Fears mutant strain has slipped into Australia

 

The rich. The powerful. The well-connected. These are the people the Federal Government exempts from both international travel restrictions and hotel quarantine. And they may be the backdoor by which a supercharged new strain entered Australia.

Australians aren't allowed to leave the country to travel overseas.

Australians must wait in line and pay for their own 14-day hotel quarantine upon return.

Unless you get an exemption.

These strict quarantine rules have captured the first known cases of Britain's new supercharged COVID-19 strain before it broke out into the community. Four travellers from the UK to New South Wales have just been diagnosed carrying the mutant virus.

This 'Brexit Flu' strain is believed to be some 75 per cent more contagious than normal COVID-19, making it incredibly difficult to contain - even under strict lockdown conditions.

A doctor and nurse attend to a COVID patient at Footscray Hospital in Melbourne in July. Picture: Penny Stephens.
A doctor and nurse attend to a COVID patient at Footscray Hospital in Melbourne in July. Picture: Penny Stephens.

Dodging quarantine is a scandal. For some.

A 53-year-old Australian dual citizen and her son travelled to Victoria from Sydney earlier this month without spending some $3000 and 14 days locked up in a hotel room. The cause? A police clerical error.

The uproar surrounding the incident exposed just how common it was for high-profile travellers to win quarantine exemptions.

Pop star Dannii Minogue is among a list of excused celebrities including Nicole Kidman and Tom Hanks. But such privilege is extended to billionaires, international flight crews, film executives, TV figures, defence personnel, diplomats and oil-and-gas industry officials.

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Dannii Minogue escaped hotel quarantine but if a member of the public tries then there’s uproar.
Dannii Minogue escaped hotel quarantine but if a member of the public tries then there’s uproar.

But will Britain's hyper-contagious Brexit Flu slip through the cracks of this self-quarantine system?

FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES

The pandemic quarantine problem is endemic.

Australian citizens are banned from overseas travel. Foreign travellers aren't allowed to travel here.

Unless you get an exemption from Peter Dutton's Department of Home Affairs like Tony Abbott, Alexander Downer and several sports teams.

Such exemptions may also apply to quarantine upon arrival.

One of the first members of this exclusive club was billionaire Kerry Stokes. He was allowed to self-isolate in his Perth home in May after travelling from a COVID hotspot in the United States. This was despite Western Australia's otherwise extreme paranoia to all travel - be it international or interstate.

But a few emails to key state and federal politicians quickly put Mr Stokes above the pack.

British billionaire Lord Alan Sugar won himself absolution to travel to New South Wales in September. He likewise dodged hotel quarantine requirements.

Queensland excused Minogue's special treatment for having "a COVID-safe plan that is managed by an independent third party". No details on how such a plan could be put in place by general members of the public have been released.

The state's Liberal and National Party opposition seized on the move, accusing the Labor government of having "one rule for celebrities and one rule for everyone else". Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman and her family were fast-tracked to their NSW Southern Highlands home by the NSW Coalition government - for similar stated reasons.

MUTANT STRAIN

Normal COVID-19 is three times more contagious than the flu virus. A new strain recently identified in Britain is believed to be an extra 75 per cent worse again.

This strain contains 23 identified mutations on the original COVID. The one that supercharges its spread - N501Y - was identified in Brazil back in April.

It was briefly present in Australia in June. And fear of this - or a similar - mutation was behind South Australia's rapid-reaction lockdown in November.

N501Y strengthens the spike proteins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This enhances its ability to tear open human cells to replicate there.

But the particular mix of mutations in the new British strain (designated B117) appears to be making it especially virulent.

"Any single one of those may have been seen elsewhere, like N501Y, but this constellation of multiple mutations would appear to be very new," says British government's Respiratory Virus Threat Advisory Group chairman Peter Holby.

It is believed to have already spread to Belgium, France and South Africa.

More than 40 countries have now instituted travel bans on arrivals from Britain.

SELF REGULATION

Can every exemptee - be they on grounds of compassion or privilege - be trusted to self isolate?

There is a formal quarantine exemptions approval process in place.

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee - made up of state and territory health officers under the chairmanship of the Australian chief medical officer - can make recommendations. The actual decision, however, is down to individual states. And health ministers have wide-ranging discretionary powers.

But enforcement - equivalent to that of police, military and health officials at quarantine hotels - is poorly defined.

This has caused problems.

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Even Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has a blind spot when it comes to celebrities skipping hotel quarantine. Picture: Tim Marsden.
Even Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has a blind spot when it comes to celebrities skipping hotel quarantine. Picture: Tim Marsden.

Federal Government measures allow any government official or foreign diplomat - and their families - to quarantine at home. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk banned Federal diplomatic and consular staff returning to the state after a consular exemption tested positive for coronavirus in August. But not celebrities.

SUPERCHARGED THREAT

New South Wales health department policy insists there is no special treatment, and exemptions are "only considered where there are strong medical, health or compassionate grounds".

Likewise, "you cannot choose your quarantine accommodation and all attempts have been made to source suitable accommodation for quarantine purposes," the official quarantine website states.

Neither site mentions celebrity, political status or wealth being a mitigating factor.

But, they are.

While the current NSW outbreak is not related to the new strain, its origins are surrounded in controversy. Speculation persists that the US-variant may have been imported by an exempted returnee.

Meanwhile, new arrivals are streaming in from the UK.

Travelling politicians and public servants are the largest single group allowed to skip hotel quarantine. And a significant number of DFAT's 2939 overseas staff have been busy in Britain amid its Brexit dilemma - along with Tony Abbott and recent returnee UK high commissioner George Brandis.

"We don't want any strains circulating in the Australian community. So whether it's the US or the UK strain, we want to keep them all out which means good hotel quarantine, ongoing good practices," says ANU medical school Professor Peter Collingnon.

Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel

Originally published as Fears mutant strain slipped into Australia


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