Australians in quarantine at Sydney hotel describe 'prison-like' conditions

Australians who have returned from overseas and have been forced into quarantine at a Sydney hotel say they are living in "prison-like" conditions.

NSW Police stand guard outside the Swissotel Hotel in Market Street, Sydney.

NSW Police stand guard outside the Swissotel Hotel in Market Street, Sydney. Source: AAP

Outside the luxury Swissotel Hotel in the Sydney CBD police officers stand guard.

Inside the building resides nearly 300 Australians who were stranded on the Norwegian Jewel cruise ship and are now in strict quarantine.  

Among them is 42-year-old Amber Hammond who describes the conditions inside as "abysmal", saying she and fellow passengers are being treated like "criminals".


Ms Hammond told SBS News those being quarantined are locked in their hotel rooms without any access to fresh air. 

"We are not allowed out of our rooms, even with masks and keeping a 1.5 metre distance. We are not allowed to open our doors except to get food. We are not allowed to get any fresh air and the windows do not open," she said.

Ms Hammond said many have expressed concern about the lack of access to outdoor spaces, adding she was told by medics that they had previously raised the issue with the federal government. 

She suggested security staff, three of whom are on guard on each floor, rotate access to the rooftop, but there is no indication that will happen.  

It follows weeks of being stuck at sea with the Norwegian Jewel cruise ship turned away from four countries, including Australia. Eventually, the vessel docked in Hawaii and the Australian passengers were flown to Sydney on a Qantas chartered flight. 

42-year-old Amber Hammond, a concert pianist has described the conditions inside the hotel as "abysmal."
42-year-old Amber Hammond, a concert pianist has described the conditions inside the hotel as "abysmal." Source: Supplied

All returning Australians to be sent to quarantine facilities

Under , thousands of Australians returning to the country will be required to quarantine in hotels and other accommodation facilities for two weeks before they are allowed to go home.

The measures are aimed at controlling the spread of COVID-19, and follows widespread criticism over a decision to let thousands of people disembark the Ruby Princess cruise ship in Sydney Harbour last week. More than 160 people on the vessel have now contracted the virus. 

There have been no confirmed cases of the infection on board the Norwegian Jewel, and Ms Hammond said passengers had already completed a 13-day quarantine during their isolation at sea. 

"I am a strong advocate of self-isolation and believe everyone needs to do their part to beat the virus, however what we are doing is not helping anyone. In fact it's harming us," she said. 

Ms Hammond is a single mother and her 17-year-old daughter, who is home alone, "is not coping".

She said she is also concerned about the welfare of some of the elderly passengers.  

"Next door to me, is [a] 77-year-old. [She] has no internet, and no phone. She is suffering anxiety and panic attacks."

She described another man as being "beyond desperate". 

"[He] has mental health issues and severe depression. He has said he is going to 'fall in a heap' if he can’t get fresh air. There are at least four other very elderly people also in rooms on their own - and they have been calling out to vent their frustration."

NSW Police stand guard outside the Swissotel Hotel in Market Street, Sydney.
NSW Police stand guard outside the Swissotel Hotel in Market Street, Sydney. Source: AAP

Others quarantining at the hotel said last night they ordered in food only to be told they are not permitted to have meals delivered to the hotel. They were told it was deemed a health risk by the medic team.

Another man shared a photo of a pile of rubbish, including food scraps, that he left outside the door of his room two days ago, but are yet to be cleared. 

'This is our home'

A permanent resident at the Swissotel, Brooke Pendlebury, said she was only informed the building was being used as a quarantine facility on Friday - a day after the cruise ship passengers checked-in.

"We were never told until 9.50am this morning by way of an email that was circulated to the residents. [It] advised us that there are already people here," she told SBS News. 

Brooke Pendlebury is a permanent resident at the Sydney Swissotel.
Brooke Pendlebury is a permanent resident at the Sydney Swissotel. Source: SBS

Ms Pendlebury said there are more than 100 permanent residents of the hotel, including many who fall into the at-risk category for COVID-19. 

"There are quite a number of elderly people that live alone, that don’t have any family, that are particularly frail and vulnerable. Some are in their eighties [and] some [are] in their nineties.

"These are the people that we are most worried about, that we are trying to protect."

Ms Pendlebury said for residents, the lack of notice and communication about the use of the building as a quarantine facility has been upsetting.   

"That prevented us from being able to be fully briefed about it and consulted. And perhaps the concerns that have been raised may have been more properly dealt with, if someone had let us know what was going on."

'It is very intimidating'

John Poole, 74, who has asthma and a heart condition says the handling of the situation has been disastrous.

"It feel like we are in a jail cell! Prisoners in Long Bay are being looked after better than we are - and we don’t even have the virus," he said.

"We aren’t the high risk people. We need fresh air!"

He said the eight security personnel outside his room meant he was not able to leave the room he is sharing with his wife. Both were taken to the hotel after eventually leaving the Norwegian Jewel cruise ship.

Mr Poole's wife, Cathy, 72, says the situation is intolerable.

"The main thing I am pointing out is we feel we are held here illegally. It is very intimidating. Guards are intimidating.

"We were totally unaware we would be held here against our will and forced to stay in a hotel, rather than go home to our home.

"It’s our third day here.

"The food is not palatable, it is cold.

"There are no fresh towels, no cleaning being done!"

SBS News has reached out to the Swissotel and the Home Affairs Department for comment.

In a letter to guests on Saturday, Swissotel management promised everyone could access three meals per day, some shopping requests, medical services and rubbish and linen collection.

All arrivals must wear masks and gloves when interacting with hotel staff and room doors must be left closed.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian on Saturday admitted hotel-quarantined arrivals would likely experience a frustrating fortnight but made no apologies for government policy.

"We understand some people have had a very stressful time trying to get back home and we want to consider their position, but we also need to consider the health and safety of eight million residents in NSW and also more broadly, 25 million people in Australia."

Additional reporting: AAP

Australians must stay at least 1.5 metres away from other people. Indoors, there must be a density of no more than one person per four square metres of floor space.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at 

7 min read
Published 28 March 2020 at 2:42pm
By Abbie O'Brien, Camille Bianchi
Source: SBS News