Deal in sight for $200m quarantine facility near Avalon Airport

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A last-minute dispute is dragging out negotiations between the federal and Victorian governments to build a new quarantine facility near Avalon Airport so it can house 500 travellers and add to the existing hotel quarantine regime.

The Victorian government has gained a draft agreement from Prime Minister Scott Morrison to back the $200 million project but is concerned the terms could lead to a sharp increase in the numbers at the centre when it would prefer a stronger focus on minimising risk.

A last-minute dispute is dragging out negotiations between the federal and Victorian governments to build a new quarantine facility near Avalon Airport. Credit:Joe Armao/Getty

While the sticking point could prolong the discussions, the project is seen as a template for future quarantine centres in other locations if state and territory leaders want to build new facilities in the expectation of a lengthy pandemic that leads to repeated outbreaks and restrictions.

Mr Morrison has sent a Memorandum of Understanding to Victorian Acting Premier James Merlino with federal commitments on the cost of the construction, which could start in January in the hope of opening the centre in September next year.

Victoria would have to continue using hotel quarantine for the long-term, with the federal government only offering to fund the new Avalon centre if it adds to rather than replaces the hotel system.

A federal source said the Victorian government would be expected to contribute to the cost of the new centre, with a state source saying this would most likely be with operating costs rather than the $200 million cost of construction.

The quarantine facility would be based on the Howard Springs facility in the Northern Territory.

The federal government owns the land at Avalon and prefers the site to an alternative at Mickleham.

While the Memorandum of Understanding was in line with the Victorian government’s funding request on almost every issue, it included language on the capacity of the centre that raised concerns in Melbourne about bringing in too many people from overseas.

A state source said Victoria was seeking to minimise risk in the quarantine system by easing some of the pressures in hotel quarantine, for instance with family groups.

Mr Morrison has been adamant, however, that the federal government will only fund centres that add to hotel quarantine rather than taking travellers out of the existing system.

If built, the new centre would be the first federally-funded quarantine facility for the pandemic since Mr Morrison committed $500 million to expand the Howard Springs camp outside Darwin, which differs from hotel quarantine because it has open air between cabins and rooms.

While the Howard Springs centre is meant to reach a capacity of 2000 occupants this month, a Northern Territory source said it currently had about 1200 people staying.

This adds to a hotel quarantine system that has about 6000 rooms.

Former Health Department secretary Jane Halton, who reviewed the quarantine system last year, sent a warning to governments this week to improve the system with purpose-built facilities as well as fixes to the hotel system.

“I have said consistently that we need both,” Ms Halton said.

Australian Industry Group chief Innes Willox welcomed the progress on the Victorian project.

“I think it has been needed for some time. Hotel quarantine hasn’t been foolproof. We need a long-term, long-lasting system and purpose-built facilities like the one proposed in Melbourne is
certainly heading in the right direction,” he told ABC News.

“I think Howard Springs is probably the facility that everyone looks to as the model, and, you know, the more of those the better. This will not be the last of this pandemic and there will be more pandemics to come.“

Labor deputy leader Richard Marles criticised Mr Morrison for taking too long to commit to the Victorian proposal, saying the country should allow “the bulk of the work” to be done by purpose-built quarantine facilities.

“Hotel quarantine has been a stopgap and obviously in the absence of fit-for-purpose facilities, that’s what’s going to do the job,” said Mr Marles, federal Labor’s most senior Victorian.

“But hotels are for travellers, they’re not medical facilities. And one of the things that has become very clear is that transmission in places via aerosol, through the air, where you’ve got air conditioning systems going throughout a building, is what’s happening.“

Asked on Sky News how many purpose-built centres would need to be built, Mr Marles said that was a matter for the federal government.

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