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Guards outside the door, no fresh air & panic attacks: The reality of life in hotel lockdown.

As we grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, Australians are becoming accustomed to strange sights; empty streets, roped-off beaches and playgrounds, classrooms with just a smattering of students.

And this week, yet another bizarre scene.

Members of the military, in full camouflage uniform, stationed at major airports. Images show them assisting passengers with their luggage, guiding them onto coaches and off again at designated CBD hotels.

It’s all part of the Federal Government’s latest border control measures. As of midnight last Saturday, all inbound passengers (who are now only Australian residents and citizens) are being forcibly quarantined in hotels for 14 days upon their arrival.

A surreal — but necessary — ‘welcome home’ in the age of coronavirus.

Watch: Lockdown; not a holiday. Life inside Australia’s quarantine hotels.

Video via Channel 7
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While many of the rooms provided are in 4- and 5-star hotels, some of the Australians confined within them have claimed that the situation is far from a luxury holiday. In fact, with no access to fresh air, guards stationed in hallways and difficulty obtaining basic items and medication, several have likened their situation to being imprisoned.

Among those concerned about this new quarantine process is Ambre Hammond, a classical pianist who has spent the past six days inside a room at the Swissotel in Sydney’s CBD.

Like all those detained in the complex, she is only allowed to open the door three times a day to collect meals delivered to her; she can’t prop it ajar or step outside. She hasn’t been allowed to leave once, for exercise or any other reason.

“The room itself is very nice,” she stressed. “But it’s a quarantine facility — there’s no laundry service or room service or minibar; everything is controlled by the government,” she said.

“Imagine being in a 3.5 x 4-metre locked space 24 hours a day, with a guard outside your door, sealed windows and no fresh air.”

The 42-year-old was performing on the Norwegian Jewel cruise ship, which spent several weeks in limbo at sea as the global pandemic swelled.

The ship was denied entry to a number of countries before it ultimately docked in Hawaii. The close-to-300 Australian passengers (plus some guest performers, including Ambre) were then repatriated to Sydney onboard a Qantas charter flight, which touched down in the early hours of Thursday morning.

Ambre and fellow passengers waiting to be checked in. Image: supplied.
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"We were put on a bus at about 1:30 a.m. to the hotel," she said. "We were then made to line up in the street. There were lots of elderly people in their 70s and 80s, standing in the cold and rain for three hours because they had to check hundreds of us in...  I don't know how people didn't collapse with exhaustion."

Ambre was finally escorted to her room around 6 a.m. A message on the television read: "Welcome, Government 115. We hope you enjoy your stay with us".

Hotel lockdown.

Despite having no recorded cases of COVID-19 to date and having already completed 14 days of self-isolation onboard, Norwegian Jewel passengers were among the first forced into mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine.

Their confinement came ahead of Prime Minister Scott Morrison's announcement on Friday, which declared a blanket rollout of the measure as part of the Federal Government's 'staged' response to COVID-19.

The new rule followed significant criticism over a decision by NSW Health to let 2,700 people disembark the Ruby Princess cruise ship in Sydney Harbour on March 19. More than 400 passengers from the ship have since tested positive for the virus.

Speaking to the media on Friday, the Prime Minister said the new restrictions on arrivals are crucial to limit the spread of COVID-19, for which community transmission still remains relatively low.

“Two-thirds of the cases that we currently have are from Australians who have come home,” Prime Minister Morrison said.

Now, all incoming passengers are confined to a hotel room in the city of their arrival for two weeks as a precaution. According to the ABC, more than 5,500 people have returned to Australia since it came into effect.

The cost of the accommodation is covered by taxpayers, and meals are supplied.

And Defence Force personnel have been dispatched to ensure all adhere to the quarantine. Fines and imprisonment can be handed to those who flout the rules, with penalties varying state to state.

The usual testing criteria applies, meaning currently the passengers are not being tested for COVID-19 unless they show symptoms.

"I would have come prepared."

Ambre took the last-minute performing job on the Norwegian Jewel, assuming she would be away from home — and her 17-year-old daughter — for nine days. It’s now been 23, and she has another eight to go.

"When we touched down in Sydney and they gave us a letter from Border Force saying that we were being taken to a hotel to be quarantined for a further 14 days, my heart sank. I lived 14 minutes from Sydney Airport and my daughter's waiting for me. It was just brutal," she said.

