Mutant UK COVID strain sends Brisbane into lockdown

Genomic sequencing has revealed that the part-time cleaner in her 20s at one of Brisbane’s quarantine hotels that tested positive for the highly infections mutant UK strain of COVID-19.

The person lives in Algester in Brisbane’s South and visited a number of public places since 2 January while infectious, including a Woolworths, a Coles, and a news agent. This raises concerns that cleaner may have seeded a major new COVID-19 cluster in Brisbane.

Authorities have acted accordingly, sending Greater Brisbane into a 3 day lockdown:

The Premier says her advice from Queensland Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young is that a three-day lockdown could prevent a 30-day lockdown.

Residents in the affected council areas can leave their homes for essential work, to provide healthcare for an essential person, for essential shopping, or for exercise in their local neighbourhoods.

The next action, on recommendation of Dr Young, is mandating masks for those council areas when people leave home.

Between 6pm Friday and 6pm Monday, anyone leaving must wear a mask.

“These are tough, strong measures, like I said this is incredibly infectious,” the Premier said.

The Brisbane event means quarantine breaches have seeded four separate outbreaks across the nation – in Victoria, NSW, SA and QLD.

It also highlights once again why Australia’s governments need to take quarantine more seriously by:

  • Housing international arrivals away from population centres (e.g. regional army bases);
  • Utilising only highly trained and well paid staff;
  • Ensuring these staff work in dedicated teams (to avoid cross-contamination) and remain on base throughout their deployment (similar to mining FIFO workers) so they don’t mix with the community; and
  • Regular testing of quarantine staff and guests.

The federal government is best placed to coordinate and fund Australia’s quarantine effort. It also has constitutional responsibility for quarantine arrangements.

Effectively quarantine is Australia’s number one defence against the virus. It must be done properly or more outbreaks and costly shutdowns are inevitable.

Unconventional Economist
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  1. Shades of MessinaMEMBER

    Who would have thought a casual cleaner accessing a potentially infected environment would have the potential to acquire and then spread Covid via free movement in the community ?!.

    No-one could have seen this coming.

  2. Again I’ll ask what is the exit strategy. If constant lockdowns and mask requirements is the future of australia for the next 20+ years it will make leaving look quite attractive. If there is a new strain that presumably makes existing vaccines completely ineffective against it. To me it seems that will continue to be a losing proposition. A new strain every 12 months will ensure this continues to be around forever just like the flu. So what do we do then?

    • You describe one possible scenario with a few assumptions. For now, the path is clear – isolate from virus to avoid worst economic and social impacts. Wait to see effectiveness of vaccine roll out.

      It is still too early to say what the exit strategy is. We are stalling for time until there is clarity.
      “Let it rip” might eventually be the policy, but not until we have tried the vaccine first to mitigate the damage. So far we have done exceedingly well.

  3. “Regional army bases” -you really aren’t familiar with the state of defence infrastructure.
    The housing on said bases is dilapidated and neglected – not an option. The bits that aren’t run down are fully occupied.

    • The90kwbeastMEMBER

      Wonder where all the money went? JSF and Navy modernisation programs? Pretty shocking if we don’t have a base that can house say 1,000 people ready to go somewhere.

      • Most military bases are in population centres and not remote areas, also along with everything else, defence force member accomodation has been privatized with most members living off base. You too can provide housing for australias defence force.
        This really isn’t a problem as the chances of the military conducting operations where the bases actually are is very remote, they will always be deployed somewhere. O/S, northern Australia.
        I’m sure we could easily house that many in temporary portable accomodation but to what benefit.

        • A tent city with shared bathroom facilities isn’t exactly good at preventing inter person transfer amongst those quarantining.
          Whats the plan to deal with that? The Hotel Quarantining at least has the benefit that everyone gets a self contained place they don’t need to leave.

          • Who said anything about shared facilities? Have none of you seen what modern portable stuff is like? I was being a bit flippant with tents, maybe something a bit more robust but it is totally achievable. You can do it all very easily on a big enough piece of crown land. Just have rotating camps all in the one spot, have crew live onsite with standby crew in a nearby isolated location in case first crew is contaminated. As soon as all Aussies are home, shut the international borders and assess what we do next. I’m just spit balling here but if the fed gov gets behind the idea anything is possible.

