SMH: NSW Police ‘incorrectly’ allowed German mother and son to leave Sydney airport

A German woman and her teenage son arriving in Sydney on Saturday were allowed to avoid hotel quarantine and board a flight to Melbourne after telling police they had an exemption.

NSW Police have accepted blame for the incident, which saw the pair leave Sydney’s international airport – which is heavily guarded by police and military – and enter the domestic airport without being guided straight into hotel quarantine with other overseas arrivals.

A major travel breach is exposing loopholes in Australia’s border controls, after two international travellers skipped quarantine in Sydney and boarded a domestic flight to Melbourne.

NSW Police deputy commissioner Jeff Loy said a “language barrier and communication issues” had led to a police officer working his second shift in the role to mistakenly believe the pair had a hotel quarantine exemption.

It is the second breach of the state’s hotel quarantine system this month, after a cleaner at the Novotel in Sydney’s CBD tested positive to the virus last week.

“The police officer has admitted his mistake,” Deputy Commissioner Loy said. “He should have clarified, he accepts that … We’ll own the mistake and we’ll move forward.”

The mother and son, who are dual nationals, flew into Sydney International Airport about 9.45am on Saturday on a flight from Tokyo, where they were screened by NSW Health and directed to get on a bus to quarantine with their fellow travellers.

But instead they had a conversation with a junior police officer and were waved through to the domestic terminal without showing their paperwork.

“During that conversation there has been a misunderstanding and a lack of communication,” Deputy Commissioner Loy said. “It was thought by the police officer that there was actually an exemption in place.”

The pair had already checked into their domestic flight online and received their boarding passes, so there were no further security checks before they boarded a Virgin flight to Melbourne.

They were only discovered when a security guard at Melbourne Airport noted the two passengers looking a bit lost, spoke to them and reported the matter to authorities.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt on Sunday morning said he had directed Border Force to investigate, but said the pair were detected by a “fail-safe” within the border control system.

“There are multiple rings of containment within the quarantine and border system and, ultimately, these passengers have been picked up within those rings of containment,” he said on Sky News.

“But frankly we want to make sure that every ring is impregnable, and so we have asked the Border Force Commissioner to work with NSW on understanding the circumstances.”

NSW Labor’s health spokesperson Ryan Park on Sunday said he was “very concerned that there has been yet another breach in our quarantine arrangements”.

Earlier this week genomic testing indicated that the Sydney hotel quarantine worker’s infection had been acquired from US crew staying at the hotel where she was employed.

No close contacts of the woman have yet tested positive to COVID-19: NSW recorded no new locally transmitted cases for a third day on Sunday, while five cases were detected in returning overseas travellers.

Mr Park said the quarantine system needed to be “a fortress”. “A fortress only works if you don’t leave the front door open … We can’t afford another Ruby Princess fiasco where arrivals with COVID are sent off into the community,” he said.

He called on the NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard to explain why the two travellers were able to breach quarantine.

Deputy Commissioner Loy said police would “double down on the standards” during airport operations, and any claims of quarantine exemption would “certainly be double-checked”.

“We should cop the criticism for it, but it’s been rectified … The police operation commander will personally review those exemptions to ensure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.

Virgin has removed the plane from service to perform a deep clean as a precautionary measure, and helped authorities contact passengers on board.

The 53-year-old woman and 15-year-old boy are in hotel quarantine in Victoria, where they are the first occupants of the state’s rebooted program.

Their initial COVID-19 tests have returned negative, but they will remain in mandatory 14-day quarantine and will be tested again on Monday and day 11 of their quarantine.

Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services said 174 close contacts from the flight and five staff from Melbourne Airport had been identified as close contacts and advised to self-isolate.

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NSW police allowed travellers to skip Sydney hotel quarantine, fly to Melbourne

NSW police mistakenly allowed a German mother and son to skip mandatory isolation in Sydney and board a plane to Melbourne, sparking a coronavirus scare for 174 passengers and crew members just before Victoria’s re-booted hotel quarantine is set to begin.

The 53-year-old woman and her 15-year-old son, who have tested negative to COVID-19, had travelled from Frankfurt, Germany via Tokyo, Japan, and landed in Sydney on Saturday.

NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Jeff Loy said a police officer working his second shift at the airport mistakenly believed the pair had an exemption from hotel quarantine and didn’t check their paperwork properly.

“We’re not suggesting they lied, there was a language barrier, there were communication issues and the police officer has admitted the mistake that he didn’t check the appropriate exemption forms and the paperwork appropriately,” Mr Loy said.

