One of Australia’s leading mental health experts has called for Western Australia’s hotel quarantine system to be overhauled amid growing concerns over the impact on people’s wellbeing.
- Professor McGorry says regional quarantine may be better for mental health
- It may also pose a lower risk of significant spread following a potential outbreak
- The WA Opposition has called for a review of the state’s current system
It comes after 49-year-old Jenny Maree D’Ubios walked out of the Pan Pacific Hotel on Saturday morning, one week into her mandatory 14-day quarantine period.
She was taken into custody about 10 hours later at a Perth hospital and has since tested negative for COVID-19.
It was not the first time the issue of inadequate mental health support had been raised, with the topic a key consideration of the National Review of Hotel Quarantine handed down in October.
Professor Patrick McGorry, a leading psychiatrist in youth mental health and 2010 Australian of the Year, is among those calling for more support to be offered to travellers in hotel quarantine.
He said an important first step would be to introduce mental health assessments for all arrivals.
“When [people are] placed in highly stressful conditions without enough support, and isolated from other sources of support, then you’re going to expect that there are going to be some breakdowns,” he said.
“You’d be wanting to obviously look for relapses or exacerbations of these conditions under these sort of fairly stressful conditions.”
Lessons to be applied from prisons: McGorry
Among Professor McGorry’s suggestions is to radically change the hotel quarantine system by moving it away from CBD hotels.
“It might be convenient because these hotels are empty but in the past, quarantine stations were placed remote from major population centres,” he said.
“I don’t know if enough thought’s gone into that on this occasion.”
Professor McGorry said the change would be beneficial for more than just those in quarantine.
“If there is a leakage or there are incidents or spread [of the virus] out of the quarantine location, if it’s a more isolated setting or a smaller population base … the risk to the general public surely would be a lot less,” he said.
The former Australian of the Year also said governments should look to strategies used in managing the mental health of prisoners when considering how to best support those in hotel quarantine.
“There’s a lot of experience of this type of incarceration … to draw on here on how we might be able to improve the mental health response,” he said.
Alternatives to hotel quarantine needed: Opposition
Opposition spokesman Tony Krsticevic said the Liberal Party was calling for an independent inquiry into the state’s preparedness to deal with the coronavirus.
He said a key consideration should be alternative forms of quarantine, including facilities in rural areas or hotels with balconies.
“We know that when people go into quarantine, into lockdown, some of them are going to struggle and we need to understand the experiences that they’re going through,” Mr Krsticevic said on Monday.
“We should have alternatives for those who can’t cope and for those who have mental health issues.”
But he said the need to properly secure those facilities was just as important as diversifying them.
“We need to have police [at all hotels] or the security guards need to have the powers to stop people from leaving,” he said.
“We know that there’s a capacity there, we need to look after the safety of all Western Australians.
“This needs to be a priority for the police.”
Currently, police maintain a constant presence at only one hotel where “high-risk” travellers see out their quarantine.
Other hotels are guarded by private security contractors and about 100 Australian Defence Force personnel.
Health Minister requests quarantine breach review
In a statement released on Monday, Health Minister Roger Cook said he had requested a review of Saturday’s quarantine breach.
“The review is being conducted by the State Health Incident Coordination Centre and the State Emergency Coordinator,” he said.
“We will now take the necessary actions to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
Yesterday, Mr Cook stopped short of promising changes to the accommodation that makes up hotel quarantine.
“It’s a balance between keeping the WA community safe and keeping people safe in their hotels,” he said.
At the same time, WA’s Health Incident Coordinator, Robyn Lawrence, said people in the hotels had been receiving appropriate mental health support.
“Through the health and wellbeing teams and a very dedicated mental health team for those with more serious mental health issues, we’ve been able to support more than 20,000 international travellers safely through hotel quarantine to return to their families and friends,” she said.
Domestic arrivals show workable alternatives: AMA
Australian Medical Association (AMA) WA President Andrew Miller echoed calls for the system to be overhauled, saying it was “critical to our future success in 2021”.
“You can’t just assume [people are] going to be OK if you stick them in a hotel room and ask them to stay there,” he said.
“[The] majority of people will start to find that very tedious and for some people, that will actually threaten their health.”
Dr Miller said the current system was not a long-term solution, and changes needed to be made to ensure the system was “sustainable”.
Allowing for fresh air or trips outside were at the top of his wishlist, but Dr Miller said abandoning hotel quarantine entirely should be considered for some international arrivals.
“We’re seeing that with domestic arrivals from places that have [a] high concentration of community spread,” he said.
“They’re asked to do home quarantine or quarantine in a suitable location using technology to assist the police in keeping track of where they are.
“There may well be situations in which it’s entirely appropriate for international arrivals to be … looked after at home or at another residence away from hotel quarantine.”