  4. Love your work Leith but a lot of epidemiologists don’t think the risk profile makes sense to increase the travel distance of arrivals away from the point of arrival. What’s baffling to me is only now, AFTER the UK strain has been let lose in the community are they talking about implementing daily testing of HQ workers. This lady by function of Qld health’s risk assessment was allowed to test negative, work in UK strain red zone in HQ, contract the virus and then move around the community for 5 days until the next test. Agree with previous comments this was inevitable. Lets just hope they can get on top of this.

    For those that want info on the mutant variants:
    Spoiler alert its quite bad and looks like botched vaccine rollout has contributed to selective pressures required to incubate more transmissible variants.

    • The point is, these quarantine sites need to be away from major population centres (e.g. CBDs) and workers must be isolated from the community while working there (and paid accordingly).

      We can’t have situations where workers go to work in a quarantine hotel and then, once their shift is finished, they mingle in the community. They should be housed on site, similar to mining FIFO workers.

      We need as few vectors of transmission as possible.

      All quarantine breaches to date – Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane – have occurred via transmission of quarantine workers into the community. We’ll get more breaches unless the process changes.

      • Are the OS visitors coming in through the international airports? How do you plan to stop transmission via airport staff? How do you plan to transport to these regional areas and avoid transmission on the way through? An impenetrable quarantine is impossible without truly and completely closing the borders.

        • There are plenty of remote RAAF bases to land at. Months ago these should have had mining camp type facilities set up with attendant medical facilities…… one leaves without two clear tests a week apart….but that would interfere with both the propping up of political donor businesses and the happy talk about being home for Christmas like in any war. Risk management is a dying trade but the RBA can’t QE away the virus and conman pollies can’t successfully bargain with it. We just have to tough it out…….everyone will know when it is over without being told.

          • Tindal can’t support anything bigger that a 737, and not sure I would call any of the others remote.

          • Shades of MessinaMEMBER

            There is a bloody big private airstrip sitting on the outskirts of Toowoomba.

            Call me crazy but it can’t be that hard to set-up some decent temporary accommodation in and around the airport ?. No shortage of wide, open and isolated tracts of land there.

            It won’t be fancy but I doubt returning citizens would be all that fussed for two weeks. Would def be preferable than spending two weeks locked in an airless prison cell.

          • I’ll repeat my reply from above:

            A tent city with shared bathroom facilities isn’t exactly good at preventing inter person transfer amongst those quarantining.
            What’s the plan to deal with that?
            The Hotel Quarantining at least has the benefit that everyone gets a self contained place they don’t need to leave.

        • bjw678- The changes being suggested are not going to deliver 100% effectiveness. But they will dramatically reduce the risk of the virus being transmitted into the community. Qld health, based on their current risk frameworks thought that weekly testing of staff would be sufficient in an environment where the variant has a 70% increase in transmissibility. Given the bar in testing was set so low any increase in frequency would reduce the risk of transmission into the community. Australians are overseas and should be allowed to return so tradeoffs here are a necessity. Nothing will be 100% effective. Poorly trained staff at hotels, exemptions for airline staff/self directed quarantine and weekly testing are weaknesses that can be resolved via the allocation of more resources to this project. Just because 100% effectiveness might be unattainable isn’t a justification for not having that as a goal and removing obvious weaknesses in the system.

          • People along the transport routes may beg to differ. You can get from an airport to a city hotel without stopping anywhere. Driving people to a regional location will involve stops to eat and use bathrooms. You just trade one set of problems for another. No doubt there are others that would appear if actually tested in the real world, but that is what i can come up with in a short time.

        • kiwikarynMEMBER

          Commercial airlines land at the international airports. Passengers are transferred to military aircraft from the tarmac and flown to military base. They never enter the airport. The problem is that we insist on treating these people like they are normal travellers and tourists. They are not. They are potential disease carrying killers. Treat them accordingly.

