Goodbye Sydney, hello quarantine



On Monday Sydney, my native city, hit the unwanted milestone of more than 100 new cases of Coronavirus – the Delta variant – with almost a third of them in the community for most or part of their infectious period.

It’s this last figure that’s the real worry and what authorities want to bring down to zero. While it keeps going up, so will the spread.

I’d been in Sydney for a month. When I booked to come back to Alice Springs a fortnight ago, the night before departure the NT declared the whole of Greater Sydney a hotspot. That meant I would face mandatory supervised quarantine if I caught my plane the next day.

I planned an escape to Canberra, to wait out the quarantine period there. Again, the night before getting on the bus, the ACT closed its border to Greater Sydney.

So I would wait and see. The lockdown might bring things under control, the hotspot declarations might lift –  my optimism now seems naive – and in any case I was happy to spend more time with my mother, the reason for my visit.

Having reached the great age of 95, her life is now very quiet and our routine together under lockdown did not alter much – reading, word games, cooking, a little exercise for her, and sun if it was out, a daily walk along the Cooks River for me, a visit to the supermarket every second day or so to get our supplies, the search for a good movie to watch together in the evenings.

Such freedom!

Everything is a matter of perspective. Simple things become precious.

The daily reports about the spread grew worse, driving home just how infectious Delta is. The Canterbury-Bankstown local government area, where we were, became one of three LGAs of particular concern.

I began to feel apprehensive about going to the supermarket. I did a big shop and decided that the next one would be by “Click & Go”.

I was already taking the extra precaution of putting on a mask for my walks (mask-wearing has still not been made mandatory out-of-doors). Now I started to skirt other people, if I could, by a good several metres.

As one way the virus spreads is by aerosol transmission, I particularly didn’t want to be near people who were jogging or cycling fast and, of necessity, breathing heavily. 

It’s awful to start thinking about your fellow humans like this, as looming threats, and to know that they are thinking about you in the same way. I had the impression that wearing a mask, when I didn’t have to, made others even more suspicious of me.

It began to seem inevitable that the lockdown would extend and for who knew how long. Modelling by the Burnet Institute – reported by Dr Norman Swan on the ABC’s Coronacast (13.7.21)  – suggests that under the current regime of “soft” restrictions it could take even to Christmas!

There seemed no other option but to fly home and face the music – mandatory supervised quarantine. So here I am.

There were about 35 passengers on the plane, a direct flight from Sydney. Fourteen of us declared we’d been staying there. Apart from a family group of six, we were all women.

The passengers who had not had been in a hotspot were allowed to enter the airport for the standard pandemic processing. How does that work? I wondered.

If we 14 were deemed to be possibly carrying the Coronavirus – the logic behind quarantine – then surely it should be considered possible for it to have spread during the flight (as has occurred or been suspected in other cases, see here and here). 

Shouldn’t everyone coming in on a flight from Sydney, together with passengers who have been staying in the city, therefore be quarantining?

I relished for a few moments longer the warmth (a pleasant surprise after much colder temperatures in the south) and simply being able to be up and about in the fresh air, looking fondly at the brilliant blue sky, the native shrubs lining the walkway, some of them in flower.

We were taken around the side and into a partitioned-off waiting area. There were toilets, well-spaced tables and chairs, cartoons on television for the children, bottled water if we wanted it. No food though or hot drinks, and we’d only had a cookie during the flight. There’d been no hot drinks on board either, a virus-response measure.

A friendly fellow from the Border Control Unit (green t-shirts, masks of course) addressed the group briefly: “If you’ve been in Sydney, that’s a hotspot, you’re going into quarantine, no two ways about that.”

He then went from table to table to start our processing. The questions were much the same as those already covered in the border declaration form.

We were thanked for our cooperation and honesty. To myself I hoped that they weren’t relying solely on honesty in relation to the passengers who weren’t going into quarantine.

“We’re just trying to keep the Territory safe,” he said. I think that was something that everyone in the room accepted.

At all times there was either a security guard or police officer present. There were also personnel from the Welfare Group, part of the Department of Territory Families.

They did a bit more processing in relation to room allocation: do we smoke, do we have phobias? I ticked yes on the second. Phobia might be putting it strongly, but I knew I’d feel a bit desperate if I couldn’t at least open a window – as has been the case for some poor “guests” of quarantine in inner city hotels interstate.

It was now about an hour since landing, not excessive really, but then we were told that a bigger bus had to be sent for because there was so much luggage.

Eventually it arrived, a tour bus with a box trailer. We were to handle our own luggage – again a virus-response measure.

