One of my correspondents, Dr Paul McFadyen, has been a research biologist and a senior Treasury official in Queensland, sent me a set of notes on the subject of better ways of dealing with the quarantine issue. I was so struck with them I asked could I publish an edited version, to which he agreed.
A new way forward
Quarantine in commercial hotels in major cities has demonstrably failed, with four outbreaks in four states. Covid 19 restrictions have also severely restricted Australia's immigration program and the ability of Australians and Australian residents to return to Australia. Immigration provides 60 per cent of our annual population increase and is thus a significant contributor to Australia's economic and employment growth. Plainly, we need to find a safe, secure and economical way to restart the immigration program (160,000 immigrants per annum) during the Covid 19 pandemic and, in addition, to allow increased repatriation of Australians and Australian residents.
Here is a suggestion. Let's start with 'where'. We have a few unoccupied air force bases (bare bases) with long runways, suitable for fighter jets and commercial airliners in remote areas. The flight infrastructure is already there. Next to them we could build villages based on demountables, which come in all sizes, so they would be suitable for individuals as well as families. They come complete with kitchen and living room. Prices vary between $6,000 and $30,000. Providing accommodation for 10,000 travellers per month at these bases means that 120,000 people a year could enter Australia after being cleared of the virus. If quarantine was set at 14 days quarantine the number processed would double to 240,000. If extra precaution beyond 14 days was considered essential, 21 days quarantine, for example, then 180,000 could be processed. After the quarantine period and cleared of Covid 19 the travellers could take a commercial flight from the RAAF bare base to their destination in Australia. As these quarantine facilities are adjacent to an air strip any travellers who needed hospital-level care could quickly be airlifted by the flying doctor service to the nearest hospital. They would be in the same situation as others in remote Australia.
How would it work? Accommodation could be free, but travellers would have to pay for their food and essentials. So operating costs for governments would be minimal. One such village could house 10,000 people (at two per twin bedroom demountable) at an estimated capital expenditure of $100M. As capital expenditure is a sunk cost and operating expenditure to government is minimal with this proposed arrangement there would be no cost disadvantage to government by extending the quarantine period from two to three weeks if extra safety were required. The total estimated capital expenditure of around $100M (depending on any additional requirements required) is a tiny investment to restart immigration to boost aggregate demand and economic and employment growth.
Compared to paying for travellers to stay in four-star hotels with guards in cities, where they can infect other people and need to be guarded, putting them in quarantine in remote areas adjacent to airfields, such as near isolated RAAF bare bases up north, means no one will escape, so guard costs would be tiny. There is no point in escaping, for there is nowhere to go in such isolated areas up north, only kangaroos and crocodiles. The operating expenditure to government will be far lower than using four-star hotels in cities.
Other remote airfields would suitable, such as the private-sector proposal by the Wagner family to establish quarantine facilities adjacent to their privately-owned Wellcamp airport near Toowoomba in Queensland, which is capable of handling big jets like the Boeing 747. Both Toowoomba and Brisbane hospitals are within the local care helicopter flight range.
The demountables could form a village, at some distance from the air strip. A quarantine village would need to be spread out and organised in separated mini villages of say 200-500 so that any infections found can be ring-fenced. Town planners with medical experts could easily provide a suitable standard design. RAAF Learmonth WA and RAAF Scherger, near Weipa Qld, are virtually uninhabited so land around there is virtually worthless, meaning that the quarantine village could spread out. Demountables are locally made by a variety of Australian manufacturers to house miners in isolated areas, are readily available from these manufacturing companies, and would stimulate local manufacturing and employment.
After the pandemic is over, the demountables could be transferred to the Australian Defence Force to use as accommodation for military exercises up north. A demountable village for 10,000 would easily accommodate any of the Army's three combat brigades. The capital expenditure investment in these demountables would be an ongoing benefit for the ADF and perhaps could be funded out of the northern Australian development funds or any other special Covid 19 funds.
Finally, an overview. Restarting the immigration program would boost aggregate demand, and aggregate demand underlies employment growth, a major component in Commonwealth Treasury's economic forecasts. As 60 per cent of Australia's population growth comes from immigration any prolonged cessation of immigration could be expected to have increasingly adverse consequences for economic and employment growth. Immigrants, particularly skilled immigrants, make up a group whose members produce high levels of economic demand. They need to buy housing and furniture when they arrive, and those needs contribute to economic growth and employment.
The post-war immigration program established by the WWII generation, was, and is, primarily a long-term defence policy to increase Australia's defence capacity. Since 60 per cent of our population increase is due to immigration any prolonged cessation of immigration impacts negatively on the continued improvement in Australia's defence capacity so a mechanism to restart the immigration program as soon as possible is necessary.