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Probe recommends tougher hotel quarantine as remote options lose support

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An investigation into the Hotel Grand Chancellor cluster has found guests likely infected each other, while a cleaner was probably infected touching a contaminated surface

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The police and health investigation into the six-person cluster, that led to a Brisbane lockdown, was unable to definitively chart how the more contagious UK strain travelled through the hotel and beyond. Air-conditioning systems and deliberate breaches by guests or staff were ruled out, however permitted movement in and around corridors was issue of concern, as were apparent breaches in infection control.

While no one was singled out for blame, the investigation recommended an overhaul of preventive measures, including guests having to wear masks when opening doors – effective immediately – and reducing the opportunity for multiple rooms to open at the same time. Queensland Health will dedicate a top official, who was involved in the investigation, to improving the system.

“Our quarantine hotels are not hospitals, they were never built to serve this purpose,” Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said today, after raising elements of the investigation report with National Cabinet.

At the start of the outbreak, Palaszczuk called for remote quarantine facilities to be used instead of hotels, so that people at risk of being infected were not travelling through populated areas. That would include staff.

Today, however, Palaszczuk said one possible facility near Gladstone was no longer being considered, and effectively left the consideration of a greenfield site at Toowoomba’s Wellcamp Airport to the Morrison Government.

“If the Commonwealth wants to pursue that option, to bring home more vulnerable Australians by charter flight, the ball’s in their court,” Palaszczuk said, noting that the Commonwealth had already ruled out diverting commercial flights from capital cities.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison today reiterated hotel quarantine remained the best solution, and suggested the Toowoomba proposal was not so much a plan as “an outline – and there’s a lot more to fill in”. He said staffing remained one of the challenges in such a scenario, along with the prospect of diverting health resources from the local community.

Morrison said a top federal bureaucrat would work with state and territory directors-general on Australia’s “risk matrix” and what he believed to be a more manageable threat level, due to improved practices and procedures and the imminent arrival of vaccines.

While Morrison would not be drawn on whether that would lead to fewer restrictions, he suggested recent lockdowns were merely due to a lack of recent experience dealing with outbreaks in those states.

“Both Western Australia and Queensland hadn’t had as much game time,” Morrison said, suggesting lockdowns would be less likely in future.

Palaszczuk said all jurisdictions were dealing with the challenge of new strains of COVID-19, and pointed to the recent cases of the UK strain in hotel quarantine in Western Australia and Victoria.

Queensland health officials have repeatedly praised the cleaner for her assistance, and today reiterated she had followed health protocols. A federal health official today said governments should do whatever possible to minimise the risk of human error but acknowledged it could never be eliminated in hotel quarantine.

The report into the Hotel Grand Chancellor cluster is dated January 28 – three days before WA revealed a security guard at one of its quarantine hotels had been infected in a corridor, leading to a city-wide lockdown, and five days before a similar incident at a hotel in Melbourne raised concerns over the Australian Open.

Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath received the report on Wednesday night, while Palaszczuk considered it this morning after returning from leave.

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