Airline crew oversight under scrutiny as NSW all but cut off

The NSW government has shut down questions about its handling of isolation for flight crews, but leaders are vowing to do more to protect the community from COVID-19 risks brought in from overseas.

A promise to toughen rules for incoming air crews comes amid questions about whether Sydney’s growing coronavirus cluster could be linked to airline staff who failed to obey isolation rules.

That state confirmed another 30 coronavirus cases on Sunday, with 28 linked directly to the outbreak on Sydney’s Northern Beaches and two under investigation.

Overnight, NSW Health named another four venues where other customers and staff may have come into contact with confirmed cases.

See the full list here

The venues named most recently, and times of concern, were:

  • Anytime Fitness, 7 Taronga Place, Mona Vale, on Thursday, December 17, 9.50am-12.45pm;
  • G Fitness, 72/80 Evans Street, Freshwater, on Tuesday, December 15, 11am-12.45pm;
  • 4 Pines, 313 Barrenjoey Road, Newport, Wednesday, December 16, 4.30-9pm;
  • Twenty-One Espresso, 21 Knox Street, Double Bay: Any staff working on Tuesday, December 15, and patrons seated indoors section on that day for more than an hour between 7.10-8.15pm and 8.25-9.10pm.

Premiers nationwide sprang into action as cases jumped on Sunday; Gladys Berejiklian announced new rules for household gatherings, hospitality venue limits and activity bans, while her counterparts in Victoria, Queensland and South Australia closed their borders to people in NSW hotspots.

Ms Berejiklian has enacted public health orders for the greater Sydney, Blue Mountains, Central Coast and Illawarra regions, mandating no more than 10 visitors to homes, venues capped at one guest per four square metres of space, and bans on dancing and singing.

The rules are in place until December 23 but could be extended past Christmas, depending on case numbers in coming days.

But while individual cases are being tracked and dozens of venues from the Sydney CBD to the state’s north coast are under COVID alerts – with recent visitors told to isolate and get tested – the hunt continues for ‘patient zero’ who sparked the outbreak and broke NSW’s streak of two weeks without community transmission.

Questions over exemptions, arrivals

After months of allowing airline staff to self-isolate in hotels of their choosing, with less strict quarantine enforcement, NSW will from Tuesday compel crew to undergo stricter hotel quarantine.

NSW chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant.

NSW chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant said genomic testing indicated the latest virus strain came from the US.

It was detected in an international traveller in Sydney on December 1.

However, the link between the American strain and the Northern Beaches has not yet been found.

One working theory is international crew from an airline, who might not have isolated properly while transiting in Sydney, might have inadvertently spread the virus.

“It is a concern to us that health experts are yet to identify how the cluster was transmitted into the community or how it started in Avalon,” Ms Berejiklian said.

Dr Chant said authorities had not confirmed any other link to the particular virus strain, other than the woman quarantined earlier in December.

Air crew will now have stricter quarantine measures when arriving in Sydney. Photo: AAP

“There is no one else we have identified that could be the source. At the moment we are forensically looking at all of the journeys of that individual,” she said, adding tracers were also investigating hotel staff or cleaners as a possible link.

Dr Chant said all recent cases where a returned traveller received an exemption to avoid mandatory hotel quarantine had also been reviewed. No links had been found to the Avalon outbreak.

A “far-ranging” investigation, cross-referencing airline arrivals and using CCTV to check for possible quarantine breaches, was well under way with up to 20 lines of inquiry, she said.

Airline quarantine procedure beefed up

But questions linger about whether NSW was lax in allowing airline crew to skirt standard hotel quarantine procedures and instead isolate under their airline’s own arrangements.

Other states also have this system, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard pointed out. But the gap has been raised as a possible leak point for the Sydney outbreak.

NSW will now require air crew to isolate under stricter conditions until they leave.

It comes just two days after NSW authorities finally revealed, two weeks late, that crew from a South American flight had been sprung travelling around Sydney while obligated to be isolating.

Their hotel was not under police guard.

“We indicated to [the airlines] that we felt that even though there were international conventions and understanding across Australia, we felt we should move further,” Mr Hazzard said.

Sydney airport

International arrivals are the big.

He said that a consideration in not mandating tougher rules earlier was a concern that airlines might bring fewer flights to NSW if their crew were subject to tougher quarantine measures.

Mr Hazzard and Dr Chant both said they were not aware of any concrete links between air crew and the Avalon cluster.

Mr Hazzard abruptly ended the Sunday press conference when further pressed again on what checks NSW authorities had done on air crew who were supposed to be isolating on their own.

‘Mistakes happen’

The acting federal chief medical officer, Professor Paul Kelly, defended the systems around air crew.

He said they were essentially under “home quarantine” arrangements before flying out, so they could “have some kind of normality in their life”.

“We have found them to be very good, certainly the local [airlines],” he said on Sunday.

“In terms of other airlines from outside Australia, they are often here for
two, maximum three days. They have been at hotel quarantine but not the very strict manner as has been the case for other arrivals.

Professor Paul Kelly. Photo: AAP

“But we haven’t had any evidence that that has led, other than the last couple weeks, to any cases in the community.”

Professor Kelly said in November that hotel quarantine was the “major risk now of reintroduction of COVID-19” into Australia.

He said the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, the nation’s chief pandemic advice body, had been further investigating possible chinks in the quarantine system.

However, the CMO defended the system, saying few errors had occurred, and added “mistakes happen”.

“Can we continue to improve? Of course we can,” he said.

“The reality is, we are asking people to do things they have never been fully trained to do … this is always going to be a risk. We just need to get better at the training.”

Further recommendations to bolster quarantine might come on Monday, when the Victorian report into the state’s bungled hotel program is handed down.

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