Flight crews entering Australia pose such a high risk that Victoria wants all states to follow its lead and make COVID-19 testing mandatory for airline staff in quarantine.
Over the past fortnight, 1096 airline crew members have gone into mandatory hotel quarantine in Victoria, with eight testing positive for coronavirus – almost twice the rate of positive tests for others in quarantine.
A Qatar Airways staff member is one of eight airline crew who have tested positive to coronavirus in Melbourne over the past fortnight.Credit:Bloomberg
Victoria's Police Minister, Lisa Neville, said the results showed the importance of making sure flight crews were tested, as well as quarantined.
"I would be today saying to the other states this is such a high risk for all of us, for the country. Everyone needs to follow the lead around quarantining and testing of flight crews," she said. "We're fine in Victoria but flight crews are coming in right across the country [and pose] a significant risk to all of Australia."
Airline crews and aviation workers have come into focus in the fight to prevent further COVID-19 outbreaks after a bus driver shuttling international airline crews at Sydney Airport tested positive on December 16 following weeks of zero cases.
Genome sequencing has revealed the Sydney northern beaches cluster, which has since spread to Victoria, originated from a US strain of the virus, but health authorities are yet to determine exactly how it got into Australia.
Victoria's acting chief health officer, Allen Cheng, asked the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee to consider the significant risk posed by air crews that have travelled from other countries, and to update its advice.
The AHPPC said in a statement on December 24 it recommends states and territories require international air crews arriving into Australia, who are not local residents, to quarantine in dedicated hotels for 14 days or between their international flights. It said the AHPPC recognised the importance of testing air crews, and that it would be "in line with jurisdictional requirements". It did not update this statement after its meeting on Tuesday.
Victoria introduced its more stringent requirements on December 23. It tests all flight crews within 90 minutes of their arrival at a quarantine hotel, and again on days three and 11, depending on the length of their stay. If a crew member tests positive, they cannot leave the country for at least 14 days and their colleagues may only do so if their plane does not carry passengers.
A Qatar Airways crew member was forced to return to hotel quarantine after receiving a positive result while at Melbourne Airport preparing to depart Australia on Monday night, a Victorian government spokeswoman said. All other crew members tested negative and were able to depart Melbourne, however the flight had to leave for Doha without any passengers.
A Melbourne Airport spokesman said the crew member was "isolated for a short period before returning to hotel quarantine".
"Whilst on site we were able to provide isolated seating and bathroom for the affected individual," the spokesman said. "Once the crew member had departed, all of the areas they'd visited were deep cleaned before being returned to normal operations."
Qatar Airways did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.
Victoria's rules led airlines to threaten to suspend flights to Melbourne out of fears they may end up with pilots and cabin crews stranded in Australia and no one to fly their planes out.
However, a spokeswoman for the federal Department of Transport said on Tuesday the updated quarantine arrangements had not affected the number of flights and airlines coming into Australia.
NSW shifted in December to require air crews to stay in two specific hotels, the Pullman and Novotel at Sydney Airport, for their quarantine period, instead of the two dozen options previously chosen to house their staff. That arrangement spilled over on just its second day of operation, when an Emirates flight landed in Sydney late on December 23 only to be told the two nominated airport hotels were full.
NSW Police sent nine of the crew members to the Pullman Hyde Park in the city, according to one senior airline industry source with knowledge of the incident.
A NSW Police spokeswoman confirmed three hotels were now being used for air crews, and the program was "fluid and subject to operational requirements".
NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said the whole purpose of the state's quarantine system was to treat every international arrival as if they were infectious.
"We've really tried to look at where we may get incursions and recognise the fact that the rate of disease internationally is increasing and so the threat level is never higher than it has been at this current time," she said.
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