Smartphone apps and wearable surveillance devices including ankle bracelets are among options that could allow returning travellers to quarantine at home rather than in a hotel, a review has suggested.
The national hotel quarantine review was released on Friday with the prime minister, Scott Morrison, stating all options were on the table and he would let “experts” develop “innovative” solutions.
The national cabinet has agreed to measures to boost quarantine capacity including preparing to shift away from hotel-only quarantine. It also recommitted on Friday to a three-stage pathway for jurisdictions to ease restrictions to “Covid normal” by Christmas.
The pathway envisages: retail, hospitality and events of up to 500 people operating without restrictions except 1.5m physical distancing; removing all domestic travel restrictions; quarantine-free travel from New Zealand and other “low-risk” countries by the end of the year.
Only Western Australia dissented at Friday’s meeting due to its opposition to reopening its borders. The plan implies Queensland will reopen after the state election on 31 October.
National cabinet approved increasing the cap of 6,000 weekly arrivals; Western Australia agreed to take an extra 140 international passengers a week and Queensland an extra 150 from November.
But even with the Howard Springs facility in the Northern Territory, Australia is struggling to clear the backlog of more than 30,000 stranded Australians.
Morrison said the day “isn’t yet here” that Melbourne can resume taking international arrivals after its hotel quarantine was suspended due to its role as the source of the second coronavirus wave in Victoria.
Morrison suggested it could be “weeks” away but “hopefully not longer than that”, adding that it is “a priority for the premier [Daniel Andrews] because he wants to see Victorians come home”.
Tasmania volunteered to act as a “reserve option” to boost capacity but cannot take international flights, he said.
The hotel quarantine review, conducted by former health department secretary Jane Halton, found Australia needed to boost capacity because compulsory hotel quarantine was “unlikely to be able to expand significantly above current levels” despite increased pressure to increase travel to and from Australia.
It recommended “new approaches that manage risk” including exempting low-risk travellers from quarantine, a national quarantine facility, and “options for new models of quarantine”.
International jurisdictions had adopted systems including: quarantine for seven days combined with regular testing and home isolation with “devices to monitor location, including through smartphone applications or wearable monitoring devices (on a voluntary basis)”.
Businesses had offered to “manage quarantine arrangements for essential workers, including through the use of wearable monitoring devices for low-risk travellers”.
The ACT has already allowed home quarantine.
Morrison said national cabinet had agreed “to develop a risk stratification approach … to international arrivals” which could see travellers quarantining in-home, on-farm, at mining camps or on campus.
But he said there was “no undue haste” to develop new systems. On Thursday, the Australian Human Rights Commission warned Australia’s caps on arrivals may breach international law and citizens’ human rights.
Asked about the use of ankle bracelets, Morrison said he would “let those experts who are going to work on these options do their job” and not speculate.
“Let them work out what will be most effective and can best facilitate us getting back to a Covid-normal in the future but I expect them to be innovative and think about new ways of doing things,” he said.
Morrison, speaking as a charter flight carrying 161 Australians touched down in Darwin, said of the 4,100 citizens overseas identified as vulnerable 1,178 had returned home. More than 2,900 remain stranded.
He refused to guarantee all Australians who wanted to come home by Christmas would be able to, instead offering only that the government’s “goal” was to bring home by then 26,000 who had registered by mid-September.
Morrison said shutdowns in Melbourne had a “terrible impact on Victorians, on their mental health and on their economy” and encouraged Andrews to further ease restrictions.
But he accepted that Western Australia had “special circumstances” that excused its dissent from the three-stage plan, a reference to premier Mark McGowan’s belief that because it lacked border communities disrupted by the restrictions, it would be best for the state to continue to block travel at least until 2021.
“Around the rest of the country, they have their timetables and we look forward to [them] opening by Christmas of this year,” Morrison said. “Certainly seven out of the eight states and territories will be open and that will be a great day for Australia. You never know, it might be eight.”
Morrison announced the national federation reform council – a body that replaces the council of Australian governments – will meet for the first time on 11 December and will establish a veterans wellbeing taskforce.
In statements released after national cabinet, Morrison said the federal government had extended pandemic hardship payments to South Australia and Queensland. The scheme has been criticised for reproducing state arrangements without granting a genuine right to paid pandemic leave.