The inside story: From Afghanistan to Maroochydore without being quarantined

Queenslanders are wondering how a traveller infected with COVID-19 was able to fly from Kabul to Sydney and then on to the Sunshine Coast while avoiding mandatory hotel quarantine.

Aug 05, 2020, updated Aug 05, 2020
It is a 200-kilometre journey by road from Maroochydore to Toowoomba. (Photo: Google Maps_

It is a 200-kilometre journey by road from Maroochydore to Toowoomba. (Photo: Google Maps_

The chief health officers of each state and territory have the power to grant exemptions from costly hotel quarantine in limited circumstances, including for unaccompanied minors, certain military personnel, health workers providing emergency services, transport workers, air crews, and others on compassionate grounds.

Until Tuesday night, that also included consular and diplomatic staff — even if they were returning from overseas or from interstate hotspots.

How did it happen?

The traveller — a man in his 20s — had been working as a security guard for a private firm at the Australian Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.

He landed at Sydney Airport on Friday, July 31 and, carrying the official paperwork (a letter from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and a diplomatic passport), was given leave to travel to Queensland under arrangements nationally agreed upon in June.

Later that day he boarded Jetstar flight JQ790 to Maroochydore.

Jetstar told the ABC that it was not aware that the passenger had recently returned from overseas.

Queensland Health said he was tested for COVID-19 when he arrived in Maroochydore and was notified of his positive status on Saturday.

The ABC understands he drove in a private car from Maroochydore airport to his hometown, Toowoomba, where he is now in quarantine.

People providing an essential activity or service in Queensland do not need to complete mandatory quarantine when entering Queensland from a COVID-19 hotspot.

These include national and state security and government employees, selected health service workers, those who transport freight to, from and through Queensland, specialist workers required to provide emergency services, and air crews.

‘No requirement to keep details’

Queensland’s Chief Health Officer Jeanette Young said the man was infectious during the 90-minute flight.

Queensland Health has been contact-tracing passengers, but Young said the department was yet to reach 14 of the 149 passengers on board.

“Two of those people have no contact details,” she said.

“The airline cannot tell me how I can get hold of those two people because there is no requirement for domestic planes to keep contact details.”

Queensland Health said passengers were urged to monitor their health and get tested if they noticed symptoms such as fever, cough, and loss of smell and taste.

Jetstar maintained that the risk of transmission on the flight was “extremely low”.

“The air inside the cabin is also refreshed every few minutes, ensuring the highest possible quality of cabin air,” a spokesperson said.

Young said the man will serve the remainder of his quarantine period in isolation at his Toowoomba home.

His wife is also in self-quarantine.

Why didn’t the man quarantine in a Sydney hotel?

According to the Federal Department of Health, international arrivals must “go into government-approved mandatory quarantine for 14 days from arrival” in the city in which they arrive.

An exemption to that can only be granted by the relevant state and territory governments.

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) has a national recommendation that some people — including flight and maritime crews (excluding cruise ships), transit passengers, unaccompanied minors, diplomats, and those qualifying on compassionate or medical grounds — should be exempt.

That exemption would enable those travellers to do the quarantine period at home.

Last month there was outrage on social media when celebrity Dannii Minogue was granted an exemption on compassionate grounds to quarantine at a Gold Coast home.

The 48-year-old arrived at Gold Coast airport with her son after travelling from the United States.

For diplomats, meanwhile, a national agreement based on the Vienna Convention is in place that allows them to isolate at their “mission or usual place of residence while also practising social distancing and hygiene”.

Travellers have to apply for a quarantine exemption from the government of every state or territory they pass through in that 14-day period after arriving in Australia.

Young said those multi-state exemptions were arranged before the man left Kabul.

“New South Wales gave an exemption to that,” she said.

“So he then flew into Queensland and I gave him an exemption to quarantine at home because of that national agreement.”

Premier tackles exemption ‘loophole’

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said she intended to raise the “loophole, which needs to be closed” at the National Cabinet meeting on Friday.

After a public backlash, she announced on Tuesday night that she “just can’t wait” for a national approach.

All consular and diplomatic staff entering Queensland will now be forced into hotel quarantine if they are returning from overseas or an interstate hotspot.

“Once again, Queensland will go it alone to protect Queenslanders,” Palaszczuk said.

Dr Young said allowing these type of exceptions was too risky, but made it clear that the security officer had done nothing wrong.

“I am very grateful to this person,” she said.

“He did all the right things, but was granted an exemption from hotel quarantine.

“We can no longer allow this — with the high cases overseas, the risk is simply too high.”

Young said, from Wednesday, exemptions to hotel quarantine would only be granted under “extremely extenuating circumstances” in line with other arrangements for anyone entering Queensland from overseas or a hotspot.

Confusion over traveller’s status

It was initially reported that the man was a “consular official” but the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has confirmed that was not the case.

The Premier said earlier on Tuesday that the matter had been referred to Queensland Police.

“I understand that there was a letter provided on DFAT letterhead,” Palaszczuk said.

“That letter, plus the letter from New South Wales which granted the exemption, have now all gone to the Queensland Police.

“If there is any suggestion that it is not an authentic letter then that needs to be investigated by the police.”

MP supports review

The Federal Member for Groom, John McVeigh, said he would like to see a review of rules around exemptions, but now was not the time for apportioning blame.

“I think, as the Premier has said, there is reason to review those sorts of exemptions in times of pandemics such as COVID-19,” he said.

“It’s a matter of the state governments and the Federal Government working together to make sure this anomaly doesn’t happen again.

“But importantly, this person is doing the right thing, in isolation — that’s what we expect of them.”

– ABC / © 2020 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

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