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Ambre stressed that she understands the need for quarantine to ensure the protection of the community. But she argues that adequate measures haven't put in place to ensure the wellbeing of those subjected to it.

"I know everyone involved is trying to do their best, and none of this is the fault of the hotel or the hotel staff," she said. "But [in planning this quarantine process] there needs to be some more humanity and compassion and regard for basic human rights, which we are being denied."

Nicola, 28, feels the same way. She's on her third day in mandatory quarantine at Sydney's InterContinental Hotel after returning home from a stint living in the UK.

She said that when she arrived, it took 9.5 hours before she received a meal.

"That was concerning, because it's already quite a stressful situation," she said. "They brought us here by the police and army, escorted us into our rooms, and then they took the room key.

"Then on top of that, I have this worry about being fed."

One of the meals Nicola was provided in quarantine. Image: Supplied.

Like those in the Swissotel, Nicola's windows are sealed and she is not allowed outside her room — not even into communal areas of the hotel. Unlike them, however, authorities at the InterContinental are allowing outside deliveries of essential supplies from immediate family members.

And good thing, too, Nicola said. She claims she had to make multiple requests over several days for basics like toothpaste and tampons, and said that a friend in another room was refused paracetamol.

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"I would have come more prepared, I would have packed food, I would have packed all kinds of things if I knew that we wouldn't be getting them," she said.

"But the documents we received at the airport and on our flights all said that your food will be taken care of, plus medical supplies and services that you need. And it's just very much not the case."

Nicola in her room, where she'll spend the next fortnight. Image: Supplied.

Among the things both Ambre and Nicola say are lacking are: fresh air; time outdoors for exercise, a central point of contact for inquiries and supplies, and crucially mental health support.

"As of this morning, they are saying that they are going to bring in a mental health professional and that that person will be calling and checking up on people, as well as being on site," Nicola said. "I haven't received a call yet, and I am interested to see if that does happen.

"That should have been there from the start."

Over at the Swissotel, Ambre said as of Wednesday afternoon, she had only received a pamphlet with numbers for mental-health support lines. She's taken it upon herself to perform welfare checks and has spent hours calling other rooms, particularly those she knows to be occupied by single or elderly people.

“The vast majority, I would say, are not fine. Many, many people are experiencing panic attacks. Several people I've personally spoken to are having thoughts about self-harm, which is just beyond comprehension for people in their 70s and 60s... I think there's just a lot of frustration with wanting to know answers, and we're not getting any.

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"The 77-year-old woman next door said she'd go out and get herself arrested, just to get some fresh air."

"That is for their own protection."

According to several others in hotel quarantine documenting their experience on social media, the situation is similar.

Few appear to have any access to fresh air. Others have reported that supplied food doesn't cater for allergies or dietary requirements. And some have alleged difficulties accessing medication.

Yet many have been subjected to backlash from followers and commenters. There have been accusations of "whingeing", suggestions they "suck it up".

Speaking at a press conference on Sunday, New South Wales Police Commissioner Mick Fuller seemed to echo that tone.

“I know there will be people who are unhappy with the bed, the pillow, the heater, dinner and all those type of things,” Fuller said.

“The reality is they are in a hotel room and yes they will be isolated for 14 days. That is for their own protection, the protection of their family members and the protection of the NSW community.

“We can only take and listen to their complaints and try to reconcile them.”

Ambre appreciates why some people may be confused about their complaints.

"I never imagined this would be such a big deal. So I've got to say, even personally, if I saw this on the news then I'd probably think what everyone else thought too," she said.

"But [having experienced it] I am determined to fight tooth and claw to get answers that we need so these conditions can improve... This is not a whinge. This is just a demand from people who [need support].

"What if something happens to someone here? It's going to devastate all of us. And then the government's going to have a lot to answer for. Well, they already do."

***

To protect yourself and the community from COVID-19, remain in your home unless strictly necessary, keep at least 1.5 metres away from other people, regularly wash your hands and avoid touching your face.

If you are sick and believe you have symptoms of COVID-19, call your GP ahead of time to book an appointment. Or call the national Coronavirus Health Information Line for advice on 1800 020 080. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

To keep up to date with the latest information, please visit the Department of Health website.

Feature image: AAP.

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