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The project that will decide when thousands of Aussies can come home

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After striking a deal to build a new quarantine facility in Queensland, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has now done the same in WA. But his first deal, for a project in Victoria, will decide how and when the others proceed.

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The Commonwealth and WA have signed a preliminary agreement for the construction of a new 1,000-bed quarantine facility to house arrivals from overseas.

It follows a Memorandum of Understanding being signed on Monday with Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk for a 1,000-bed facility at Damascus Barracks at Meeandah, in Pinkenba, that the Commonwealth will build and the Queensland Government will run.

Consultants AECOM have done the planning for the new projects, having also been heavily involved in Morrison’s first deal, with the Victorian Government, for a new quarantine facility in north Melbourne.

However, AECOM has privately told government officials that the Victorian project could impact on supplies needed for both the Queensland and WA projects. Even if the Victorian project is delivered on time – it is expected to start accepting travellers in January – supply chain issues could still cause problems in the other states.

Federal Finance Minister Simon Birmingham today said the WA project would facilitate the safe arrival of international flights next year.

“It will increase our ability to respond to future emergencies or disasters, including the continued management of the COVID-19 pandemic into next year,” Birmingham said.

The Commonwealth is understood to have set aside $200 million for each quarantine facility, which would be used to bring back Australians stranded overseas, leaving hotel quarantine to deal with other travellers.

It comes as the spread of the Delta variant, the take-up of vaccinations, and potential for so-called ‘vaccine passports’ to determine freedom to travel change the policy measures being used in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Morrison’s deals with Queensland and WA predict the first 500 beds in each project being ready for travellers in March, increasing to 1,000 soon after. While there is room for further capacity being brought online, the Commonwealth has set the limit at 1,000 for each facility.

The Howard Springs quarantine centre in the Northern Territory has set a template for the new facilities was expected to reach its capacity of 2,000 places for the first time this month.

Federal Opposition health spokesman Mark Butler blamed the latest domestic outbreaks on the prime minister’s failure to beef up quarantine earlier.

The recent Indooroopilly cluster originated from one of two returned overseas travellers, and there have been numerous hotel quarantine breaches and lapses in transport protocols across Australia.

“Scott Morrison bears more responsibility than anyone else for this disastrous third wave,” Butler said.

“It began with a breach in quarantine transport arrangements, which Scott Morrison was warned about last year.”

The Pinkenba project was already going to be complicated – more so than the other sites – due to the need to deal with the noise of the neighbouring airport, contamination, in-fill and flooding. Some Defence resources may also have to be relocated.

Morrison has now done deals with three Labor states, in the lead-up to the federal election, and AECOM said the governments would need to work together to meet the timeframe for delivery of the projects.

Palaszczuk continues to advocate for a separate quarantine facility, to be built by the Wagner family near its Wellcamp Airport at Toowoomba, which she has said could replace hotels altogether.

However, Morrison has rejected the proposal, due ostensibly to the distance from a tertiary hospital, and has avoided answering questions on negotiations in a federal parliamentary committee.

Queensland had signed a different MOU for the Pinkenba project on Friday, only to be offered an updated document on Monday.

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