Topics:  Damascus Barracks quarantine facility proposal



Cathie Schnitzerling: Well, has the stoush between the state and federal government on a regional quarantine facility for Queensland finally come to an end? For months, the Premier and the Prime Minister have been at odds about the proposed quarantine facility at Wellcamp Airport, which is just outside of Toowoomba. But now can they finally be working together? The state and federal governments will undertake a joint assessment for the Damascus barracks at Pinkenba. Federal Finance Minister Simon Birmingham. Good morning.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Cathie. Good to be with you.


Cathie Schnitzerling: And you too. What does a joint assessment mean?


Simon Birmingham: Well this is the two governments working together to make sure that all of the basic logistics that would need to be met can be met in terms of the site so to make sure that before we go into the detailed planning and then construction phases, there aren’t any rude shocks that might come along. This should be a very quick process. The assessment and feasibility stage. We did so quite swiftly with the Victorian government in relation to their site, and we’re now proceeding with them into those detailed plans and looking for a lead contractor.


Cathie Schnitzerling: What does swift mean in terms of time?


Simon Birmingham: In terms of the feasibility stage, we really are only talking a couple of weeks should be necessary just to make sure that we have a full understanding of any environmental considerations that might need to be considered or any other perhaps unforeseen factors. We’ve chosen the site after the search right through all of the federal government land holdings to identify a site close to the international airport, sufficiently close to hospitals. And there are four major hospitals, including the Greenslopes Hospital, within close proximity of this site. So it meets those criteria. It’s Commonwealth land that we believe can be successfully repurposed, its storage site for defence rather than an operational site. And it is a large site of 35 hectares. So we don’t expect there to be any other unforeseen aspects. But obviously it’s prudent to do that before we spend too much more taxpayers money on the next stages.


Cathie Schnitzerling:  Well, I know that, you know, you’re not a builder, so you wouldn’t be able to give me a clear idea on if everything went according to plan, how long it would take to build. But it’s a site with a lot of buildings already on it. Wouldn’t you have to remove all of those buildings?


Simon Birmingham: Well, as I say, [indistinct] is 35 hectares. So it may well be that that we can use some of the parts of that site that don’t have existing structures. There all parts of things that the planning works, which will also be getting underway pretty swiftly, will that it will be able to assess what we’re striving for in terms of Victoria, where we’re just a little bit ahead, is to try to have a facility operational, at least in part by the end of the year. So quite a quick construction process and where we can we will be essentially duplicating some of the contractual and planning arrangements across these sites, noting that we would be building essentially like for like type accommodation facilities.


Cathie Schnitzerling: So how long did the feasibility study take in Victoria?


Simon Birmingham: That was a very quick couple of week process.


Cathie Schnitzerling: Right. And now you expect it’s going to be built by Christmas?


Simon Birmingham: That’s the ambition. It may not be completely finished, but we’re hoping to be able to begin around the end of the year to accommodate people in that site.


Cathie Schnitzerling: Do you know how many it will accommodate?


Simon Birmingham: So the Victoria facility we’re proceeding to build around a 1000 bed number, and that’s the same sort of number that we would be studying in relation to this Brisbane site.


Cathie Schnitzerling: So with a thousand beds, would that be how many people would that take? Like how many planeloads of returning Australians?


Simon Birmingham: So that obviously depends week to week in terms of operational requirements. When you do get a positive case on site or any of those sorts of things, it can slow you down. So it’s not always able to operate at completely full capacity. In terms of the idea that you would think with a thousand beds, that means you would be able to put a thousand people through every two weeks. But it works out a little less than that as a result of those operational considerations around ensuring that everything is done to the highest of standards to prevent any transmission occurring.


Cathie Schnitzerling: I’m sure there are many people who are happy to see the state and federal government working together on finding a quarantine facility that’s not in a hotel. Does this mean that the Wellcamp proposal is off the table altogether?


Simon Birmingham: From the federal government’s perspective it doesn’t meet those key criteria that we outlined in terms of being on Commonwealth owned land, but more importantly, being proximity to an international airport with regular frequency of passenger flights, nor being sufficiently close enough to the type of health facilities that we think are necessary. Now again if Queensland chose to go ahead and build a facility there for their own purposes. Well, that would be a matter for Queensland and they would have to work through that. But from our perspective, it’s why we went through the process of looking at available Commonwealth land that met that criteria and why we think Damascus is the right site to proceed with.


