Australians returning home to Melbourne will be required to undergo a coronavirus test before they board their flight and confirmed COVID-19 cases will be corralled into "hot" hotels when international flights resume next month.
Premier Daniel Andrews said Victorian government officials are undertaking a test run of the revamped hotel quarantine system to understand and mitigate the associated risks, as he ruled out a home-based isolation scheme for low-risk travellers.
The Premier banned all international flights into Melbourne in July following an outbreak at a quarantine hotel that led to Victoria's second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
"I don't think you can ever build a zero-risk model, but the challenge is to get the risk as low as possible and then to mitigate the risk," Mr Andrews said on Thursday.
Victoria recorded its 27th day of no new coronavirus cases on Thursday, marking a major milestone in the state's effort to suppress the spread of the virus following a catastrophic second wave. If the state maintains its streak of zero cases on Friday, it will have met the official definition for having eliminated COVID-19.
As the state continues to open up, the Health Department will ramp up its wastewater testing efforts to pick up any fragments of the virus, rolling out additional testing sites around the state.
Health Minister Martin Foley said testing will be rolled out at nine additional sites – Halls Gap, Nhill, Pakenham, Riddells Creek, Romsey, Stawell, Brushy Creek, Craigieburn and Woodend.
A further six at Aurora, Healesville, Lilydale, Wallan, Whittlesea and Upper Yarra will soon be added to the list, bringing the total number of sites to 60.
The Health Department announced on Thursday that testing in Geelong's north had detected COVID-19 fragments, which could be due to shedding from an old case, but urged residents of Corio and Lara to be tested for the virus if they had any symptoms.
Meanwhile, the board of inquiry into the state government's handling of its hotel quarantine program will sit on Friday to tender final evidence and submissions, with counsel assisting the inquiry Tony Neal, QC, expected to outline the status of the investigation ahead of the final report due by December 21. The evidence tendered on Friday will include additional statements from key players including Mr Andrews and Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton.
Click play to see how Victoria's second wave unfolded:
In her interim report, former judge Jennifer Coate recommended Victoria use a combination of improved hotel and home-based quarantine and consider using electronic bracelets to monitor those allowed to isolate at home.
However, Mr Andrews on Thursday confirmed the state would stick with a modified version of its original hotel quarantine program.
"The Prime Minister and other first ministers made it clear that there is not a consensus, there is not a view at national cabinet level that home quarantine is an appropriate response to the risk we face at the moment," he said.
"And therefore, having some novel approach in Victoria, which would almost certainly mean that other states were not comfortable with the arrangements, and therefore would close the borders, I think we're going to have a hotel-based system, but it will look and be different to what it was last time."
The Premier also said his government would require returning Australians to be tested for coronavirus before they board a flight, adding that they would still be allowed to come home, but might be subject to extra safety precautions on board.
"It's not acceptable to have a handful of people on a flight, which can be a very lengthy flight, a pressurised environment, to have people who are positive without knowing it, and then to finish up with other passengers and cabin crew [all contracting the virus]," Mr Andrews said.
"And whilst we treat every returned traveller as a potential positive ... if we know that certain people have the virus then we can take better care of them, and better manage the risk to public health."
Victoria's bungled hotel quarantine program has cost taxpayers $195 million so far, Justice Coate said in her interim report handed down earlier this month.
But the major failings of the scheme will be addressed in Justice Coate's final report.
The interim report noted there was a lack of government oversight, poor communication between state and federal government officials, a paper-based record keeping of hotel residents and too many staff working between different sites.
It also found some staff were poorly trained and lacked appropriate supervision.
Mr Andrews said despite the outbreak at the Rydges and Stamford – two hotels that housed returned travellers who had tested positive to coronavirus – the revamped scheme would require confirmed cases to isolate in dedicated hotels.
The government would team up with Alfred Health "and some other partners" to run the new program, he said.
"They've got a different challenge [with positive cases] and it's appropriate [they're in separate facilities]; still part of the same system, but it's different work and it needs to be done by different people and in different circumstances.
"[The outbreak] was less about the notion of a hotel that is exclusively for those who are positive, and more about that particular hotel and the particular setting that was run, so we are very mindful of all of those lessons and you'll see all of those learnings embedded."
Police Chief Commissioner Shane Patton indicated on Thursday that police would have a greater role in the revamped hotel quarantine program.
"In terms of numbers, we will have significant involvement in this program," Mr Patton told radio station 3AW. He said Victorian police received a direct briefing from a NSW commander about their program this week.
"We actually had a commander from NSW come down here on Monday and brief us on their conduct and what they were seeing and what risks they were seeing in NSW and how they dealt with it in their program".
"We're really seeking to understand what we can from everywhere. We took a lot away from that, which will be really beneficial for us."
The Age last month revealed the Andrews government was examining scaling back the hotels scheme and mulling the use of electronic monitoring devices for some returned travellers.
Hotel quarantine for returned travellers is the first point of defence for Australia against the coronavirus pandemic that is ravaging the rest of the world. Further questions were raised about its management after the virus escaped a "medi-hotel" in South Australia last week, where there were 36 active cases on Thursday, 31 of which were part of a cluster linked to hotel quarantine.
"This is unique in some respects because the international situation is far worse than it was in March," Mr Andrews said on Thursday.
"You look at the United States reaching 200,000 cases quite regularly ... this is going to be a very, very long and difficult winter for so many parts of the world."
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