Hotel quarantine tips: How to support a friend in 14-day COVID-19 quarantine

If a friend sent a vacuum cleaner to your hotel room as a gift, you might think they were mad. Or at least you would have done before March last year when Australia's strict hotel quarantine program began as a response to COVID-19.

These days, trampolines, flower arrangements and jigsaw puzzles are common welcome gifts, as arrivals from overseas suffer their mandatory 14 days in a hotel room not of their choosing. The vacuum cleaner may be a little more left field, but appreciated. One lucky guest, complaining to a friend about the nasty, unclean carpets in their hotel room, found the new appliance on their doorstep the next day.

For most quarantine guests, which room you get assigned is the luck of the draw, as hotels are on rotation. Where you're placed depends upon which week you arrive and what flight you've taken. There's no bargaining or tantrums tolerated, especially when being checked in by burly police officers.

Hotels have refined their approach dramatically since the early days and now allow deliveries from outside sources such as Woolworths, Dan Murphy's and Uber Eats, making the experience less like a prison, but the reality is the door is locked on guests, the windows can't be opened, and psychologically it can feel very claustrophobic for couples, or lonely for singles.

"Hotel quarantine can be quite a challenge physically and emotionally for many people," says Beyond Blue Lead Clinical Adviser Dr Grant Blashki. "People with depression can have problems such as disruption of the sleep/wake cycle, too much time for getting lost in their own thoughts, feeling isolated and alone and finding that the lack of sunshine, fresh air and exercise exacerbates feelings of depression."

Family and friends have a key role in supporting people through phone calls, online video chats and, where possible, dropping off food or other items such as books to make the quarantine time a bit easier, he says.

Apart from a few obvious ideas – books, games, chocolate, gin – it's sometimes hard to imagine what a quarantined person might need. Often, it's surprising.

When journalist Damien Woolnough did a stint in Sydney, a friend sent him a beautiful orchid in a pot, "which gave my Rydges room an instant update," he says.

Everyone loves flowers but sometimes it's the mundane things from home, like glasses, cutlery, a favourite cereal bowl, even ice-cube trays to make ice for a nightly G+T, that mitigate against the impersonality of the hotel room and having to eat everything out of boxes with plastic forks.

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Tim Tams are high on the list of popular requests, but anything from the outside world that reminds returning Australians of the home beyond hotel walls can be helpful.

Gaynor Read, vice-president of Communications for the Accor hotel group, was in hotel quarantine after returning home from Singapore for her father's funeral. She was especially grateful for the photo album of her father and family that a friend compiled and sent to the Sofitel Wentworth where she was confined. Another friend sent a box containing eucalyptus leaves, which she had sitting by her bed to remind her of the world outside.

Some hotels offer limited access to streaming services, so a plug-in Google Chromecast or Apple TV device will help series-addicted friends while away their 336 hours in captivity.

Anything to do with pampering is appreciated, as there's plenty of time for it. Bath bombs. Hair masks. Scented candles. Aman hotels sell a range of candles that can turn a Travelodge room into an Aman resort. (Almost.)

A case of wine is another good idea. In NSW guests are limited to one bottle of wine, a six-pack of beer, or 200 millilitres of spirits a day, but many hotels will happily take delivery of a case, cellar it, and send up a bottle a day to a guest's room.

For guests who want to do more than pace their room, an exercise bike can be organised through the hotels. Sending some resistance bands, an exercise ball or a subscription to online yoga or Pilates classes is a simpler option.

However, whether friends send knitting needles and wool or a subscription to a masterclass, there are limitations. It's impossible to deliver what guests say they really want – fresh air and physical human contact.

When writer Francesca Muir delivered native flowers to her friend in quarantine, "I also visited her on the street outside and waved and danced with her," she says. "The amazing thing is eight other people (complete strangers) in rooms below hers saw us and joined in our dance. They seemed desperate for some human interaction."

In the end, it's the little gestures of support which mean more to confined friends than that packet of Murray River Salted Double Choc Tim Tams.

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