Cathie Schnitzerling: If the Queensland government was to go ahead and develop it, it would certainly need the funding, I imagine, but that would not be taking incoming passengers from overseas, I imagine, because the Commonwealth is responsible for borders and quarantine?


Simon Birmingham: Well, if Queensland sought to put in place models that as I say that would be a matter for them and they’re free to fund and build infrastructure as they do, obviously we’re providing in this case a facility that we will fully fund the building construction works associated with it. Again, the same type of arrangement that we already have underway with the Victorian government where the Commonwealth government builds it and the state government then operates it in terms of [indistinct] quarantine facilities.


Cathie Schnitzerling: But it wouldn’t be taking international flights to put them there, though, would it? That that wouldn’t be possible.


Simon Birmingham: Well, these are the reasons why we believe the Damascus site is a far superior approach than Wellcamp.


Cathie Schnitzerling: This is ABC Radio, Brisbane, where it’s six minutes to nine. My name’s Cathie Schnitzerling and I’m speaking to the federal finance minister, Simon Birmingham, about the regional quarantine facility. A feasibility study is now going to be underway between the state and federal governments for the Damascus Barracks site, which is at Pinkenba. Minister, would staff live on site at Pinkenba or would they come in daily?


Simon Birmingham: So as is the case at Howard Springs in the Northern Territory staff do come in and out of the site under strict protocols and procedures.


Cathie Schnitzerling: Would this replace the need for hotel quarantine or would it sit alongside of that and where does it sit with home quarantine for returning travellers, the trial that’s about to be underway?


Simon Birmingham: So take those two questions in the current state of events, these facilities are seen as additional to hotel quarantine operations. But obviously the decision was taken by national cabinet at the end of last week to slow numbers of arrivals. Nonetheless, we would we would still expect additionality of some degree under all current circumstances. But clearly, looking forward and noting that we may be moving into different phases of the recovery plan when these facilities are built, then they might play a leading role in terms of the mix proposal of testing, part isolation, part home quarantine. They may also provide in an operational sense, an opportunity to direct higher risk country arrivals into this site relative to other proposals. So they’ll all be the types of factors that, depending on the circumstances we face at the time of opening, we’ll be able to be taken into account until we see this. And we’ve proceeded with agreeing to build the site in Victoria and entering these discussions with Queensland and Western Australia at the request of their governments, because we see the benefit in having medium long term resilience in terms of these sorts of facilities that that even beyond the current Covid challenges, they may be able to provide assistance in relation to response to natural disasters or other health type crises in the future.


Cathie Schnitzerling: Does this a joint assessment make you feel a little bit more optimistic about the future when it comes to dealing with quarantining people to protect the community from the virus?


Simon Birmingham: I think it provides another element of resilience for the country. And what makes me feel most optimistic is the fact that more than 8.2 million doses of vaccine have been administered across Australia right now that we’re seeing increased deliveries via the vaccine expected over the weeks and months to come, and that even on the rate of vaccine distribution occurring across Australia through June, we would get 70 per cent of the Australian population who are eligible vaccinated by the end of the year, everyone over 16, 70 per cent of those people. But we expect to have many more doses than what we had through June. And that really means that all Australians should have confidence that they’re going to have a chance to get that vaccine, which is really the prime line protection to keep Australians safe into the future.


Cathie Schnitzerling: Just one question before I let you go. We’ve had someone message us to say, is anyone paying any attention to the noise levels to which the detainees – detainees, was her word – will be subjected? Will those units be soundproofed or will there be serious mental health issues, not to mention damage to Queensland’s reputation at the domestic Damascus barracks because of its proximity to the airport?


Simon Birmingham: It will take no doubt we’ll take a look at that in the planning stage. I mean, there are hotels that are also proximate to Brisbane Airport. I don’t think that this is an insurmountable problem for us to overcome.


Cathie Schnitzerling: Okay. Thank you very much for your time this morning, Minister.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Cathy. My pleasure.