What can England learn from quarantine mistakes in other countries? | Politics


The government is doing more than opening quarantine hotels for international travellers from Covid-19 variant hotspots – it is opening up a world of pain for itself, a dripping tap of bad news likely to keep ministers awake at night.

From 15 February all arrivals from more than 30 countries, including South Africa and Brazil, will be confined to a quarantine hotel for 10 days before being released, assuming they test negative for Covid-19. That is the easy part.

If other countries with mandatory hotel isolation are any guide, the government in England will find itself enmeshed in controversy over how the centres are organised, and will have to make running repairs to satisfy the public when controversies erupt.

Escapes The point of quarantine is to keep people isolated, but hotels are not prisons. Australia and New Zealand have seen multiple escapes by guests who have slipped out through gaps in fences and fire escapes or, in one case, by knotting bedsheets together and climbing out of a fourth-floor window. Some escapers went to their nearest off-licence; one went to a supermarket and bought deodorant; others just went for a stroll. In one sad case, a bereaved woman and her children climbed out over a fence after being denied permission to see her dead husband.

Short of building dedicated quarantine camps – a bad and expensive idea – the best way to deal with the inevitable escapes is an efficient track-and-trace system, which the UK arguably lacks.

Security Australia and New Zealand initially relied on private security to enforce isolation in their hotels. But after a series of escapes and bungles in the early days, governments have increasingly turned to the armed forces and the police to enforce quarantine, with New Zealand handing over management of the entire operation to an air commodore. In the Australian state of Victoria, the decision to use private security has become a hot political issue, especially when it was suspected that infected security staff at its hotels were a cause of a major community outbreak.

The government in England says it is going to rely on private security at quarantine hotels.

Two people in full PPE



Quarantining hotel guests at the Holiday Inn near the Melbourne airport are moved to a new location in Melbourne. Photograph: Luis Ascui/EPA

Sex Human nature being what it is, and single people being stuck in a hotel with a few hundred others with nothing to do, a proportion will attempt to have sex with each other, regardless of the rules. Staff members also get involved: in Melbourne a severe outbreak last year was linked to security guards having sex with guests; in New Zealand, soldiers have been disciplined for propositioning people in quarantine, and a staff member was fired after spending 20 minutes in a guest’s room.

Food With sex off the menu, food becomes the most discussed issue in quarantine hotels. Producing three meals a day for a few hundred people is a challenge, and there will inevitably be complaints on social media. For residents with allergies, special needs, or children, it is especially difficult as rooms have no cooking facilities. A single parent with five children in quarantine in New Zealand had an ingenious solution: making toasted sandwiches using the hotel room’s iron.

Lack of space: England is to have fewer than 5,000 quarantine rooms available for arrivals from 33 countries, and that may be enough given that the £1,750 price tag will put many off. But should other countries be added to the red list, such as Spain, space may quickly run out. That can be embarrassing: the popular children’s entertainers the Wiggles had a sell-out tour planned for New Zealand in March but its management forgot to book quarantine places, putting the tour in doubt. After lobbying of MPs and a rebuke from the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, spots for the cast and crew were found.

Guest behaviour Different countries have different restrictions on what those in quarantine may do, ranging from Hong Kong’s draconian 21-day isolation where people cannot leave their rooms, to others that allow some fresh air and exercise outdoor. The West Indies cricket team got into trouble in isolation when team members were caught socialising and eating together. Elsewhere, police in New Zealand found cannabis concealed in tennis balls being thrown over the fence of one quarantine hotel. Other guests have attempted to have meth delivered, and staff reported finding bongs constructed from water bottles.

Air conditioning Because Covid-19 appears likely to be spread mainly through the air, hotel air conditioning can end up in the news. The system at the five-star Pullman hotel in Auckland may have spread the South African Covid variant, meaning that people who had tested negative and were allowed to leave later developed symptoms. In Hong Kong, guests can pay extra for a room with windows that open.

Cost The £1,750 single-person charge for a quarantine stay in England covers only a proportion of the cost to the government. New Zealand charges a similar amount and operates a similar number of places, at a cost of more than £1m a day.



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