Howard Springs builders could get Victorian village up in four months

The infrastructure company behind the Howard Springs quarantine facility near Darwin has pitched a plan to build Victorian government’s new quarantine village outside Melbourne in as little as four months, at a cost of up to $170 million.

AECOM director of government project management Paul Clark said the construction giant could build a 300-bed facility at Avalon or Melbourne airports – currently seen as the most likely sites – for as little as $45 million to $60 million and complete it within four to six months, or much sooner under a streamlined building process.

AECOM built the Howard Springs facility as mining accommodation in 2012 and says it could do similar in Victoria.Credit:Louise Radcliffe-Smith

A Victorian camp similar in size to the 850-unit Howard Springs facility would cost between $127.5 million and $170 million, although Mr Clark said cost efficiencies could reduce that price.

Premier Daniel Andrews said on Tuesday that his government wanted to construct a cabin-style accommodation hub to either replace or supplement the existing hotel quarantine scheme following recent leaks of COVID-19 out of Melbourne’s hotels.

Victorian officials will travel to Howard Springs to inspect the motel-style setup, built by AECOM in 2012 as mining accommodation at a cost of about $400 million, but the Premier has refused to speculate on how much a custom-built site in Victoria would cost or how long it would take to be up and running.

Mr Clark, whose company has built temporary lodgings in immigration centres for the federal government, estimated every quarantine accommodation unit would cost between $150,000 and $200,000.

Avalon CEO Justin Giddings on land proposed for quarantine cabins.Credit:Joe Armao

“Assuming the land and materials are available immediately, the site is ‘plug and play’ for us to install pre-fabricated accommodation units and the government is comfortable with a flexible, collaborative procurement process, the first beds could be available within eight to 12 weeks,” he said.

While about 39,000 Australians wait to to return from overseas, Mr Andrews has indefinitely blocked international arrivals in Melbourne to reduce stress on a hotel quarantine system that was reset in December but has allowed workers to become infected in three separate outbreaks over the past month.

Avalon Airport in particular has spruiked its suitability for a permanent facility on its more than 1000 hectares of free land. Airport boss Justin Giddins said that after the pandemic the hub could be used to quarantine international students and seasonal workers as well as emergency accommodation during bushfires or other health crises.

Jack Kerlin, AECOM’s health sector leader, said while a link to a local health service for serious coronavirus cases would be crucial, his company could renovate demountables to act as on-site medical facilities.

Mr Kerlin said the quarantine facility could be built in four to six months if the government, contractors and builders work together, as happened early last year during the conversion of the old Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in East Melbourne into a coronavirus-specific hospital, which AECOM also worked on.

“That would have taken nine months normally. We had it up and going in 12 weeks,” Mr Kerlin said. “People were working 24/7 – the trades were doing two shifts, night and day, and my people were working to send out documents at 2am. The urgency of the situation pushed us along.“

Mr Andrews said on Wednesday that the funding model for Victoria’s new quarantine site was still to be decided and could involve taxpayer money, the private sector, and payments by returning Australians.

“The mix has not been settled,” Mr Andrews said.

“There are a lot of different options, there might even be a contribution from the Commonwealth government who have responsibility for these matters after all,” he said in an apparent jab at Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has said the federal government will not take control of international quarantine.

Mr Andrews’ push for alternative forms of quarantine accomodation comes after an outbreak in the Holiday Inn quarantine hotel at Melbourne Airport leaked into the community and saw Melbourne locked down for five days this week to stem the spread.

It also follows the suspension of hotel quarantine in Victoria for several months last year after the second wave of COVID-19 infections, sparked by hotel leaks, left Melbourne locked down for months and resulted in 768 deaths.

Hotel quarantine resumed after a board of inquiry, commissioned by Mr Andrews, in December made a series of findings regarding the system’s failure, and recommendations to improve the scheme.

Mr Clark said any timelines and costs depended on variables including infrastructure such as water and electricity plus the availability of local building materials. Victoria could also benefit from a drastic drop in demand for mining camp accommodation that has lowered the price of demountable units, he said.

“There’s an opportunity to standardise the international quarantine facilities across every state. We never considered we’d need a COVID facility in 2019. There’ll be a market for these types of accommodation into the future,” he said.

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