International students could be flown into Queensland on specially chartered flights under an ambitious plan hatched by the state’s universities.
- Queensland universities will propose a special quarantine system for international students
- The proposal will be put to the state government this month and requires federal approval
- The proposal has been labelled “unfair” by a union and medical expert
The university sector has suffered significantly from the absence of overseas students during the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s been buoyed by the mention of a possible return this year in this week’s federal budget.
The proposal — to fly in cohorts of students and quarantine them outside the existing system — will be put to the state government within weeks.
The Queensland Vice-Chancellors’ committee said the plan would need to be approved by the state and federal governments and would be contingent on not adding pressure to existing quarantine capacity.
But with 35,000 Australians stuck overseas, the proposal has attracted union and medical criticism.
‘Absolutely mindful’ of not taking Australian spaces
Professor Sandra Harding is the vice-chancellor of James Cook University and chair of the Queensland Vice-Chancellors’ committee, which will present the proposal to the government.
She said the chartered flights would involve just a few hundred students initially.
“The words go to small pilot programs, so it’s obviously not a large number and I think it’s reasonable that the first few pilot programs should be relatively contained,” Professor Harding said.
“You’d be thinking a few hundred, something of that nature I’d expect just so that we can test-drive the processes in place.
Professor Harding said the program would not take plane seats or quarantine beds from returning Australians.
“The idea is that you’d be bringing students back and ideally you’d be using charter flights to bring students back so that they’re arriving as a cohort, rather than taking the places of returning Australians,” she said.
“We’re not wanting to be impinging on the airline capacity coming back in.
“So, students would be coming in as a cohort, they could be met at the airport as a cohort and go straight to their quarantine destination.
“We’re just absolutely mindful of the fact that we don’t want to be taking hotel quarantine spots.”
The universities were investigating vacant student accommodation facilities but were also considering other options in regional Queensland to house the international students.
“The idea is you could establish quarantine facilities of that type in purpose-built student accommodation, a lot of which in Brisbane and elsewhere in the state is vacant right now because we don’t have international students in them,” Professor Harding said.
“In addition, of course, we were talking previously about the Wagner group’s proposal at Wellcamp outside Toowoomba.”
Facility must still rely on hospitals, says union
The proposal, however, has been slammed by Sandy Donald, the senior vice-president of Together Union and an anaesthetist at Cairns Base Hospital.
Dr Donald said even if it were run in parallel to the mainstream quarantine system, it would still rely on public health resources if students got sick.
“If the government is going to expand quarantine, which potentially is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, I will leave it to the experts and those who are managing it to decide what is required,” he said.
“But to do it for one group, while effectively leaving another who is much more vulnerable abandoned, I think is certainly not fair in a way that most Australians would expect to see.
“Someone will have to explain how this is reasonable and fair if the government is allowing people with lots of money to bring in almost anyone they like, but not helping those who are stuck in desperate [situations] and very vulnerable?”
He said whatever private quarantine facility was set up, it would need to be rigorously checked for the potential of airborne transmission.
“The critical point is that, firstly, it’s robust, secondly, that people can get healthcare if required and, thirdly, that there is a hospital within a reasonable distance that can provide care if people get sick,” Dr Donald said.
“… that would seem to require either everyone in their own free-standing demountable as in the Northern Territory or otherwise a building where the air conditioning and airflow have been exhaustively checked.
“The key point is going to be how you manage security … it’s going to be a question of who is going to provide that workforce and who is going to pay for it.”