By ERWIN CHLANDA
Questions keep piling up about the government’s handling of COVID in Alice Springs.
As “quarantine hotels” are turning out to be the problem rather than the solution, how come NT Health is continuing to use the Mercure Hotel – at a mind numbing cost to the taxpayer?
With Howard Springs touted as the quarantine gold standard, why aren’t we using very similar set-ups right here in town – free-standing cabins with all-round ventilation?
Why were the owners of these facilities, in a fickle tourist season, not invited to quote for the services?
What has happened with the Ross Facility, which was also planned as a cabin-style set-up?
And how come of the 35-odd passengers on Flight QF790 from Sydney on Monday last week, only 14 were detained at the airport and transferred to compulsory quarantine?
All passengers had shared the same air in the Sydney departure lounge, as they embarked via an enclosed gangway, sat in the same aircraft cabin for some three hours, taking off their masks for eating and drinking, used the same toilets.
More than half of these people were clearly released into the general Alice Springs community.
“Quarantine hotels” have become notorious for “leaking” the virus.
It’s what sent Darwin and Alice Springs into their recent lockdowns.
This makes the Mercure – the Todd Facility – an interesting choice for a quarantine facility.
It is owned by Centrecorp which has the Central Land Council, the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress and Tangentyere Council as shareholders – three groups traditionally friendly with Labor.
The hotel is getting paid $18.4m until November 30 for its quarantine services.
At present, with people coming in from the Sydney and Melbourne hotspots, the facility may well be busy, but the Alice Springs News understands that it is frequently empty or occupied by people numbering just in the teens.
The NT Government boasts about its Howard Springs quarantine facility as “gold standard”.
At its cost, so should be the Mercure: At – say – $150 a day the $18.4m would provide 122,666 room nights, or 17,523 room weeks or 337 room years.
For $18.4m its 139 rooms could be filled for two and a half years continuously at 100% occupancy – a landlord’s dream.
What gives Howard Springs its eminent suitability is not the case at the Mercure.
Entry to rooms in its two-story western wing, for example, is from an enclosed corridor – a fault in other quarantine hotels – although doors at either end are kept open.
The News asked COVID Media and NT Health on April 26 with updates on May 5: Please advise whether all corridors are open to the fresh air? If not, how many rooms or areas are served by enclosed corridors?
The answer was evasive: “There is a significant proportion of rooms that have direct access to outdoor areas, including balconies and courtyards.” (Our italics.)
This is an astonishing answer given that it took just one man travelling from a quarantine hotel in Queensland to the Granites goldmine north-west of Alice Springs to trigger the most serious COVID event in the town since the pandemic started, including a lockdown.
We asked: In terms of safety, in what way (if any) is the Alice Mercure different to the Australian quarantine hotels in which infections have occurred?
NT Health provided the following responses:–
“The Todd Facility is not a high-rise structure like many of the quarantine hotels located interstate and as a result there is greater exposure to outdoor areas.”
This statement is not explained. What difference does it make if an enclosed corridor is on the second or the 19th floor?
Alice Springs News senior writer Kieran Finnane is becoming familiar with the Todd Facility, or at least its western wing (Rivergum Court): She is one of the 14 QF790 passengers in quarantine there.
This is Ms Finnane’s observation of the layout of the western wing: “The door at the end of the corridor to the left of my room is usually closed.
“The ground level entrance to the stairwell opposite my room (arrow) is always open.
“The door at the end of the corridor to the right of my room, leading onto the open-air walkway between two wings, is always open.
“I figure that there is airflow between the ground level door opening onto the stairwell and that door onto the walkway,” says Ms Finnane.
Nevertheless, it seems clear that airflow would depend on the conditions outside: The more breeze, the more airflow. No breeze, little airflow.
And with the Covid-19 viruses, all it takes is one single droplet, hanging in the air.
And yet Alice Springs has Howard Springs style facilities: Free-standing and self contained cabins.
There are 45 of them in the MacDonnell Range Caravan Park – well in excess of the typical demand.
And there are 25 of them in the Wintersun Caravan Park.
Neither was approached to provide the service.
Just down the road from the MacDonnell Range Caravan Park is CAAAPU, the government funded Central Australian Aboriginal Alcohol Programs Unit.
In its back yard the government was building a quarantine facility, the Ross Facility, which sources claimed would be for Aboriginal people and free of charge, quite the opposite to the $2500 which people consigned to the Mercure are being charged.
Families Minister Dale Wakefield, who lost her seat in the last NT election, performed a virtuosic twisting and turning when asked about that facility by the Alice Springs News a year ago.
It now seems the Ross Facility has gone.
When we checked last week it appeared not much had happened behind this tall fence on the Ross Highway. With the sign gone, no doubt so has the public money sunk into this, while businesses, capable of performing the same function, are struggling.