‘Rampant’: nearly 70 people have Covid at Sydney’s Villawood detention centre, sources say | Australian immigration and asylum

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Sources inside Sydney’s Villawood detention centre say the Covid-19 outbreak at the facility is rampant, with nearly 70 infections – a tenfold increase in two days.

Since Tuesday, when there were six cases, the Australian Border Force has refused to answer questions on how many Covid infections have been registered among the 450 people held within the nation’s largest immigration detention centre.

But several people inside the centre have told Guardian Australia that they understand there are at least 68 confirmed positive cases – a number that is expected to grow further among a population with a significantly lower vaccination rate than the rest of the country.

Across Australia’s immigration detention system, 59% of people detained are fully vaccinated, compared to 78% of the general community, and 92% of those aged over 16.

One person held in Villawood told the Guardian that the border force and Serco, the security contractor that runs the centre, were “playing catch up with the virus”, and the centre should have been alert to the possibility of an outbreak.

“There have been plenty of warnings that have been ignored.”

The person in detention said the centre switched to rapid antigen tests for suspected cases too late to stop the spread of the virus.

“Why did they not follow the state prisons which have been using the RAT tests for months now? And now that they finally do switch it also comes at a point when your average Australian will find it hard to locate those tests.”

The person said all medical appointments had been cancelled inside Villawood, and that the spread of the infection was likely far broader than the positive tests recorded.

“Everyone is afraid to approach an officer if they are feeling off, because it’ll mean being sent to quarantine, where you might not have access to a power point to charge your phone that people use to stay in touch with loved ones.”

Another source said the outbreak was “rampant” and that the centre “did not really know how many people have it”.

The border force confirmed on Tuesday there were six infections inside Villawood, which houses detainees across a number of compounds, but has not responded to repeated queries since.

“The priority for the ABF is the health and safety of detainees and staff in immigration detention facilities,” a spokesperson said on Tuesday.

“All detainees continue to have ongoing access to the medical professionals located within facilities.”

The spokesperson said the centre was following “standard departmental protocols”, including contact tracing, quarantining, testing and cleaning.

Several people held at Villawood confirmed Covid cases are being quarantined in a previously disused compound within the centre. The ABF did not respond to queries about this.

‘Disaster waiting to happen’

Ian Rintoul, a spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition, said “like other detention centres, Villawood has been a disaster waiting to happen”.

“Despite previous Covid scares at Villawood the government has done nothing to safeguard the health and welfare of detainees. Vulnerable detainees should have been released long ago.

“Government inaction and Covid protocol failures means that all of the 450 Villawood detainees are at high risk of infection. The staff shortages magnify the risk that the Villawood outbreak cannot be safely managed.”

Rintoul said anybody at high risk inside Villawood should be immediately removed from the centre.

“Many detainees have families that they could safely stay with.”

In June last year, the Australian Human Rights Commission recommended the government “take urgent steps to significantly reduce the number of people in immigration detention facilities by releasing people into community-based alternatives”.

The border force said its Covid-19 vaccine program for those in immigration detention started in August 2021 across all centres.

Melbourne’s Park Hotel, where more than 30 refugees and asylum seekers remain in detention, was the site of a Covid outbreak in October and November. At one stage 22 people – almost half of those detained – tested positive. The tennis player Novak Djokovic was briefly detained in the hotel last week before his visa cancellation was overturned in the Federal Court.

Before it was commandeered by the federal government as a detention centre, the hotel, then known as Rydges, was used for hotel quarantine of international arrivals and was the epicentre of Victoria’s second Covid wave.

A Victorian government inquiry found “around 90 per cent of Covid-19 cases in Victoria since late May 2020 were attributable to the outbreak at Rydges”.

Rydges was removed from the Victorian hotel quarantine program.

The government inquiry found “insufficient regard was paid to infection prevention and control standards across the entire program and, particularly, to that location”.

“There were consistent themes in the evidence and information provided to the Inquiry about concerns regarding matters including: access to fresh air; access to good quality food; the state of cleanliness of the facility.”

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