Loading a box trailer takes some organisation. My fellow passengers began climbing in and out of the trailer, hauling their luggage in, more or less higgledy-piggledy. It wasn’t all going to fit.

Two of the younger women took over, dragged all the bags out and repacked them more tightly. Good on them!  They were panting with the effort by the time they boarded the bus.

We drove the familiar route to town, though it was strange for me to go straight past my usual turn-off onto Colonel Rose Drive.

A lot can happen in a month away: I noticed that infrastructure works in the next stage of the Kilgariff subdivision are in full swing.

There was a bit of chat among the passengers. One young woman said she’d heard day 10 of quarantine is the worst. Another spoke from experience – no, it’s day eight when you hit a wall.

So she’d done it before? Yes. Just a month ago! Afterwards she’d stayed three weeks in Sydney, so here she was again, before being able to head out to her job on a remote community. “It is what it is,” she said philosophically.

At the Todd Facility, which many locals still call the Chifley or by its more recent name, Alice Springs Resort, there was a team of people to meet us – a mix of security and Welfare Group personnel, two of them sporting YORET t-shirts, obviously secondments from DTF’s Youth Outreach and Re-Engagement Teams.

It was strange to see the hotel and grounds made over to their new purpose – signs and barriers everywhere.  Everyone was friendly though and it didn’t take long to get us – pushing and pulling our own luggage, of course – into our rooms. It was now around 3pm.

I can’t tell you how lucky I felt in the circumstances to see that I had a room with a balcony … and a view! The late afternoon sun was coming in through the treetops and beyond I could see the banks and bed of Lhere Mparntwe (the Todd) – a beloved scene, despite the buffel grass.

Apart from ordering a sandwich, I spent the next hours dreamily soaking up the sun on the balcony, then watching it go down. Getting my head around what the next fortnight would entail could wait. I didn’t want to waste this time in the light and warmth.

I was sad and concerned though to think of my mother and the rest of my family back in Sydney, of all those people back in Sydney, facing this new worrying phase of the pandemic, the spread of the virulent Delta strain.

So few people are even partially let alone fully vaccinated, and they’re left with only the old tools of hand hygiene, social distancing, masks and lockdown to fight it.

It feels like I’ve reached a haven and, however trying quarantine may become over this next fortnight, I won’t be complaining.


  1. Dear Kieran,
    Thank you for sharing all that detail with us. Hopefully you have a lot to read, or write.
    The weather is a great relief from the South, although I know there can be very COLD Alice mornings.
    Best Wishes for your quarantine stay, and on.
    Margaret C

  2. Thanks, Margaret and Charlie, for your kind thoughts. And yes, Charlie, I’m sometimes on the balcony, people- and bird-watching or just enjoying the sun, so as you cycle past, do look up and wave.
    On a more serious note, I heard Dr John Boffa on ABC local radio (last Friday’s The Wrap, on which I was also a guest), saying that the Delta strain will arrive in the NT sooner or later, that all it will take is one infected person flying in from Sydney. The scenario I describe in the article above, where fewer than half the people on my flight from Sydney were taken into quarantine, would seem to present such an opportunity. Quarantine may be hard on individuals – and I strongly believe the financial cost should be collectivised – but every precaution should be taken against the Delta strain spreading in the community.

  3. @ Kieran Finnane: Very timely comment. If Singapore can’t eliminate the Delta strain what chance would we have.
    No doubt Delta will arrive here but we can delay it by getting vaccinated (if possible) and slamming our borders closed.
    The hotspot based travel restrictions are no longer protective, the Delta is spreading too fast.

  4. @Kieran: Your story is clearly from the heart and I can read some sadness in it too.
    At some stage, governments needs to make some really tough decisions.
    If the testing was working, how on earth did the delta strain get into Australia in the first place?
    This is a question that I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer to along with several more.
    No wonder people are bewildered! Hard close the borders to tourists.

  5. @Surprised!: I think the critical issue is vaccinations. The spread in Sydney began when an unvaccinated frontline worker, a limousine driver ferrying international flight crews, picked it up from an infected crew member. Many asked at the time how it was possible that a frontline worker had not been vaccinated, and most of the debate since then has centred on the slow vaccine rollout.
    All Australian states are way off a level of vaccination where governments could consider not going into lockdown, as the NSW Premier has made clear, even though some in her government floated the possibility of “living with the virus”. That would come at a cost of huge rates of infection, hospitalisation and death. This is an unthinkable risk for most Australians, judging by the electoral endorsements given to the Queensland and WA governments, who have effectively used short sharp lockdowns to protect their states.


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