Covid 19 Omicron editorial: MIQs future as New Zealand, Australia reopen


As New Zealand prepares to ditch MIQ requirements for some travellers in less than a week, one Australian state is opening a brand new regional quarantine hub.

Queensland’s 500-bed A$48.8 million facility at Wellcamp, west of Toowoomba, will soon increase to 1000 places.

It will be joined by another MIQ hub near Brisbane Airport.

Australia’s federal Government is also funding quarantine hubs in Victoria and Western Australia, and the country has seen how they work with the Howard Springs camp at Darwin.

This is happening as Australia’s borders open to international vaccinated tourists and visa holders from today, vastly cutting back the managed quarantine system.

In Queensland, the new non-hotel quarantine facilities will be used for unvaccinated international travellers.

Although there appears to be less need for them with reopening, the purpose-built facilities are an example of Australia bedding in changes to improve its position for a future pandemic. Australia is ahead of New Zealand in this example of building back better but we might still follow suit.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said: “Three years ago we did not have a pandemic … I know that I’m future-proofing this state for whatever is thrown our way.”

In her speech on February 3 outlining the dates for reopening, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that here a core capacity would be maintained that could be scaled up, which will form the basis of a future National Quarantine Service. New Zealand would likely have custom-designed facilities which could be new built or modified.

As New Zealand begins its reopening process in the middle of a challenging Omicron outbreak and with the unresolved problem of the anti-mandate protest at Parliament, it’s easy to think that future planning can wait. Booster shots, for example, are crucial with Omicron but the numbers getting them have tailed off.

From midnight next Sunday the first phase begins with vaccinated New Zealanders allowed in from Australia. Two weeks later, the border will reopen to Kiwis from the rest of the world and visa holders, from March 14. MIQ will be replaced by self-isolation and Covid-19 tests on arrival for most people, but will remain for the unvaccinated.

For both New Zealand and Australia, these reopening moves are huge – occurring two years after the borders were generally closed to the rest of the world.

But it’s worth remembering that the pandemic is not over, new variants will emerge, and some regions of the world have low vaccination coverage. And virus escape has become a regular occurrence this century. Covid (2019) is a coronaviruslike previous pandemic viruses such as Sars (2003) and Mers (2012). There have also been H1N1 (2009), Ebola (2014), Zika (2015).

Deakin University epidemiologist Professor Catherine Bennett said in December that Omicron showed there would be a need for purpose-built quarantine in the future.

“The argument has always been there would be a long-term role for it when new variants of concern emerged,” she said, adding that it was safer than hotel quarantine.

Experts have long argued for that here. Should a major new virus escape occur, New Zealand would not want to be still reliant again on hotel MIQ.

That system mostly worked in keeping New Zealanders safe and allowed tens of thousands of Kiwis to return. However, the virus – very expensively – leaked into the community, there was insufficient capacity for the demand, and it became a political liability with stories of suffering, separated families.

Omicron has currently made MIQ seem obsolete with daily community cases over 1000 and few at the border. But that won’t be the case in a future pandemic.

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