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Qld goes alone on quarantine - 'even if we have to drive them there'

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The Palaszczuk Government will forge ahead with a 1,000-bed quarantine facility near Toowoomba that the Commonwealth found was too far from hospitals and international passenger flights.

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A day after the State Government ‘paused’ hotel quarantine check-ins for two weeks, and two months after the Commonwealth agreed to build a 1,000-bed facility at Pinkenba, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk today declared a pressing need to accommodate international arrivals in purpose-built regional accommodation.

Announcing her government would go-it-alone on the Wellcamp proposal first floated last year, Palaszczuk said separated accommodation units for the first 500 beds would be ready by the end of the year and the remainder in early 2022.

“This is a race,” Palaszczuk said at Wellcamp today.

“We are up against a highly infectious Delta variant that’s sweeping the world.”

The Commonwealth had declined to support the Wellcamp facility because the airport lacked a traffic control tower, fire services, and international passenger processing, and was too far from a tertiary hospital.

However, Palaszczuk said the planned Pinkenba facility was not enough, and only in regional centres could travellers be quarantined away from others, and even other guests, and staff not have to travel through densely populated areas.

Deputy Premier Steven Miles said he hoped once “the heat” was taken out of the debate over Wellcamp the Commonwealth might make the necessary arrangements to allow international flights to land at the privately-built airport. If not, arrivals would have to be bussed to Wellcamp in the same way as they are currently taken to hotels on the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, while anyone who required hospitalisation would be taken by ambulance or helicopter to dedicated COVID-19 hospitals in Brisbane or elsewhere.

Hotel quarantine comes with the risk of COVID-19 breaching public health controls and infecting others, but so too does the transport of international travellers and COVID-19 patients – and Toowoomba is two hours from Brisbane by bus.

While the government has yet to reveal the cost to taxpayers, the Wagner family behind the Wellcamp precinct had initially vowed to build it themselves, provided they received the same fees and charges as hotels. Those fees and charges recently increased.

The government has a 12-month lease on the facility and Palaszczuk suggested it would be “a lot cheaper than Pinkenba,” which will cost the Commonwealth upwards of $200 million.

When the Pinkenba facility was given the green light, Palaszczuk called on the Commonwealth to support Wellcamp and remove the need to use hotels altogether.

The Premier today maintained that would still be the case, despite the government’s own figures this week showing 5,114 people were in 22 quarantine hotels – 3,257 from interstate and 1,857 from overseas.

“Two are definitely better than one, and … I would expect we would not have to use hotels,” Palaszczuk said.

Queensland will consider the prerequisites for potentially allowing interstate travellers to quarantine at home and is awaiting the outcome of a limited trial in South Australia.

The ‘pause’ that was unexpectedly announced on Wednesday will see the government allocate arrival slots, and hotels, ahead of people travelling from interstate hotspots. The new regime will also be introduced ahead of the government invoicing more travellers upfront to ensure their bills do not go unpaid.

Health Minister Yvette D’Ath suggested that if the Pinkenba proposal had received Commonwealth support when it was announced last year, and already been built, Queensland would not have had to ‘pause’ hotel quarantine.

Queensland’s tough border measures have helped prevent interstate transmission of COVID-19 but also come at a cost. Police and health resources have stretched and Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young, who has long pointed to the risk of Delta transmission in hotels, said finding, approving and equipping new hotels was proving too difficult.

Miles said the government believed that funding the Wellcamp project would be cheaper than the economic impact of Queensland having to impose more lockdowns.

However, the announcement caught many off-guard, including the Toowoomba mayor and prominent locals who had campaigned against any such facility.

The Commonwealth had left it open to Queensland to go-it-alone with the Wellcamp proposal. Palaszczuk was asked if Prime Minister Scott Morrison knew about her decision, and said “I’m quite sure he does now”.

Morrison has repeatedly said that hotels have served Australia well throughout the pandemic and new facilities should primarily be used to bring home more stranded Australians.

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