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Life inside Melbourne’s third attempt at quarantine hotels

Quarantine hotels in Melbourne are running with extremely strict new infection control protocols. So what is life like for guests inside hotel quarantine 3.0?

Tablecloth? Check. Converted kettle-adapted food steamer? Check. Water bottles? Check. Those living in Victoria’s revamped quarantine hotel system say successfully tackling it is all about the preparation.

“I planned ahead and brought a kettle-adapted steamer in my suitcase,” says Stacey Binnion, 29, who is one week into quarantine at the Holiday Inn at Melbourne Airport after returning from Paris to visit her friends and family.

Stacey Binnion, 29, has been in quarantine at the Holiday Inn at Melbourne Airport for almost a week.Credit:Jason South

“I’ve poached an egg and steamed vegetables with the kettle. I brought tablecloths with me and use the bread rolls they deliver as makeshift (unlit) candlestick holders. It helps me dress up meal times to forget where I actually am.”

While well-prepared, the communications director conceded she didn’t get her planning completely right.

Enjoying a drop, hotel quarantine style.

Binnion advises people to bring their own non-disposable cutlery, cups or glasses because while guests can get groceries from the supermarket or meals from food delivery companies they are not able to receive care packages from relatives and not all hotels will provide utensils.

“I ordered some wine the other night and they refused to send up a wine glass, so I’ve had to drink my lovely pinot noir with a plastic cup,” she laughs.

She is one of about 700 people now seeing out their mandatory 336 hours at one of six Melbourne hotels underpinning the restarted hotel quarantine system.

With infection control protocols upped for a third time after a nebuliser spawned a statewide lockdown in February, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald spoke to several guests about life inside Melbourne hotel quarantine 3.0.

Binnion has no access to fresh air, but she’s staying positive. She is trying to maintain a sense of optimism and fun by sharing anecdotes on a Facebook group she set up specifically for Melburnians doing hotel quarantine together, exercising and attempting culinary creations.

“Even though I don’t have the most glamorous view – I’m looking over a BP service station – I do get a lot of sunlight which is lucky,” she says.

Stacey Binnion brings a bit of flair to her supplied hotel quarantine meal at the Holiday Inn at Melbourne airport.

“The highlight of the day is when they announce meal times on the speaker phone and you don your mask and venture outside to collect your brown paper bag waiting in front of your doorstep.

“It’s the only glimpse of the outside world – that’s why I often keep the TV on mute, just to have a bit of human activity in the room.”

Binnion has lived in Paris for six years and hasn’t seen her loved ones in Melbourne for 18 months because of the pandemic.

She is working remotely for her company back in Paris, where her colleagues are bewildered and fascinated by her accounts of life locked inside a hotel room.

Fish and chip dinner at the Holiday Inn quarantine hotel.

“It’s baffling to them – this whole situation,” she says. “It’s completely foreign to how France or any European country has been managing the situation.”

When Binnion returns to France next month, she will only be required to isolate at home for seven days, but it’s not enforced.

Nearly 100,000 people have died with COVID-19 in France since the start of the pandemic, more than 9000 in the past month, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

Victoria’s disastrous second wave of COVID-19 in 2020 was the result of mistakes in hotel quarantine, and saw the first suspension of the program. The scheme was shut down for a second time in mid-February after a new strain of COVID-19 leaked from a quarantine hotel forcing the government to halt overseas arrivals and leading to a snap five-day lockdown.

There are six hotels operating in the new program: The Holiday Inn at Melbourne Airport, The Holiday Inn on Flinders Lane, Novotel Ibis at Melbourne Central, the Pan Pacific at the Convention Centre, the InterContinental on Collins Street and Element Melbourne Richmond. Guests have no choice of hotel or room set-up, and are only told which hotel they are allocated to when they get off the plane at the airport.

A spokeswoman for COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria, the government department overseeing the program, says ventilation reviews had ruled against allowing guests to open windows or balcony doors.

“One of our key improvements has been to make sure all rooms are negatively pressured, which cannot be safely achieved when the room has open windows or a balcony,” she said. Residents can apply to have fresh-air breaks for mental health or medical reasons, but only in “limited and controlled circumstances”.

The limited natural light entering Luke’s room at the InterContinental Hotel in Melbourne.

A government spokeswoman says not all hotels would provide non-disposal cutlery that can be used for the duration of a guest’s stay – especially if the room doesn’t have a kitchenette with a sink.

Experiences will vary depending on the individual and their accommodation. Luke, a 31-year-old man, who wishes to use only that name owing to the sensitive nature of his work, says he is struggling with his second stint in hotel quarantine after completing a two-week stretch at the Grand Chancellor Hotel in Adelaide last October.

Returning from a business trip to Eastern Europe last week, Luke says the contrast with his Adelaide stay is stark.

Due to the unusual layout of the InterContinental he can’t see the sky and the only sunlight his room gets is from an indoor atrium, but the door to the balcony is bolted shut.

“In Adelaide, we were given a room that had an open window, where you can physically open the window,” he said. “The only purpose of the window was for fresh air but I tell you, fresh air in confinement for 14 days, it makes a world of difference.”

Lunch at the InterContinental Hotel for quarantined returning international air passengers.

Luke recommends anyone headed to Melbourne bring vitamin D supplements and refillable water bottles. He says he has repeatedly asked staff for bottles of filtered water, rather than single-serve cups.

While he agrees with the need for a hotel quarantine system, he says he would try to quarantine somewhere other than Melbourne where he may get a balcony or opening windows.

“I’m very grateful that I live in a country that enacts these sorts of measures that enable the greater economy to keep going without detrimental consequences on health, but I also feel that there needs to be consideration for the fundamental needs of fresh air and sunlight,” he says.

Not far from Luke’s room, a family of four from Hong Kong is also hitting the halfway mark of their 14-day stay in a dimly lit room at the InterContinental.

“When we look out the window it’s just another building. No sun and you can’t even tell if it’s raining,” says ‘Jenny’ who is 21 weeks pregnant with her third child and did not wish to use her real name.

Jenny’s three- and six-year-old boys are spending their days playing, while their parents hunt online for homes to move into now the family has relocated to Melbourne.

“For the boys we bought some toys from Hong Kong, so they’re OK,” she said.

“We have a connecting room so the space is big enough – we are OK – there are three beds and the children can run around.”

The expectant mother says it took three days for the hotel to provide child-friendly food, with her boys unable to eat the spicy curry-like dishes that were delivered.

She says while the staff were kind to her family, providing more toys for the boys and being very gentle during mandatory COVID-19 swabs, there were frustrating protocols, such as a one-delivery-per-week limit on grocery deliveries.

“It’s too strict, even Uber Eats and Deliveroo can be delivered to the hotel unlimited, so why are supermarket deliveries only once a week?”

A government spokeswoman says while there is understanding that residents may find some of the restrictions frustrating, they are necessary to “reduce the risk to residents, staff and the wider Victorian community”.

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