How does Covid quarantine actually work?

As Britain stumbles its way into quarantining incoming travelers from–well, we’ll get to that in a  minute–this might be a good time to talk about the mechanics of quarantine. And its problems. 

Australia’s sets the world standard for Covid quarantine. Or so I’ve read.

Irrelevant photo: Primroses that I haven’t gotten around to planting. When it isn’t too cold to get them into the soil, it’s raining. When it isn’t raining, it’s too cold. What this proves is that I’m not a serious gardener. But they’re beautiful in spite of me.

Not New Zealand? Singapore? South Korea? Sorry, I don’t make the rules here. The BBC tells me Australia’s system is world class, although they put it in quotation marks, introducing a bit of doubt. For all I know, the country gave itself the award. I’d put it in quotes too but they’re expensive, especially when you consider how small they are and that you can’t just use one, you have to use two. Every damn time. 

So let’s just say Australia’s one of a handful of countries that are doing serious quarantine–including Singapore, South Korea, and New Zealand. But the information I have focuses on Australia, so Australia it is.

The country has been able to mostly eliminate the virus, in part by being ruthless in its lockdowns and in part by quarantining incomers, but the quarantine system has had a series of leaks and each one triggers a ruthless response. So far, the combination’s working.

Australia limits the number of people they allow in: It’s returning residents only, and 40,000 of them are stranded abroad, waiting to get home. Those who do get in have to quarantine for fourteen days in a hotel. 

In July, a quarantined traveler gave the virus to a guard and the country realized the system had a few gaps. Up to that point, guards were able to socialize with each other and with quarantined travelers, and at least one had sex with someone in quarantine. And guards’ schedules  moved them from one hotel to another, so any infections they picked up traveled with them. 

At first, the quarantine guards were rent-a-cops–those people employed by private security firms. I don’t know what they were paid or how much training they got, but my best guess is that the numbers on both were low. 

As for the travelers, a few left quarantine, some dramatically, some quietly. Others went shopping (what’s life worth–your own or someone else’s–if you can’t get some deodorant and a bit of alcohol?) and came back. 

That’s now been tightened up. The guards are no longer rent-a-cops. They keep their distance, wear protective gear, are tested regularly, and not only don’t move from one hotel to another but aren’t allowed to hold other jobs, so if they become infected they don’t carry the disease to another workplace.

Even so, there’s been some transmission, probably through hotel corridors, possibly (at least in one New Zealand hotel) through air conditioning systems. South Australia is looking at ways to upgrade ventilation systems. Other places may be as well.

After one breach, where a guard was infected, “They spent hours poring over CCTV footage to find out what [the] guard did wrong,” said Prof Nancy Baxter, head of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health. “And the thing that guard did wrong was breathe air. All that person did was walk the halls, breathing the air. Right there. That should have been the clarion call that we need to do something different.”

Rooms with windows that open could be a major help, although it may be hard to find hotels that are built that way.

There’s evidence of guest-to-guest transmission by way of the hallways as well. One got infected from a family across the hall. The best guess is that they opened their doors at more or less the same time to pick up their meals. Whoosh: Air from one room flowed into the other one.

What’s kept quarantine breaches from turning into disasters is contact tracing–something Britain’s committed to bungling. 


So what are the British plans for quarantine? 


Hotel quarantine’s been in the planning stages for a while. If in fact the current government does plan. Let’s say they do, just to be nice. It’s all due to start on–oh, holy shit, it was due to start today (that’s Monday) and probably has. Somehow. I’m writing this the day before, so I disclaim all responsibility for what happens between 3 p.m. Sunday and Monday morning.

Hotel quarantine only applies to people coming from countries that scare us. Or, to be more accurate, whose germs scare us. They call it the red list, because red’s a scary color. Just ask a bull. Or J. Edgar Hoover. (Sorry–antiquated American joke and not worth explaining. If you didn’t get it, count yourself lucky.) If you came from (or through) one of the countries that scare us, you’ll be escorted to your hotel, which you had to book in advance. And pay for. And it’s not going to be cheap: £1,750 for one person. More if you add family members.

Don’t kid yourself that Australia picks up the costs of quarantine either. 

When I talk about scary countries, though, I’m not talking about xenophobia. I’m talking about countries that harbor Covid variants which aren’t already running wild in Britain. They may be here, mind you, and one definitely is, but they’re still shy. They’re leaning against the wall and waiting to see if someone will ask them to dance. 

On the other hand, if the country you’re coming from doesn’t scare us, you can go home and quarantine by your own glorious self. Because if you’re infected, you’re infected with garden-variety Covid: the kind we already have plenty of. And since you’re allegedly quarantining at home, if you wander out to buy dish soap, an onion, and a liter of vodka, no one will know. 

And no one will ask how you’re going to get home and who you’ll breathe on in the process. 

The theory behind the scary-country list is that it will let Britain keep out the most problematic of the Covid variants. And it just remotely might if we actually knew where they were, but they’re not in the habit of sending us notes: Headed to Switzerland now. Go ahead and eat without me. They just pop up around the globe, and we’re always behind the game, wondering how they got there and how long ago.

What the scary-country list will do, at its best, is keep the problematic variants down to a manageable level, at least initially. But that’s how Covid got away from us to begin with. We didn’t want all the disruption of closed borders and a long lockdown, so we went for the easy option.

You may have noticed that we haven’t kept it to a manageable level. Ah, but a country can dream, can’t it?

To keep the dream alive, countries can be added to the scary-country list with just a few hours’ notice, promoting the illusion that we can respond quickly as the situation changes. What a traveler’s supposed to do about quarantine arrangements when that happens is anyone’s guess.

Scotland is quarantining every incoming traveler in a hotel, but Scotland is still part of Britain and can’t quarantine people coming in from England, tempting as it might be.

If you have come into Britain from (or through) a scary country, while you’re in quarantine you can go outside for a few reasons, including exercise, but not unescorted. You’ll have someone following you with a huge feathery fan to brush the germs away so they can’t hurt anyone. 

An Australian epidemiologist considers it risky to let anyone leave their room for any reason. An American blogger sitting in Cornwall considers it even riskier to elect an incompetent government.

I don’t know why, but no one listens to the blogger. I don’t know how many people listen to the epidemiologist.

The British government set up a website for people to book their quarantine hotels. The site promptly crashed. And the advice page on hotel quarantine? It didn’t bother linking to the booking page. Plus last I heard, just a day or three ahead of quarantine being put into action, the Border Force didn’t have a clue what it was supposed to do once the system started. Because why would anyone bother to tell them?  

The government had published guidance for the hotels, though. Staff will wear surgical masks. In Australia, they use a mask with a higher level of protection. 

Nothing had been said about staggering meal delivery times. And whatever the plan was for testing staff (let’s be rash and assume there is one), it’s not in print yet either.

Travelers do need to have proof that they tested negative for Covid, but since no one can tell a real certificate from a fake one yet, and since people can become infected after they tested, that’s not a hell of a lot of help.

If an occupied room needs emergency maintenance, repair people are supposed to wear gear that protects against droplets. Not aerosols, which are smaller, lighter, and hang around longer. They’re known to be an important way that the virus spreads.

On the other hand, you know how it is. That kind of protection costs money. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to lose a maintenance person or two, and maybe a family member, and invite the virus variant to travel into the surrounding community with them?

Back in Australia, Professor Nancy Baxter says, “I truly believe that if you’re putting workers in harm’s way, which essentially you are, by putting them in a quarantine hotel, and exposing them to people potentially with Covid-19, that there’s a duty of care that those people have the highest possible protection from infection.”

Where Britain does provide guidance, though, is on fines. Because when you can’t set things up so that people can easily do things right, you can surely punish the hell out of them for doing it wrong. Avoiding quarantine can earn you a fine of anywhere between £5,000 and £10,000 pounds. And lying about your travel history on the new form that asks where you’ve been? That could get you 10 years in jail. 

Or a stern talking-to from the judge. It’s too early to know how seriously this stuff will be treated.

As I-don’t-remember-who has already pointed out, there’s a certain irony to Boris Johnson’s government wanting to lock people up for lying. He made his career by lying and when he was a journalist he lost jobs for it. 

The day before the system went live, unions representing airport and hotel workers were busily pointing out the flaws in the plan, including letting soon-to-be-quarantined travelers mix in the airport with staff and with no-quarantine travelers as they get off planes and wait in one enclosed space after another. It’ll be a duty-free germ exchange. 

Even a spokesperson for Heathrow Airport was complaining about “significant gaps” in the protocols. 

In the meantime, Britain’s cabinet members are pulling in two directions about summer vacations–which aren’t called vacations in Britain, they’re called holidays. The health secretary dangled the prospect of people being able to go on summer holidays within Britain. The prime minister dangled the prospect of staying the hell home. Travel companies are dangling everything they can think of and promising full refunds, eternal love, and the fountain of youth if you’re not allowed to go. 

49 thoughts on “How does Covid quarantine actually work?

  1. Australia’s system is world class? I think what they are doing is very hypocritical. There’s currently Australian Open going on and while all players were obliged to be quarantined for two weeks, tennis courts are pretty packed now and rarely anyone is wearing a mask, and you’re like – wtf?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think–don’t count on me here, but I think–they’re in the same position as New Zealand, where with the exception of the occasional quick, ruthless lockdown they’ve been able to let life go back to normal–no masks, no restrictions. It might make more sense to keep wearing masks, but I haven’t read anything about the calculations behind that.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. A Heathrow hotel boss said on the news this morning they would make the experience enjoyable – by providing real cutlery and highstreet toiletries – sounds like a bundle of fun. I guess if your’re lucky at his hotel you will get one of the rooms with a view of the runway.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. It’ll only be a matter of time before a UK arrival by some obscenely-rich Tory-donating oligarch–by private jet from a ‘red-list’ country at a smaller private airport–is being defended by ministers when they are discovered to have been excepted from following the system. By this evening I expect.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. I still don’t understand why so many people are travelling. 20,000 people are coming through UK airports every day. 5,000 of those people are airline crew and other personnel, accompanying essential food, medical supplies, engineering goods, etc – that’s fair enough, but what are the other 15,000 people doing?!

    Liked by 4 people

  5. I’m with Professor Nancy Baxter. Here in the US, the CDC has declared that while vaccines are nice and all, injecting them into teachers isn’t essential to reopening schools. But finally we have our own Nancy Baxter: some doctor whose name escapes me and who used to be Baltimore’s health commissioner. She feels about teachers and school staff the way Ms. Baxter feels about the quarantine guards and other employees. Thank you unnamed former health commissioner!

    We’ve also got Fauci in one corner saying to stay the course with two shots per person (yes, please) and Minnesota’s own Osterholm saying take people’s second dose and give them to people who haven’t had a shot yet.

    It’s a showdown of medical professionals over here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Teachers, cab drivers, bus drivers, people who pick up the trash and ride two or three to the cab, delivery drivers, grocery-store workers, everyone else who works in enclosed spaces with the public.Or with each other. Slaughterhouse workers. The list is long–and largely ignored.

      The single dose/double dose argument is a hard one. The single dose may work out beautifully, but it’s a hell of a gamble and–well, like all gambles we don’t know how it’ll work out. Roll those dice.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Ah, travel, and the problems with it in this day of the coronavirus.
    Last night while spending our Sunday evening in Columbia, South Carolina watching Monday afternoon of the next day of the 2021 Australian Open “live,” a commercial came on advertising vacations on cruise ships from wherever to someplace else. At a 30% discount.
    Pretty turned to me and said, who would take a vacation on a cruise ship in the middle of a pandemic?
    I answered, maybe people for whom a 30% discount is more important than their lives?
    Pretty shook her head – she wasn’t amused.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. In case you think we’ve got a model for you to steal, My state (Connecticut) will let me go to Massachusetts, 11 mi (18 km) to the north and come back, as long I don’t stay more than 24 hours. I guess the virus isn’t interested in you for 24 hours. However, Massachusetts wants me to quarantine for two weeks unless I’m going to see a doctor, go to school or attend church. If I did that, I could roam around Massachusetts but then I’d have to quarantine for two weeks upon returning to Connecticut.

    The chances of me getting infected in a doctor’s office, a school room or a church are significantly higher than if I enter the store I frequent (where there are rarely more than two other customers) but, that’s how the virus works.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Why do governments always choose the more expensive solution. The least expensive would be installing far UVC lights in all places where people circulate. This would end the pandemic and stop all future pandemics. The lights will last for a decade. Vaccines are potentially only good for a few months if they are good for the new mutants at all. Here is Portugal we will be on lockdown for the foreseeable future because we have the highest mortality rate per capita in the world and four of the mutant strains. There was no two week quarantine in hotels here, do you think that is the reason for our death rate?

    Liked by 1 person

    • All this is a hell of a lot more expensive than if they’d done it (competently, I should add, which is asking a lot from this bunch) at the beginning. But they didn’t want to because it would’ve been too expensive. Too hard on the economy. Too inconvenient. Too politically risky. So yeah, I’d say there’s a link. Boy, is there ever.

      I’ve been looking for articles on far UV light and not finding a lot. The link you sent bothers me, because it reads like commercial puffery. I’ve written a (very little) bit of that, and it’s not known for its critical research–you just grab whatever information you’re given, chew it a bit, and spit it onto the page. I’ve found a bit more and will look furthe.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Wouldn’t BoJo’s idea of staying home on holiday be more acceptable if people connected to him weren’t driving all over hell and gone for their glasses ? And as for that Yank sitting in Cornwall musing about electing incompetent governments – after what we just got through with over here. no one of us has much room to criticize you/

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Have those people been waiting to get back home to Australia since the beginning of the pandemic? Is that the same type of person being discussed in Britain? Or are there still lots of people traveling internationally? (I’m sorry. I really have been following the conversation, but I think I may have hit a wall)

    Liked by 1 person

  11. ” An American blogger sitting in Cornwall considers it even riskier to elect an incompetent government. I don’t know why, but no one listens to the blogger. I don’t know how many people listen to the epidemiologist.”

    The answer is a worryingly low number in both cases in my not so humble opinion.

    The idea of going to an airport and milling around with tens of thousands of people, getting shut into a plane with a bunch of strangers who’ve been who knows where & have done who knows what – It makes no sense to me. Yet there seems to be a vast number who believe they *need* a holiday/break/sunshine, and there’s others who say they are “working” – some of whom may fit into the category of work that you & I recognise. It’s a bit like recognising the dangers of smoking (or other behaviour) but believing that because it’s not happened to you or anyone you know, you’re quite safe & will remain so. Mind boggling I call it. My 2nd grandchild will be born this week. I will not be visiting, not even after I receive my first vaccine as Himself is younger than me & so has to wait for his turn. There’s also the fact that my daughter lives in a part of London that is worryingly close to plague status. Common sense is in short supply, but as people voted for the current buffoons, that won’t come as any surprise to you & your readers I’m sure.

    But thanks for making me smile (wryly) as you recount the shitstorm – it must be hard to keep finding the words.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, the government’s been unbelievably generous in supplying me with material. The words follow from that, although they do from time to time stretch my credibility muscles.

      Credit to you for holding off on those important visits. The goal, though all of this, should be for as many people as possible to come through it alive and undamaged. Early on, I read someone’s blog-fit about not being able to visit her grandmother in a nursing home. She’d rather go in, have a lovely hug, and kill half the residents, including her beloved grandmother? What is wrong with people?

      To half-answer my own question, I’m coming to believe that humans can tell themselves absolutely anything, and believe it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’re spot on there Ellen. So many seem able to find a reason why they’re the exception to the rule (or rules). I was taken by a recent(ish) Guardian article which asked why we seem to focus on doing what we’re allowed to do, rather than what is the safest option? I had to curb my tongue when listening to a good friend explaining why she was going to break the rule of 3 (households) over Christmas so that her elderly mother could spend the festive period with her daughter, her multiple grandchildren & great-grandchildren. Even with the last minute restrictions, I have a suspicion they went ahead anyway. I wonder whether the number of friendships damaged over Covid will be as numerous as those over Brexit.

        Liked by 1 person

        • …and not just the restrictions, but what good sense says is safe. I remember the advice that came out during the AIDS crisis–that you’re not just having sex with the person you’re sleeping with, but with every person that person has had sex with. And all the people those people had sex with. The same is true of Covid: You’re in contact with everyone the people you’re in contact with have been in contact with. And the people they were in contact with. The numbers become astronomical quickly.

          Liked by 1 person

    • I know the feeling.

      Are you teaching in person these days? How do you handle this mess with such young kids?

      My partner and I find ourselves talking a lot lately about the polio epidemic and our very different experience of it. We were both kids at the time, although she’s older than I am, but she lived with a lot of fear and I remember none, although I knew about polio. It was at least in part a difference in how our parents handled it but may have been partly a difference in how our surrounding communities did.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am teaching in person. Fortunately there is common sense in realizing that preschoolers don’t do well with online learning. Last March through the end of the school year was all remote, and it was awful. I felt badly for the children. This year is masks at all times except eating and sleeping (not a problem for kids), cleaning like crazy, and keeping children 6 feet apart (nearly impossible).

        Hubby and I remember polio well. I had a friend who got a mild case, and my parents were not freaked about it. Hubby’s aunt had polio and had to wear a brace for the rest of her life. His parents were freaked about it. My strongest memory is waiting in a long line to get the vaccine. This was the shot, the first one before the vaccine on a sugar cube given in school. The attitude of adults is what drives the boat!

        Liked by 1 person

        • The strength it must’ve taken to create a sense of safety around kids during the epidemic–I’m only now beginning to understand it.

          Here there seems to be a sense that you can’t ask young kids to wear masks, but again I think that’s adults driving the boat. I don’t have statistics, but it’s got to be putting teachers at risk. And parents.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Children have no problem wearing masks. It is as normal as apple pie for my preschoolers. It’s the adults who have a hard time. Creating safety around children was really just a matter of making space and extra cleaning. They’re supposed to be six feet apart. They hate being far apart, it’s unnatural, and that’s one children really can’t follow. Masks are mandatory in every school, so teachers and patents aren’t at risk.

            Liked by 1 person

            • What a voice of sanity you are!

              Trying to imagine keeping preschoolers apart reminds me of the first time we made gingerbread houses with the godkids. They were maybe 6 and 4–somewhere in that range–and they had colds. I got them to wash their hands, which they did very sweetly, and we started to work with the frosting, and they wore a good part of that. And licked their hands. So I got them to wash their hands. Which they did. And then got frosting on them and licked them and put them back in the frosting. And so forth. I finally gave up and decided, fine, we’re making a toxic gingerbread house. And you know what? It’s going to their house, where everyone’s already been exposed to every cold germ they’re carrying.

              Everyone lived through it.

              Liked by 1 person

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