People in Brisbane quarantine who were minutes away from being allowed out of their hotel will instead be forced to spend another 14 days cooped up, as health authorities struggle to control an outbreak of the UK variant of Covid-19.
Six previously identified cases linked to the Hotel Grand Chancellor in Brisbane have now been genomically linked and found to have the variant – despite there being no evidence of contact between several of them.
The state’s chief health officer, Dr Jeannette Young, said the sequencing “suggests there is a common source of the virus for all six of these patients”.
The Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, said 129 other guests at the hotel would be moved and 226 people who worked there would also be going into quarantine.
Another 250 people who had left the hotel since 30 December will also be contacted and have to go into quarantine and be tested. No guests have entered the hotel since the first community case, a cleaner at the Chancellor, was discovered on 7 January.
“We need to immediately look at the way in which we are handling people coming into the country, international arrivals, and also … look at the quarantine hotels they are going into,” Palaszczuk said.
“What we are dealing with here is something that we’ve never had to deal with before. This is a new, highly infectious, strain. We do not want to see this getting out into the community and that’s why we have taken these precautionary steps today.”
Dr Umair Ahsan, a University of Queensland academic, returned to Brisbane with his wife on 30 December after spending time in Pakistan. He had also previously been in the US where he worked at Cornell University.
They were scheduled to leave the Chancellor from midnight on Tuesday and were packed and ready to depart. When they heard a knock on the door 30 minutes later, they thought it was health officials formalising their checkout.
Instead, they were told that they would not be released, and would have to spend another 14 days in quarantine. The extra fortnight would be needed unless authorities found the link between the six cases, Young said.
Ahsan and his wife had tested negative to Covid-19 three separate times since 29 December – most recently late last week.
“Obviously we were shocked,” he told Guardian Australia.
“We were devastated with that news. Now there is the mental health issue … you never know what is going to happen, where they are going to send us. Will there be another outbreak at that hotel?”
Young confirmed all of the cases were linked to the seventh floor of the hotel but that it was safest to be cautious and evacuate all guests.
Another couple in the hotel, Geoff and Kaz Crooks, told the ABC that Geoff’s brother had died while they were in quarantine and they would now miss the funeral.
Elsewhere in Australia, New South Wales on Wednesday reported the only case of community-acquired Covid-19.
The NSW chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, said she expected it would be three to four more weeks before the state overcame the run of cases dating back to mid-December when an outbreak was discovered on Sydney’s northern beaches.
NSW health authorities also issued an alert for the Hotel Grand Chancellor after it learned returned travellers who quarantined there had travelled on to NSW.
South Australia reopened its border to regional NSW on Wednesday and Australia’s chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly said, the federal government no longer considered the northern beaches region a hotspot.
Kelly was also forced to defend the government’s vaccination plans after concerns were raised about the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine.