Travellers arriving in Australia from low-risk countries could be allowed to spend their 14-day quarantine period in the comfort of their home rather than paying for a hotel, under plans being considered by the federal government.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said today that a ‘traffic light’ system would rank nations according to how they were tracking with COVID-19 infections.
Passengers coming from ‘red’ countries and regions would continue to spend a fortnight in hotel isolation, while arrivals from ‘amber’ destinations may be allowed to quarantine at home.
Entry from a country or territory zoned ‘green’ would not require any quarantine period – as is now the case for travellers arriving from New Zealand into selected Australian airports, and would apply to future two-way 'travel bubbles' – provided they haven’t visited any ‘amber’ or ‘red’ destinations in the previous 14 days.
Speaking with media in Sydney, Morrison confirmed that the National Security Committee was "considering options for home isolation", based on expert medical advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC).
“As much as getting Australians home is our top priority when it comes to utilising these quarantine arrangements, our other priority is to get Australia back to a safe level of engaging with the rest of the world,” Morrison added.
The PM has previously name-checked Japan and South Korea as countries that could fall into the ‘home quarantine’ basket, along with arrivals from some of Australia’s Pacific Island neighbours.
Enforcing home quarantine the real struggle
Two weeks prior to the nationwide adoption of mandatory hotel quarantine on March 29, self-isolation at home was introduced for travellers arriving from overseas.
However, random police checks of those supposed to be isolating found mixed levels of compliance, with some choosing to disregard the rules and venture into the community before their 14-day quarantine period had passed.
To assist with enforcement and compliance, Australia may look to follow the path of other countries that have made use of home quarantine for some travellers.
For example, while Singapore still relies on enforced hotel quarantine for many arrivals, some from lower-risk destinations can instead self-isolate at home.
Upon arrival in Singapore, those quarantining at home are issued with a smartwatch-style monitoring device that must be worn for the duration of their self-isolation period.
Smart tech and selfies
The gadget relays the person’s location to Singaporean authorities, and generates an alert if it has been removed, tampered with, or the individual leaves their nominated address during quarantine.
As well, the traveller will receive text messages from the government at various times, which must be responded to – as well as phone calls and video calls – and may still receive physical house visits from the authorities, too.
Those who breach Singapore’s strict self-isolation rules may be fined up to SGD$10,000 (A$10,384), and/or face up to six months in prison.
In Poland, a special 'Home Quarantine' smartphone app prompts users to take a selfie at random times throughout the day to prove they are at home, with 20 minutes to respond.
A combination of geolocation and facial recognition algorithms indicates if you're actually at your designated quarantine residence.
Balancing the risks
Even if home monitoring is enforced by technical means and backed up by randomised visits from authorities, there are other hurdles to consider – such as transmission between household members.
For example, if a person is permitted to quarantine at home after arriving from overseas, but lives with others who are not subject to the same restrictions, there’s a risk that an infected traveller could spread COVID-19 to other members of their household, who then carry that infection into the community.
When home isolation was previously allowed, various guidelines took this into account, suggesting that people follow social distancing even at home with family.
Sleeping in another room, using a separate bathroom and keeping a distance of 1.5 metres at all times were some of the precautions suggested by various Australian Government bodies, as well as regularly disinfecting surfaces and wearing a mask if strolling in the garden or passing through common property in unit blocks and other community living complexes.
Following the events in Victoria which saw the state adopting the nation’s tightest and lengthiest restrictions on movement and daily life, the Australian Government would likely move to minimise any risks associated with home quarantine, to avoid a repeat.
This could see home quarantine restricted to individuals who live alone, or to households where every member of the family or residence agrees to follow self-isolation rules, as an alternative to the traveller being quarantined in a hotel.
Ultimately, the proposal merely remains under consideration by the Australian Government – but if adopted, could help ease the strain on managed quarantine hotels: allowing more Australians to return home, but also, paving the way towards a gradual return of international return travel from Australia.