Nearly one-third of refugees and asylum seekers detained by the government at Melbourne’s Park hotel have tested positive for Covid-19, amid claims in court an ambulance was turned away from the hotel without being allowed to see a patient.
With the outbreak currently affecting 15 of 46 men, and expected to grow further still, at least one refugee has been taken to hospital by ambulance.
An urgent hearing in the federal circuit court was convened on Thursday after a Covid-positive refugee – known in court documents as FGS20 – sought orders allowing him to be assessed by ambulance paramedics. The court heard a dispute over whether an ambulance was turned away from the hotel without being granted access, and FGS20 told “never to call an ambulance again”.
Evidence put to the court stated that FGS20 had an ambulance called for him by a friend after concerns about his deteriorating condition, including falling blood-oxygen levels, and difficulty breathing and speaking.
“He was very distressed, very unwell,” the friend’s statement to the court said. “I called the ambulance. They attended the hotel but were not permitted to enter. He was told by the nurse never to call the ambulance again.”
This was contested by the government which told the court, while several ambulances had been called for those detained, and had examined them, the ambulance for FGS20 had not yet arrived and he had not yet been assessed.
Before Judge Rolf Driver, lawyers for the commonwealth gave an undertaking to allow any ambulance called for FGS20 to assess him and decide whether he required hospitalisation.
The court heard one other refugee had already been taken to hospital by ambulance suffering severe Covid symptoms.
The Guardian has sought confirmation from Ambulance Victoria.
A further court hearing on Tuesday will examine in more detail the situation of those held in the Park hotel, commandeered by the government as an “alternative place of detention”. Daniel Taylor, acting for FGS20, asked the court to consider evacuating the hotel because transmission could not be stopped within it.
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“That is an issue,” Judge Driver said. “It is an issue for the minister, it may be an issue for the court next week, I would think the question of evacuation of the building would be a matter of consultation with Victorian state health authorities.”
Taylor said the conditions inside the hotel, with shared ventilation, sealed windows, and, he argued, inadequate medical staff, meant the Australian Border Force was “recklessly endangering their lives”.
“The detainees have existing health conditions, extreme vulnerabilities.”
Outside court, the ABF has said decisions around the containment of Covid-19, including limitations on movement to reduce the spread, were guided by state government health advice and directions.
“As in the community, not all Covid-19 positive patients will require hospital admission. The 15 detainees are currently being treated in their accommodation. Hospital admission will be based on clinical advice.”
The ABF’s latest statement confirms 15 refugees and asylum seekers held at the Park hotel have tested positive for Covid-19, 28 have tested negative, and three are awaiting test results.
Across Australia’s immigration detention network, 61% of those held have had one dose of a Covid-19 vaccination, while 54% are fully vaccinated. In the broader Australian community, those figures are 85.8% and 70.8%.
The government’s own guidelines – the Communicable Disease Network’s National Guidelines for Covid-19 Outbreaks in Correctional and Detention Facilities – warns there is a “higher risk of transmission and severe disease if Covid-19 enters these facilities”.
Last year, more than 1,180 health professionals signed an open letter to the government calling for the men to be released, saying the makeshift detention centres were “a very high-risk environment” for transmission. The Australian Medical Association has called for all people held in alternative places of detention – such as the Park hotel – to be released into the community.