Mickleham quarantine centre costing taxpayers $1.5m per week to stay open

Key points

  • Documents released under FOI show that Mickleham is costing $6.5m per month.
  • Staff numbers have dwindled steadily from 550 in February to 186 in July.
  • There is no clear plan for its next use after COVID-19. 

The Mickleham COVID-19 quarantine facility is costing Victorian taxpayers $1.5 million to run each week, despite no longer serving its original purpose of isolating international travellers.

The camp in Melbourne’s outer north cost the federal government $580 million to build and was expected to be in use for years after it was announced by Premier Daniel Andrews in the middle of a snap lockdown in February last year.

The ventilation on Mickleham’s guest cabins.Credit:Paul Jeffers

But due to a lack of demand, with quarantine no longer required in Victoria, the centre was recently scaled back from 500 to 250 available beds. A separate village of 500 beds was built but never opened.

Under its agreement with the Commonwealth, the state government is meeting the Victorian Quarantine Hub’s running costs during the pandemic. The Andrews government had repeatedly declined to reveal how much it had paid to keep it open since February.

However, documents released to The Sunday Age under freedom of information laws show that the facility’s expenses were $5.66 million in March and $6.54 million in April.

COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria (CQV) subsequently provided figures of $6.49 million for May and $6.5 million for June.

The requirement for vaccinated travellers to quarantine upon arrival in Australia was axed before Mickleham opened. The centre then became a place for members of the community and frontline workers to isolate for seven days if they could not do so at home.

The centre was built with a state-of-the-art ventilation system, tight security controls and a large commercial-style kitchen.

An average of 85 people per week had stayed at the centre until the end of June, however, CQV said that there had been a sustained increase in recent weeks during the winter surge of COVID-19.

“This is a critically important service, particularly over the winter period,” a CQV spokesman said.

Guest rooms at the Mickleham quarantine facility.Credit:The Age

There were 83 residents staying at Mickleham on Saturday, according to the CQV website, well under half its current capacity. There were 45,153 reported COVID-19 cases in Australia on Saturday.

In a sign that the facility is being scaled down, staff numbers have dwindled steadily from 550 in February to 331 in May and 186 in July.

Costs have not dropped in the same manner, however, with $180 million set aside in this year’s state budget to pay for Mickleham until the government decides to close it. It is understood the camp has funding to stay open until the end of the year.

The Centre for National Resilience, as the Mickleham facility is called, will then be handed back to the federal government, which will decide its next use. Possible uses include emergency accommodation for bushfire and flood victims or asylum seekers.

The Mickleham facility includes a commercial kitchen.Credit:Paul Jeffers

Other proposals include short-term housing for family violence victims or homeless people, but both have significant challenges due to the centre’s location on the outskirts of Melbourne.

Australian Medical Association Victoria president Roderick McRae said he had asked the Department of Health if Mickleham could be used to house patients on the National Disability Insurance Scheme who were stuck in hospital waiting for housing funding.

He said those patients were inadvertently blocking beds in the acute hospital system, through no fault of their own.

“As a middle ground, I asked could those people be safely relocated to the quarantine facility,” he said.

COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria Commissioner Emma Cassar at the opening of the quarantine hub in Mickleham.Credit:Paul Jeffers

“The judgement was that it was an inappropriate facility to safely manage that group of patients.”

Despite its lack of use, McRae said that the quarantine facility could still be useful for the next pandemic if it is kept in working order.

“It strikes me that we do need to keep some reserve capacity for the next pandemic, whenever it will be, which means mothballs, which means skeleton staff and security and ongoing costs,” he said.

“Let’s hope this only comes around every century.”

The site at Mickleham when it was under construction.Credit:Joe Armao

McRae said that when it was proposed, Mickleham looked like it was playing an important role in managing the spread of the virus in the community after the issues with hotel quarantine.

The state government’s business case sent to the federal government in April last year said that quarantine was “expected to continue in some form at least over the next two to three years” with 2100 international arrivals coming to Victoria per week.

However, just 200 international arrivals stayed at Mickleham in its first two months of operation, 0.1 per cent of the 180,000 overseas travellers to arrive in the state.

“It’s almost like you were damned if you did, damned if you didn’t. There was always a possibility you’d be left with a white elephant,” McRae said.

“You couldn’t not build it. On the information available, you had to do it.”

A state government spokesperson said the past two years had “clearly shown us the importance of being prepared for whatever the future holds”.

“This facility remains as ever an important investment in keeping our state and our nation safe,” the spokesperson said.

“We will work closely with the federal government, who owns the facility, on possible future uses following the completion of its use as the Victorian Quarantine Hub during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

People who stay at the hub are charged $1500 for an adult, $500 for an additional adult and $250 for children aged over three.

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