Police escorted the mother and son, who are dual nationals, to the domestic terminal where they boarded Virgin flight 838 to Melbourne, which landed about 1.45pm on Saturday.Advertisement

The pair, who are believed to have checked in for their domestic flight online, made it outside Terminal 3 at Melbourne Airport before a Wilson security guard noticed them looking lost and, after approaching them and finding out they had travelled from Germany, raised the alarm with authorities.

The pair are the first to go into Victoria’s new hotel quarantine for international arrivals, which was officially supposed to start on Monday, following the program’s suspension because outbreaks of COVID-19 spread into the community and sparked the state’s deadly second wave.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said it was “good fortune” the mother and son were detected before they made it outside the airport precinct at Tullamarine, but he wanted a system that wasn’t reliant on luck.

“I think Victorians know too well that you’ve got to have the most robust system,” Mr Andrews said.

The Premier said if there were changes that could be made after the NSW mistake, he would make them. About 160 passengers were expected to arrive in Melbourne every day from Monday, he said.

“All we can do is work together as closely as possible to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again and I’m really confident we’ll be able to do that,” he said.

He praised the security guard who detected the mother and son.

“On behalf of all Victorians, that employee has done an amazing job and we are very grateful to them and hopefully they are suitably honoured by their employer and if they don’t, we certainly will,” Mr Andrews said.

Mr Loy said the young NSW police officer was remorseful and out of the 100,000 passengers that had arrived in Sydney since March, this was the only mistake like it.

Nevertheless, he said police would “double down on the standards” during airport operations, and any claims of quarantine exemption would “certainly be double checked.”

A major travel breach is exposing loopholes in Australia’s border controls, after two international travellers skipped quarantine in Sydney and boarded a domestic flight to Melbourne.

“We should cop the criticism for it, but it’s been rectified… The police operation commander will personally review those exemptions to ensure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.

Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley said the mother and son would be tested again on Monday and on day 11 of their 14-day quarantine on December 16.

Those on the flight with them, along with five Melbourne Airport staff who were identified as close contacts, must remain in isolation until the travellers returned another negative test.

“So if, in fact, tomorrow [Monday] the international travellers return a further negative test, the incubation period and the chain of transmission will have been broken and we will release those close contacts from isolation,” Mr Foley said.

Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien agreed Saturday’s incident wasn’t the fault of the Andrews government, but said confidence in the state’s hotel quarantine system was still shaky.

Timeline of Saturday’s events

  • 10.00am. Mother and son, German nationals, land at Sydney international airport after flying from Germany via Tokyo, Japanese police mistakenly believe they have an exemption from quarantine and escort them to the domestic terminal.
  • 12.00pm. Mother and son board Virgin flight 838 to Melbourne.
  • 1.45pm. They land at Terminal 3 in Melbourne. Security guards notices them outside the terminal and after speaking to them, realise they should be in quarantine.
  • 4.08pm. Mother and son are taken to hotel quarantine.
  • 5.45pm. NSW Health confirms with DHHS the overseas travellers had arrived in Sydney off a flight via Tokyo from Frankfurt, Germany.
  • 9.56pm. DHHS sends out a tweet, then media release, advising anyone on the flight to immediately quarantine.

“We need to have confidence this government has learned from the horrible mistakes they made in the past and I don’t know that Victorians have got that confidence yet,” Mr O’Brien said.

An inquiry into the first program, due to hand down its final report by December 21, heard lax infection-control processes and training among staff contributed to outbreaks in two hotels.

More than 30 security guards contracted COVID-19, leading to the highly casualised workforce to be excluded from the latest program in favour of police and Australian Defence Force troops.

A government spokeswoman said the pair had been quarantined at a hotel near the airport.

A spokeswoman for Virgin said the airline removed the plane from service to perform a deep clean as a precautionary measure, and helped health authorities to contact passengers.

Passengers on the flight were texted late on Saturday night to inform them they may have been exposed to COVID-19 and to stay home until further notice.

Melbourne man David, who did not wish to use his last name due to fear of stigma from possible exposure to the virus, said while everyone was wearing a mask on the flight, the plane was almost full.

“It was, for all intents and purposes, a normal busy flight,” he said. “Apart from the masks there was no difference.”

He said his wife read news stories about the potential virus exposure before he saw the text message.

“My wife saw the article first, I hadn’t opened my phone and suffice to say there was a lot of colourful words said,” he said.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt on Sunday morning said he had directed Border Force to investigate the matter, but claimed the pair were detected by a “failsafe” within the border control system.

“There are multiple rings of containment within the quarantine and border system and, ultimately, these passengers have been picked up within those rings of containment,” he said on Sky News.

“But frankly we want to make sure that every ring is impregnable, and so we have asked the Border Force Commissioner to work with NSW on understanding the circumstances.”

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