Australia’s Covid-19 Defenses Have a Weakness: Aircrews

SYDNEY—Australia’s strict border controls have spared it the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, an outbreak in the country’s largest city has authorities rushing to fill what they see as a gap: pilots and flight attendants on layovers from international flights.

Starting next week, international aircrew arriving in Sydney will be required to stay at two hotels near the airport and under police guard to make sure they comply with quarantine rules, officials said. Previously, aircrew were spread out in more than two dozen hotels and officials took them at their word that they were isolating as required.

The change comes after authorities found that the honor system wasn’t completely effective. On Friday, police said they issued fines of 1,000 Australian dollars, or about $760, to 13 aircrew. Police said several crew members, at least one of whom arrived on a flight from South America in early December, left their hotel and went to local businesses.

Australia’s success in containing the coronavirus is based partly on its island geography, which makes it easier for authorities to control who enters the country. Australia closed its international border to tourists in March, and returning citizens are required to quarantine, usually in a hotel, at their own expense for 14 days. Australia has recorded about 28,000 cases and just 908 deaths since the pandemic began.

Strong tracing programs have also helped officials track close contacts of coronavirus cases to notify them to isolate, which can stop the spread of the virus early in an outbreak without requiring widespread lockdowns.

Other countries, including the U.S., haven’t closed their international borders to the same extent as Australia and haven’t strictly enforced quarantine requirements. Angela Webster, a professor in clinical epidemiology at the University of Sydney, said the coronavirus is so prevalent in the U.S. that at this point widespread vaccination is needed and an Australia-style containment strategy wouldn’t work.

How to handle aircrew is a tricky balancing act for government officials. International flights are needed to transport important cargo, including eventual coronavirus vaccines, as well as repatriate Australians living abroad. Up to 3,000 aircrew pass through Sydney each week, local officials say.

“It’s unfortunately a few occasions where people breached the guidelines or actually chose not to self-isolate when they should have,” said

Gladys Berejiklian,

premier of New South Wales state, which includes Sydney.

Globally, the airline industry has campaigned against stringent testing and quarantine requirements for aircrew, arguing that it would make flying too costly and impractical for airlines.

Travel bubbles are under development in some places in an effort to revive air travel, which has plummeted during the pandemic. WSJ explains how reopening the skies without quarantine requirements at both ends of a trip could help reboot the global economy. Illustration: Crystal Tai

Subhas Menon, the director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, said carriers want to avoid requirements that aircrew quarantine for 14 days like normal travelers. But he said increasing security to ensure aircrew stay in their hotels for a one- or two-night layover before their next route is reasonable.

“If they want to make sure that people are going to stay in their rooms, that’s the right of the government,” he said, adding that up until now Australia hasn’t been much stricter for aircrew than other countries.

After weeks of little community transmission, officials in Sydney say 28 people in one cluster have tested positive for the virus over the past few days. Genomic testing shows that the strain of the virus is likely from the U.S., and that it is similar to a strain found in a returned traveler who was quarantining in a hotel earlier in December.

It isn’t yet clear what caused the outbreak, or if there is a link between the returned traveler and the rest of the cases. Authorities said it is possible that an aircrew member was in contact with someone. Those concerns came to the fore earlier in the week when a worker who drives aircrew from Sydney’s airport to hotels tested positive, though officials said the driver doesn’t appear to be linked to the other cases.

“We’re in the middle of a 1-in-100 year pandemic,” said

Brad Hazzard,

the local health minister in Sydney. “Don’t let complacency creep in.”

The new outbreak is hitting right as many Australians were preparing to travel for the Christmas holiday. Australian states had only recently opened their internal borders after months of travel restrictions. On Friday, some states said that people who had been to the Northern Beaches area of Sydney—the locality at the center of the outbreak—wouldn’t be allowed in without a mandatory 14-day quarantine. Residents in that area were also urged to stay home for the next three days.

Some people who heeded the health officials’ call to get tested said they waited in line for hours.

Josh Buckingham, 38, and his partner, Claire Edwards, 34, got tested Friday in Sydney because they wanted to be sure they wouldn’t spread the virus to their parents. Mr. Buckingham also said a person who had tested positive for the coronavirus visited a cafe that he also recently patronized.

“We feel like we’re groupies, like we’re chasing the virus around the country,” said Mr. Buckingham, who was locked down in Melbourne earlier in the year. “It just feels like we’re a bit cursed.”

Write to Mike Cherney at [email protected]

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