Howard Springs quarantine facility
The Howard Springs quarantine facility (Image: AAP/Glenn Campbell)

I arrived at Howard Springs having escaped a wintry, dark and COVID-laden London by the grace of a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade rescue flight. My quarantine verdict after nearly two weeks? It’s been a relative breeze.

So what’s incarceration like?

In short, pretty boring and repetitive. The days consist of filling time between meals, trying to connect to the wi-fi, and crying out for an alcoholic beverage. On the plus side, we each have a veranda providing access to wonderful clean fresh air.

The well-run facility has had no COVID scares and the processes run smoothly. With hotel quarantine debates rolling on it seems surprising to all here that more federal facilities like Howard Springs are not being set up for international arrivals.

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Let me give you a rundown of my quarantine days.

Each day we are woken by a dawn chorus of squawking birds followed by an arduous trek to the veranda with my book and breakfast — usually a combination of fruit salad, oats and yoghurt. And since I can’t get to a cafe, my Aeropress coffee-maker has become my prized possession.

I reply to some overnight messages over breakfast and read for the next few hours before working up a sweat with an online exercise class. Being able to stretch your legs for a walk or run would be great but all exercise is limited to the room and veranda.

For the first few days, the clockwork daily tropical storms were a novelty but since then they have become an inconvenience as the horizontal rain forces you inside.

After lunch (sandwiches, a salad, or wrap), I attempt some activity involving brain stimulation: writing, drawing, calling a friend or family member or even attempting to make music on my laptop. This is not always successful, as it has proven tricky to be productive.

I get a daily call from someone at Telehealth who wants to know my temperature, and check if my health is OK and whether I am mentally coping or struggling. I am fine but can imagine how others may struggle.

Living hand in glove with fellow quarantiners means small annoyances come to the fore. My neighbour smokes a pack a day on our shared veranda and as a non-smoker that’s a little tiresome and annoying. And the row of units across from me pollute the air by playing outdated mid-2000s rock songs very loudly.

And, yes, there is one significant occupational danger from quarantine: constantly snacking out of boredom. We are allowed to top-up our food with Coles or IGA deliveries, so the temptation of another bag of mid-afternoon chips or Shapes becomes irresistible. And weight gain seems to be an all-round complaint and subject of discussion.

But the ultimate high point of each day starts in the late afternoon. You can hear as everyone moves to their veranda and starts chatting in anticipation of the 5.30pm food delivery — anticipating what might be in store for our next three meals.

Early on — and after three days of curries — I thought I would be on a curry-exclusive diet for two weeks, but thankfully change came with excellent hot dinners ranging from laksa and lamb stew to even a parma, much to everyone’s excitement. With no ability to reheat food, the dinner time of 5.30 is slightly annoying, and unless you are early to bed this leaves you wanting something more to eat later in the evening (more snacks).

A post-dinner ice cold beer would have made my balmy quarantine evenings perfect. But sadly that remains a treat to savour for once we are out. Howard Springs is a booze-free site, something constantly discussed on our block. Anyway, any thoughts of a post-meal doze on the veranda abruptly end with mosquito attacks after dusk. So in we all go for a bit of TV before bedtime.

What else annoys? Ah yes, the intermittent wi-fi given we all rely on access to our favourite streaming services. Being provided with a SIM card on arrival was very useful, but a few neighbours claim theirs were expired.

While I wouldn’t quite go so far as deeming my quarantine a “holiday”, as reported elsewhere, the rural setting provides a relaxing and strain-free environment to readjust and get over jet lag. The staff — AFP, AUSMAT, site staff, caterers, and air force — are disciplined and strict yet welcoming, all contributing to a sense of protection within a controlled environment.

You’re required to wear a mask at all times when outside, with all staff wearing appropriate PPE, leaving little room for particle transmission, should there be an active case onsite.

Surely Victoria’s latest circuit-breaker lockdown only strengthens the case for establishing more rural, isolated, and safe quarantine facilities such as Howard Springs. The site allows close monitoring of cases onsite, relative comfort for residents, and being situated rurally means any potential cases are easily traced without forcing millions into a potential lockdown.

As Howard Springs is the DFAT-nominated site for repatriated Australians, this suggests this is known to be the preferred method to return Australians safely. Making this the model — or maybe the federal point of entry to Australia — would seem like the practical thing to do. But that doesn’t seem to be on the cards.

Calum Jaspan is a freelance journalist and recently completed his masters at Goldsmiths, University of London.