As one of the last people in Sydney hotel quarantine, I hope it never returns

By Andrew Thomas
October 31, 2021 — 4.30am

It was only six steps from the lift to the door, but my heart was pounding.

Whatever lay inside room 110 would be not just home for my daughter Tamasin and I, but – for a fortnight – our entire physical world. I was fearing the worst.

Andrew Thomas and his 10yo daughter Tamasin are one of the last families to get out of quarantine after returning from the UK.

Andrew Thomas and his 10yo daughter Tamasin are one of the last families to get out of quarantine after returning from the UK. Credit:Wolter Peeters

About a quarter of million people have been through Sydney’s hotel quarantine system since it began on March 29, 2020. Many spent their 14 days and nights confined inside business suites at the Hilton or Marriott hotels. In those small rooms the beds take up half the floor. Narrow windows are sealed shut. South-facing rooms are never even brushed by the sun.

Was that what awaited us?

Thankfully, no. The Adina’s room 110 turned out to be a north-facing apartment, with two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room and windows that opened. It even had a tiny balcony.

I felt like we’d been led to the best cell in the quarantine prison; that we’d been very lucky.

Very lucky in one sense. But very unlucky in another. But for a quirk of timing, we’d have avoided a cell altogether.

On October 15, Tamasin and I were in the air en route to Sydney when NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet announced all quarantine would be scrapped from November 1. Had we known, we’d have delayed our departure from London by a fortnight; flown today, landed in Sydney tomorrow and walked straight in.

Instead, we were destined to be two of the very last to quarantine under rules drawn up when no Australians were vaccinated and travellers from abroad were the threat.

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That meant, at Sydney Airport, being greeted by plastic-clad nurses and soldiers; then a late-night mystery tour of Sydney.

“Where are we going?” I asked the driver. “I can’t tell you” he replied. “Why not?” “I can’t tell you that either.”

In quarantine too – inside room 110 – we were treated with the same caution, and subject to the same protocols, as the tens of thousands who arrived before us.

Andrew Thomas and his 10yo daughter Tamasin showcase quarantine braclets.

Andrew Thomas and his 10yo daughter Tamasin showcase quarantine braclets. Credit:Wolter Peeters

Like them, we learned to recognise the different knocks on the door. Tamasin and I named one of them “the Door of Doom” – we could approach but never pass. Four regular knocks meant a paper bag of food awaited. An irregular pattern, almost a tune, told us a nurse was waiting with swabs.

Like those before us, we had a guard sitting in the corridor outside our room every hour, every day. I once made the mistake of pulling in a bag of food while maskless. It was noticed. Within five minutes the phone rang with a complaint from the police officer permanently stationed in the lobby downstairs.

A fire alarm on our third morning really brought home things home. We were woken at 6.30am by a screaming siren and a robotic voice: “Fire, fire: evacuate immediately! Fire, fire: evacuate!“

But within a minute, the robot was interrupted by a different voice, a panicked human. “Those in quarantine, do NOT evacuate. Stay in your rooms! Await further instructions.” The risk we might infect others, it seemed, trumped our right to escape. I leaned over the balcony and couldn’t see any smoke. So I resigned myself to the system.

Like thousands before us, we thought two weeks of confinement would mean new skills and many films. But we watched just two of the latter and my Dutch (yes, Dutch!) is as rusty as ever.

Instead, we learned that in quarantine time both drags and leaps. Busy work-days can kill most daylight hours and there’s always another origami video on YouTube. But on weekends, particularly, the days felt never-ending. Chess, maths tests and online yoga were never norms for us. But now they’ll be forever associated with our time, well, doing time; all three, mildly traumatic.

Still, bonding with my daughter was a plus; even if, as I joked, our close bond was being forged in the crucible of despair.

10-year-old Tamasin Thomas during quarantine in Sydney.

10-year-old Tamasin Thomas during quarantine in Sydney.

Hotel quarantine won’t end completely tonight. Unvaccinated adults and any children coming into NSW will continue to go through the system. People travelling from overseas to some other states will have to endure it for some time yet too.

But their numbers will be relatively small. Tonight the curtain largely falls on what began as panicked reaction and evolved into a pop-up industry of people-processing. It was certainly effective when the pandemic was at its worst overseas, but arguably it lasted beyond its useful date.

As two of the last people to be processed through Sydney’s hotel quarantine we, like so many thousands before us, hope it never needs to return.

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