          • kierans777MEMBER

            Agreed. One of the first rules I was taught about mitigating risk was never to rely on a single control/point of failure. Instead by having overlapping controls, if one failed then either the other controls would prevent the negative outcome, or at least keep the blast radius as small as possible. This is where I think the managers in charge are failing us. A lot put their eggs into one basket and when that fails we have an outbreak. Being dependent on an unproven vaccine also fails proper risk management.

            I’m still thankful for the state Premiers efforts because even though there are improvements to be made, if Scotty was solely calling the shots we’d be like the UK or US or worse.

          • And if you start transporting quarantining people long distances then the most likely next set of breaches will be due to the transport process, and longer distances requiring meals and bathrooms for potentially infected people.

          • Agreed it’s clear cut. Your article spells it out clearly. Easy to set up portable accommodation fast, Set up medical facility, Toowoomba looks good.

          • ” Easy to set up portable accommodation fast, Set up medical facility, Toowoomba looks good.”
            Not if you expect each person or family to have a self contained living space including plumbing it isn’t. Sharing facilities will result in spread within the facility, or do you plan to keep everyone for 2 weeks from the time the last person there tested positive? I could see quarantine periods blowing out quite a lot at that point.

      • Mr SquiggleMEMBER

        Totally agree. We need to do old school quarantine, with quarantine areas on an island or a peninsula like they did when infectious diseases were much more serious. Quarantines in the heart of the city make as much sense as asking for privacy in a glass house

      • In complete agreement there Leith. Cost of HQ is not be an acceptable excuse for not implementing these measures. The housing of workers on site or in a FIFO style isolation is something I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere so props for that. Sadly the administrators of this fractured HQ process are not pro-active, always seem to be many steps behind and only learn from their own state system’s failure- not collective failure. Complete disgrace.

  5. sydboy007MEMBER

    I don’t know why airport hotels, and those very close by, are not used to house those returning.

    Anyone working in the quarantine system needs to be willing to say work for a month onsite, with a 2 week cooldown before going home. Rinse and repeat. Maybe you have to pay 50%, 100% more than usual, but that’s small change to the cost of running tens of thousands of tests for each scare, and compared to even a short term lockdown it’s basically free.

    • You think the hotel is big enough to house the staff working there covering all shifts, and the Quarantined people and another full staff complement for 2 in 4 weeks. Also if these people in their 2 week cooldown are in contact with the working staff it defeats the purpose as they could still get infected by working staff the day before leaving.
      Presumably they are only getting 2 weeks home in every 8 weeks as well. This is far harsher work schedule than any of the miners are required to keep.
      Everyone seems to be able to come up with great solutions when the actual implementation details aren’t required. I suspect most will also have leaks or issues when put into the real world.

  6. SchillersMEMBER

    A measure that should have been taken to significantly reduce the number of incoming cases of Covid-19 is to require all overseas passengers to first isolate and then test negative PRIOR to stepping onto the plane.

    • kiwikarynMEMBER

      Doesnt work. NZ did that with the 400 Russian sailors that came in. Despite a 14 day isolation pre flight and negative departure tests, over 30 of them tested positive in quarantine. They were on a charter flight as well, so didnt catch it from other passengers.

  7. The problem seems to be the quarantine support staff, cleaners, drivers, security guards etc. not the actual health workers, nurses, doctors, allied health. That would seem to me that one cohort of workers is trained in infection control and the other isn’t…

  8. TheLambKingMEMBER

    The more breaches in hotel quarantines, the more the attacks on Dan Andrews just look silly. Victoria had mistakes from an implementation that had 36 hours to prepare. We are still having issues almost 12 months later.

    But this is a complete failure in Federal leadership. By now, we should have a national implementation of:
    – A single, national QR code app integrated with the CovidSafe app (contacting all MCG attendances is an sms away. Cross border contacting)
    – A single contact tracing system – integrated with the QR code CovidSafe apps.
    – A multi-tiered nationally coordinated quarantine system. With different quarantine locations/security based on source location – utilising remote facilities (Christmas Islands, NT) for high risk locations and home quarantine for low risk or multi pre/post tests. Standards around testing of staff (based on risk locations) and staff movements.
    – A national standard in border closures and lockdowns.

    • Maybe in some fantasy utopia. In Australia the only thing the federal government is competent at is collecting taxes (income and GST) then handing some back near an election. Almost every other essential service or capability is state run. Whatever remains at federal level is used to pay the dividends of some private partnership or consultancy. The service NSW app is pretty good, the Covid safe app is a gimmick by comparison. Not to mention was some handshake deal purchase of a friend of someone at the fed level.

    • “But this is a complete failure in Federal leadership.”
      Actually it’s not, Health is a state responsibility, the borders federal. It is a failure of our governmental structure and the splitting of responsibilities at state and federal levels.

        • Mining,
          A single, national QR code app integrated with the CovidSafe app (contacting all MCG attendances is an sms away. Cross border contacting) HEALTH SO STATE
          – A single contact tracing system – integrated with the QR code CovidSafe apps. HEALTH AGAIN, So state
          – A multi-tiered nationally coordinated quarantine system. With different quarantine locations/security based on source location utilising remote facilities (Christmas Islands, NT) for high risk locations and home quarantine for low risk or multi pre/post tests. Standards around testing of staff (based on risk locations) and staff movements. FEDERAL
          – A national standard in border closures and lockdowns. STATE Assuming you mean state borders and not international. Lockdowns are again HEALTH and a state issue.

          • Bjw one of my faves is when I ask for a schooner and they give you some made up metric measure 400mls .

            It a friggin measure you bastards not a notional size.

          • Haywood JablomeMEMBER

            “While most of the media coverage has laid the blame for the Ruby Princess and hotel quarantine mistakes at the feet of the respective state governments in NSW and Victoria, the fact is both failures firmly rest at the feet of the federal government — notwithstanding acknowledged mistakes made by the states.

            Simply put, the Australian Border Force is in charge of incoming arrivals, with the commonwealth given constitutionally articulated responsibility for quarantining. The Constitution, in section 51 (IX), lays out in black and white that the commonwealth, not the states, has oversight for quarantine. It is the basis for the Quarantine Act, which has not been legally challenged since 1908, including during the 1919 pandemic. We also now have the Biosecurity Act (2015), which provides extremely broad powers, and it mandates that commonwealth powers supersede those of the states.

            Whatever mistakes state authorities may have made, it is the commonwealth that is charged with securing our borders. It had the power to deny the Ruby Princess access. It didn’t. It is charged with responsibility for quarantining, but via the national cabinet Scott Morrison handballed that responsibility to the premiers.”


            This from a Murdoch mouthpiece. Obviously quarantine needs to be done in cooperation with the states irrespective of the Biosecurity Act, but it’s pretty clear where the buck stops.

  9. I love the ‘Mutation’ beat up by pfizer…. Sorry the governments/media…. Three days after they started vaccinations in the UK.

    They work out it’s more contagious by counting the number of people who have it, could be because the other strains have mutated out of existence, they’ve no idea.

    Here’s how many Mutations there are of Covid, 3917 between Dec 2019 and Jan 2021. :

    Yep thats right there’s nearly been 4,000 mutations.

  10. Why do we even allow people to travel into Australia? How many billions of dollars has this whole quarantine system cost, and how many people have even gone through it?

    Just close the borders until March when the vaccines are available and then reopen them when everyone along the chain can be vaccinated.

    • Shades of MessinaMEMBER

      I would say not many billions at all, it is probably a revenue generator.

      It would be interesting to see the number of positive cases via the number of incoming travellers. I would very to suggest that is also probably quite small, and probably dominated by 3-4 major source countries. But by all means continue to treat every arrival as if they are at the same risk level……

  11. kiwikarynMEMBER

    Viruses mutate constantly. But every time you lockdown, enforce social distancing, and wear masks, you force the virus to self select the mutatations that make it more transmissible, and then provide the environment for the more transmissible virus to takeover from less transmissible ones. That’s how viruses work – they adapt to their environment and the fittest strain survives.

      • yes, but most of the natural selection happens long before they actually make it into parliament.
        I’m sure many people enter politics with the intention of making the country better. Unfortunately only those seeking to benefit themselves actually have the determination to make it through the back stabbing and deal making cesspool and come out the other side as an honest to god politician in parliament.

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