On March 28, 2020, Australia was one of the first countries to implement mandatory hotel quarantine for incoming travellers.
We did it before Taiwan, South Korea and even before New Zealand, although Singapore beat us to it by just a few days. It's not been perfect. Mistakes were made, but Australia got it right.
There's no doubt Australia's hotel quarantine system has been a circuit breaker that has stopped infected travellers from spreading COVID-19 among the wider community, and probably saved thousands of lives.
Recently, several other countries have begun introducing hotel quarantine, using using Australia's system as a template for their own processing of incoming travellers. This comes even as experts call for hotel quarantine to be scrapped in Australia and replaced with a better system, after yet another case of the virus escaping into the community, this time in Perth.
What other countries are doing
In mid-February 2021, almost a year after the pandemic began, the United Kingdom followed Australia's lead and instituted a mandatory hotel quarantine system.
UK citizens and residents returning from 'red list' countries now need to quarantine for 10 days in a designated hotel, coughing up £1750 ($A3137) for the privilege. Only British nationals and UK residents will be allowed to enter if they are coming from a red list destination.
The current red list includes 40 countries, most of them in Africa but also including Oman, Qatar and the UAE. Travellers coming from any other country can enter providing they have had a negative PCR test 72 hours prior to travel and they undergo a 10-day quarantine at their home or the place where they are staying.
As well as shorter and less inclusive, the British hotel quarantine system is less restrictive than Australia's, with those in quarantine allowed out to exercise in the company of a security guard. Security within the quarantine hotels is also more lax. There have been reports of quarantined guests socialising freely in one another's rooms.
The UK initially went with a self-regulated quarantine system for incoming travellers but supervision and enforcement were slack, mirroring the government's own lack of urgency even as infections rocketed. People who were supposed to be in quarantine went to the pub, back to work, took their kids to school and out to the park.
Over the summer of 2020, following the introduction of the travel quarantine regime, out of more than 4000 investigations conducted by the police, only three-quarters were found to be fully complying with isolation protocols.
Ireland has followed suit. Since March 26, all arrivals have been required to show evidence of a negative PCR test taken no more than 72 hours before arrival. All incoming passengers arriving in Ireland from designated states are now required to pre-book 14 days accommodation in a designated quarantine facility.
The list of designated countries includes the US, France, Italy, Austria and several other countries in Europe, making Ireland the only EU state to introduce mandatory hotel quarantine for travellers from other EU members.
That puts Ireland on a collision course with an EU executive body proposal of April 21, 2021 that would allow EU residents to travel freely across the 27-nation bloc by the summer as long as they have been vaccinated, tested negative for COVID-19 or recovered from the disease.
Canada has just introduced mandatory hotel quarantine, for only three days until a negative test is received. The traveller can then complete their 14 days quarantine at home.
Since January 26, 2021, the US has required all incoming air passengers to present a negative COVID-19 test, taken within three calendar days of departure or proof of recovery from the virus within the last 90 days. Before that date, some states imposed their own quarantine restrictions.
For example New York required 14 days of home-based quarantine for travellers coming from some other US states, but state-by-state quarantine was piecemeal and often political, and the shocking US death toll from COVID-19 is one of the consequences.
Home-based quarantine – the way ahead for Australia?
Australia can't keep the drawbridge raised indefinitely. Sooner or later, our government will have to open its doors to allow Australians stranded overseas to return, to allow overseas students to return, to allow in the backpackers who help harvest much of our country's food crops and also to allow Australians to venture overseas and return without spending two weeks in hotel quarantine.
Recently Prime Minister Scott Morrison has lent weight to the suggestion that home-based quarantine might replace Australia's current system of mandatory hotel quarantine, at least for some incoming travellers.
One way to do that and to ensure that people obey quarantine-at-home restrictions is by using tracking technology, as Hong Kong did.
In the early days of coronavirus, Hong Kong allowed returning residents to quarantine for 14 days at home. Arrivals had a wristband attached, consisting of a waterproof paper strip with a QR code. The QR code paired with a smartphone app which allowed authorities to check whether the wearer had left their prescribed location.
Problem was, many never received the verification code needed to activate the smartphone app. It's believed that after waiting several days for a verification code that never arrived, some simply cut the wristband and resumed life as normal.
Others who had managed to activate the app quickly realised their phone was the key to the location-finding system, so they removed their wristband and left it along with their phone at their prescribed residence while they shopped, went for a jog or back to their favourite matcha tea joint. Hong Kong has since instituted much tougher quarantine requirements for all incoming travellers.
There are lessons to be learned that point a way forward for Australia. Home-based quarantine without checks is a leaky sieve, as the UK proved. Hong Kong's bracelet-tracking scheme was also flawed, but it was introduced well before there was an effective vaccine.
We now have those vaccines and once they have been rolled out to a significant majority of a population and herd immunity achieved, the risk of COVID-19 spreading unchecked through the community is much lower.
Australia is still some way from herd immunity, but once there, if travellers have been fully vaccinated and tested COVID negative immediately before boarding a flight to Australia, why not transition from supervised hotel quarantine to a home-based quarantine system?