Foreign government officials given special quarantine rules
Thousands of international flight crew members and hundreds of foreign diplomats have been given a free pass to avoid mandatory hotel quarantine, with airlines accused of holding NSW lives and livelihoods to "ransom".
As millions of Australians sacrificed funerals, weddings and family gatherings during the lockdown - and thousands of people languished in hotel quarantine - airline staff were allowed to skip the strict measures in a bid to ensure they could continue to fly into the country.
And about 900 foreign diplomats have entered the country since Australia closed its international borders in March and been allowed to quarantine at home.
Acting Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly has confirmed there have been two known breaches of quarantine among diplomats.
There have also been nine COVID-19 cases among the cohort of 900.
With up to 3000 airline crew members in Sydney at any one time, the NSW government is now rushing to apply tougher restrictions on them after several potentially catastrophic breaches coincided with a major new outbreak.
Epidemiologist and WHO adviser Professor Marylouise McLaws said the current rules that allow airline crews to self-isolate at a hotel of their choosing were "absolutely not" strict enough.
"We are talking about the safety of Australians," she said.
"If anybody dies of this cluster, then you have to ask yourself, why have we allowed ourselves to be held at ransom by the airlines?"
Earlier this month 13 airline crew members who landed in Sydney on a flight from South America were fined for visiting a number of venues in Mascot after arriving on December 5.
Although aircrew have not been connected to the new Northern Beaches cluster, the original source of the outbreak remains unknown.
Professor Kelly said there had been "large numbers" of airline staff entering the country and self-isolating in hotels since March without "major issues" until now.
"Now, there have been a couple of cases recently where that hasn't been the case, that has led to a discussion in the AHPPC about strengthening those arrangements," Prof Kelly said.
In stark contrast to NSW, Western Australia has always required international aircrew go into a dedicated hotel quarantine facility and follow the same arrangements for international arrivals. Tasmania and South Australia have similar measures. But Queensland and Victoria have operated similarly to NSW.
In the wake of the Northern Beaches outbreak, all three states plan to shift to a new system requiring crew to use government-specified hotels with more security and COVID-19 testing from this week.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said the eastern seaboard states agreed there should be a "consistent approach" to airline quarantining as the "major recipients" of overseas travellers.
NEW NSW CASES AND VENUE ALERTS
NSW Health has been notified of more venues and transport routes on Sydney's Northern Beaches and Sydney's eastern suburbs that have been visited by confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Confirmed cases travelled on the following transport service. Other passengers are considered to be casual contacts, and should get tested and isolate until a negative result is received:
Bus Route 199 on Saturday 12 December, departing Palm Beach 10.10am and arriving at Manly Beach at 11.30am.
Anyone in NSW with even the mildest symptoms, such as headache, fatigue, cough, sore throat or runny nose, is asked to come forward immediately for testing, then isolate until a negative result is received.
SOUTH AUSTRALIA SHUTS BORDER EARLY
The South Australian border slammed shut six hours early for one Sydney family who made the long journey to spend Christmas with their family in Adelaide yesterday.
Jo Griffiths, her husband Ian and son Zac from Wattle Grove in Sydney were turned away at the border several hours before mandatory new quarantine restrictions came into force at midnight.
Mrs Griffiths said they were told by police at the border checkpoint they could not enter SA unless they were willing to go into quarantine for 14 days.
Mrs Griffiths said the family's border passes were all in order when they were turned away at 6pm.
"A policewoman at the checkpoint said " As of now we are not letting anyone through'' Mrs Griffiths said.
"We had this trip planned for months to see family," Mrs Griffiths said.
"This has ruined everything for us."
NSW DOES QUARANTINE HEAVY LIFTING
The majority of Australians returning home since the beginning of the COVID pandemic have come through Sydney's hotel quarantine program, with other states relying on NSW to do the heavy lifting.
As at 7am yesterday, more than 105,400 people had arrived in Sydney since March 29 when hotel quarantine was put in place, according to data from NSW Police.
The state with the next most returned travellers is Queensland, which has taken 29,845 travellers.
Western Australia has accepted 22,751 while Victoria - which halted international arrivals during its second wave - had taken in 21,508 people by December 18.
South Australia has welcomed 7126 and the Northern Territory has taken in 3510.
The ACT has only taken 623 cases into quarantine, with airlines cancelling international flights servicing the capital for most of the pandemic.
Tasmania had taken in 118 returned travellers to 11pm on December 18.
Currently in NSW, there are 4700 people in police-managed quarantine hotels and there are additional people in the 'health hotels' operated by NSW Health. NSW is currently bringing back 430 people per day, or more than 3000 people per week, far more than other jurisdictions.
Queensland has a cap of 1300 arrivals each week, while WA has a cap of just over 1000 people, according to NSW government data.
Last month the NR announced it would soon double capacity of its Howard Springs quarantine facility to bring in 1000 arrivals every fortnight.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian has previously declared other states should be welcoming more international travellers to take some of the load from NSW and allow more Australians to come home.
"Other states haven't been able to, or are choosing not to, do their fair share," Ms Berejiklian said this month.
The caps on international arrivals in other states have caused tensions, with the NSW government also struggling as recently as this month to recoup costs from Queensland relating to its residents who have stayed in Sydney quarantine.
The federal government has been working to bring as many Australians home as possible, but has struggled as the numbers increased while the quarantine capacity in states other than NSW remained low.
'INSULAR PENINSULA' FORCED TO LIVE UP TO ITS NICKNAME
Originally published as Foreign government officials given special quarantine rules