Emma Cassar is at the helm of one of Victoria’s biggest logistical challenges: completing and operating a new quarantine facility during a pandemic.
The head of Victoria’s quarantine program is quick to point out that much of the state’s new purpose-built site was created in just nine months – “the time it takes to build a domestic house”.
With capacity for 1,000 people once completed, the Mickleham quarantine hub on the northern fringes of Melbourne welcomed its first group of travellers last month, amid ongoing construction at the site.
By the end of the month, when hotel quarantine arrangements end, it will be Victoria’s sole quarantine facility. Under Victoria’s Covid restrictions, all unvaccinated arrivals must undergo seven days of isolation upon their arrival in the state.
Its construction was initially estimated to cost the commonwealth $200m, but the federal government now expects the total cost to reach $580m. The ongoing operational costs of the site – to be covered by the Victorian government – are yet to be publicly released.
Despite being dubbed a “white elephant” by critics, the federal and Victorian governments argue that a purpose-built facility is crucial in the ongoing battle against Covid, future variants and other pandemics.
The loosening of Covid restrictions in Victoria means the sprawling site can have as few as 10 to 15 residents at one time. The site opened late last month with a 500-bed capacity and will ramp up to full capacity by April.
While the Omicron wave has receded, there are concerns that winter could see a spike in case numbers.
“Having lived this pandemic for the last two years, the one thing we know is when we think we understand it, we’re quickly shown by this virus how quickly it can change, and we certainly see really big numbers over in the UK and Canada,” Cassar says.
“It is the safest possible facility that we can have for a pandemic.”
Adult travellers must pay a fee of $1,500 to stay at the facility, with $500 charged for each additional adult and $250 for children aged three to 18. The centre is also open to Victorians unable to safely isolate at home, including close contacts or frontline workers, free of charge.
But the site has potential to be used for alternative purposes.
The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, this month flagged that it could be used as short-term accommodation for Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion. Cassar also points to domestic violence victims and flood evacuees as groups the facility could house, and says these alternative accommodation uses were front of mind during the design process.
“We’re even thinking about the services that we could provide, if there were outages or failures in hospital catering … we could pick those things up as well,” she says.
At full capacity, the site would be run by 600 staff rotating across a 24-hour roster. The four villages – each with a 250-person capacity – consist of cabin-like accommodation with the aesthetic of a budget hotel.
Guests arriving at the 22-hectare site are checked in by a staff member, stationed behind a glass window, via an intercom.
The cabin’s wrap-around balconies, mirroring the Northern Territory’s Howard Springs quarantine facility, allow guests to indulge in fresh air and sunshine.
“Balconies, to someone who hasn’t done quarantine, doesn’t sound like much,” Cassar says. “But when you can’t go out and get fresh air, it’s incredibly distressing.”
The facility boasts a state-of-the-art kitchen, contactless food ordering and room service, laundry and waste facilities. There are also accessible rooms for guests with disability.
But at the heart of its design is strict infection-control protocol.
The site is divided into “red zones” – comprising guest accommodation and hence a higher Covid risk – and “green zones”, where staff members work.
Purpose-built individual ventilation systems snake above the rooms, which are each also fitted with an air-purifier. The free-standing rooms are connected via footpaths and not corridors – a source of transmission in quarantine hotels.
Five hundred CCTV cameras are installed to ensure residents remain on site for their quarantine period.
The announcement of the facility in April last year came amid drawn-out discussion over the funding split and divergent views on the best use of the facility.
While the Victorian government invested an initial $15m for its design, Cassar says Quarantine Victoria is still liaising with the state government to determine how many beds would be operational and the ongoing costs.
“As we’ve done previously, all that will be made publicly available,” she says.
While the hit to the state’s budget is unknown, the operation of a purpose-built facility is a marked shift from the 2020 hotel quarantine fiasco that plunged the state into a four-month lockdown.
“We’ve learned so much … probably the most important thing is we’ve never stopped learning. We’ve never been complacent with thinking that we’ve understood this,” Cassar says.
“We’ve constantly sought to both reflect and learn from each state, and international colleagues. And we’ve really developed expertise.”