The virus is thought to have spread from a couple at the Mercure Perth hotel to an adjacent room and infected a 54-year-old Victorian man on his way home from Shanghai.
McGowan said the Victorian was quarantined in the CBD from 3 April, returned a negative Covid-19 test two weeks later and then spent five days staying with a friend in Perth before flying to Melbourne on 21 April. He tested positive in Melbourne on 23 April. His female friend has also tested positive.
“We now need to assume he was infectious during this five day period,” McGowan said.
On Saturday afternoon, another case of community transmission was discovered, in a 40-year-old man who had dinner at Kitchen Inn in Perth’s southern suburbs at the same time as the Covid-positive Victorian.
The WA health department announcement came shortly after McGowan criticised the federal government for not providing more help with quarantine accommodation.
“CBD hotels are not fit for purpose quarantine facilities and quarantine is the responsibility of the commonwealth under the constitution,” the premier said. “I’m getting to the end of my tether.”
McGowan has requested a cap on travellers returning to WA be halved from 1,025 and federal facilities – such as army barracks and the north-west RAAF Base Curtin – 170km from Broome – and also Christmas Island be made available for quarantine.
A federal government spokesperson, however, said defence bases and immigration centres were not a suitable solution.
“Our defence bases are operational facilities and the risk to critical defence personnel is not acceptable,” they said. “Defence bases also generally feature austere accommodation facilities with shared dorms and bathrooms making them unsuitable for quarantine purposes. In many cases these facilities are not close to health and intensive care services.”
The WA public and small businesses are facing a Covid-inspired interruption to daily life for the second April in a row.
Tonia and Adam Howard’s year 11 son has had his Perth College ball postponed in February because of a lockdown and yesterday the dance was put on hold again. “He is pretty upset, he is pretty bummed,” Adam Howard said.
Forrest Events planner Damien Lukich said he had lost income on a 150-person Anzac Day event planned for Sunday.
A former WA department for child protection social worker, Jenny Biancotti, said that every lockdown added pressure to already fractured or fraught family situations.
“Lockdowns increase a number of risk factors, such as financial strain, increased substance use and isolation from support networks,” Biancotti said.
“For many women and children, a lockdown not only means no break or refuge from an individual in their home who perpetrates abuse against them, but also an increase in the likelihood and severity of abuse.”
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