The need for some form of quarantine for the evacuees had been agreed earlier that day by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which comprises the chief medical officers in each state, territory and federally.
But there is disagreement over whether the evacuees needed to be isolated on Christmas Island. NSW Health believes they could have been accommodated at the state’s various hospitals. The federal government says Christmas Island was the only viable option.
Richmond RAAF base is near Nepean and Westmead hospitals. It is also understood the Qantas jumbo could have landed at the Richmond RAAF base, unlike Christmas Island. The first Wuhan flight had to land at Learmonth RAAF base in Exmouth, Western Australia, before the evacuees were split up and flown to Christmas Island.
Senior state government sources said they were surprised by the decision to use the detention centre, speculating it may have been made for political reasons such as avoiding the optics of a plane load of potentially diseased people arriving in western Sydney.
Asked about the Richmond option, a NSW Health spokesman noted the RAAF base was owned by the federal Department of Defence.
“NSW Health has the capacity to undertake screening and assessment activities,” he said. “NSW has the capacity to support the care, treatment and isolation of people should further cases present.”
Those comments appeared to contradict an earlier statement by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, who said on January 30: “I can’t clear out a hospital in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane. I don’t have a facility otherwise [which] can quickly accommodate what might be many hundreds of people and Christmas Island is purpose-built for exactly this scenario.”
Mr Dutton’s office did not respond to questions for this story.
A spokeswoman for the federal Department of Health confirmed Richmond RAAF base “was one of a number of options canvassed for screening”.
“However given ongoing operational needs, it was not appropriate for a major supervised quarantine and isolation operation,” she said. “Christmas Island was chosen for readiness and operational reasons following medical and operational advice to the National Security Committee.”
The spokeswoman also noted the AHPPC is chaired by the Commonwealth’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy, the principal adviser to federal Health Minister Greg Hunt.
On Friday, Mr Hunt announced the next batch of Wuhan evacuees will be taken to a former mining construction workers’ camp outside of Darwin, because Christmas Island is “now at capacity from a public health and quarantine perspective”.
However, a special Qantas flight to pick up about 200 evacuees has not been cleared by China to land in Wuhan and was stuck in Hong Kong on Saturday.
The ABC has reported evacuees on Christmas Island have complained about poor quality food, bad internet and cockroaches at the detention centre. That report has been noted with alarm inside NSW Health, departmental sources said.
Australian Medical Association boss Tony Bartone has also criticised Christmas Island as “not really an appropriate solution”, saying quarantine measures could have been provided elsewhere.
Americans evacuated from Wuhan are being quarantined for two weeks at military bases around the US.
The federal government re-opened the Christmas Island detention centre last year at a projected cost of $185 million to house refugees and asylum seekers transferred to Australia from Nauru and Papua New Guinea under the medevac regime, but it was never used for that purpose.
More than 9100 screenings have taken place at Sydney Airport, of which four coronavirus cases were confirmed and isolated at hospitals. Three of the patients had recovered and been discharged as of Friday night.
NSW Health is advising anyone returning from mainland China, including Hubei province, that if they test negative or are otherwise well they should quarantine themselves at home for 14 days. They can travel home on public transport, taxis or ride-share, but must wear a surgical mask.
Michael Koziol is a political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.