The Forgotten Families

Families with young children placed in hotel quarantine in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic were badly let down by the system, a Western Sydney University study finds.

“For two years, Australia shut its borders, and all travellers were required to spend two weeks in quarantine in hotels, paid for by themselves”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns and quarantines were put in place around the world in attempts to quell the spread of SARS-CoV-2. A mandatory two-week quarantine for those returning to Australia, and travelling between states, was a challenging part of these restrictions, that approximately half a million people went through. However, as troubling results from a study by researchers at Western now highlight, families placed in quarantine in Australian hotels were frequently neglected in terms of basic necessities, from provision of age-appropriate food, to ensuring hotel rooms were safe for children under 10.

“For two years, Australia shut its borders, and all travellers were required to spend two weeks in quarantine in hotels, paid for by themselves,” says Catharine Fleming, child and infant nutritionist at Western, who conducted the study with her colleague, leading expert on ‘children in emergencies’, Karleen Gribble. “The government outsourced quarantine provision to private hotel chains, and — we were shocked to discover — handed it over to the police and the military to run, even though quarantine rules were incorporated into Public Health Acts.”

Fleming and Gribble followed the unfolding story online, reading and listening to parents’ social media posts. “The things we were hearing were disturbing enough for us to put a rapid plan together for a research project,” says Fleming.

Once they secured ethics approval, the team sent out a public survey on social media to gather parents’ views and collate photographs and other evidence. The survey covered many different themes, from child feeding to safety protocols, and the mental health of both parents and children.

Need to know

  • Returned travellers in Australia were required to quarantine in a hotel for 2 weeks at the height of the pandemic. 
  • Proper provisions were not made for those with families and small children.
  • Researchers believe a policy change for families in quarantine is needed.

About half a million people, including young children went through hotel quarantine in Australia

“I watched my son go from a happy kid to a despondent, clingy child.”

“One mother shared a photo of the meal of chicken nuggets and chips provided for her 8-month-old,” says Fleming. “People were repeatedly given inappropriate food for their children, and because they couldn’t go anywhere, they couldn’t source anything else. As a nutritionist, I had to capture these details and document them.”

In total, the researchers received responses from 170 different families across different states in Australia from June to September 2021. When they approached the hotels and health officials for comment, they received very little acknowledgement or response.

“Each group passed the buck to someone else, but what surprised me most was the fact that many hotels didn’t accept responsibility for the safety issues within their own rooms,” says Fleming. “One family with very young children were given a room 30 floors up, with a balcony that had no lock on the door.”

The responses from survey participants indicated a range of other issues, both emotional and physical. “I found it really challenging watching my son go from a happy kid to a despondent, clingy child. The impact of no daylight or fresh air on both adults and children can’t be underestimated,” said one participant. “My toddler essentially had a mental breakdown. Started pulling out hair, banging their head against walls, crying inconsolably,” said another.

And it wasn’t only the children that suffered, another respondent stated that “I felt the psychological support I was provided was token. For example, I said I was looking for ways to cope better — given how angry I felt towards my children, and that I was sleeping three hours per night — and the response was ‘cope however you can’.”

“Long-term, I believe these families will greatly impacted from their experience, and we hope to possibly investigate this further in the future” 

“The system was set up for adults who could just about cope with being in one room with room service and an exercise bike for two weeks. But families’ and young children’s needs were completely overlooked,” said Fleming.

Worse still, Fleming notes, most people had very difficult reasons for traveling at that time, often concurrently dealing with grief. They would be traveling for essential reasons, to reach the funeral of a loved one or to be with family who needed support, not to go on holiday.

“Long-term, I believe these families will greatly impacted from their experience, and we hope to possibly investigate this further in the future,” says Fleming. “Two weeks is a long time in the development of very young children. Our data points to child and parent distress and trauma, which will have a lasting effect on some families.”

The researchers hope to drive policy change so that full consideration is given to families’ needs in future emergency situations. They are calling for a clear policy on families in quarantine that all providers must follow, including basic safety checks on rooms, access to age-appropriate nutrition, provision of practical essentials such as nappies, and developmental essentials including toys and access to an outdoor space to play. Fleming also says that there should be a dedicated family hotline number for parents to access immediate support as needed.

“I hope our study helps bring home to those in power that this situation cannot happen again,” Fleming adds

Meet the Academic | Dr Catharine Fleming

Catharine Fleming has a PhD in paediatric nutrition and dietetics and over 12 years of experience in paediatric nutrition relating to infant and young child feeding, paediatric food allergy and childhood obesity. In particular, she has expertise in metabolic disorders in specialised paediatric populations such as childhood cancer survivors. 

Dr Fleming has worked internationally with a lead paediatric gastroenterology team at Great Ormond Street Hospital London in the management of paediatric food allergies, specifically around the feeding difficulties of children aged 0-12 years with Food Protein Induced Gastrointestinal Allergies. 

Dr Fleming continued to build her expertise in child nutrition while working in a clinical capacity and completing her PhD at Sydney Children’s Hospital in paediatric oncology. During this time, she investigated the need for nutritional support and intervention after childhood cancer treatment to focus on the prevention of metabolic late effects in childhood cancer survivors. Specifically, the development and project management of an innovative parent and child-targeted e-Health program ‘ENeRgy-KIDS’ to address diet and feeding behaviours after childhood cancer treatment, focusing on healthy survivorship and disease prevention.

Meet the Academic | Dr Karleen Gribble

Karleen Gribble is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Western Sydney University. She is the author of more than 60 peer-reviewed papers and book chapters on infant feeding, child protection, and child rights and is a world leading researcher on infant and young child feeding in emergencies.

Karleen has been involved in policy development and training on infants and young children in emergencies since 2006. She is one of the authors of the World Health Assembly-endorsed Operational Guidance on Infant and Young Child Feeding in Emergencies and a current steering committee member of the international interagency collaboration the Infant and Young Child Feeding in Emergencies Core Group. Karleen has provided advice to UN organisations, INGOs, health professionals, emergency responders and government bodies in many countries on infants and young children in emergencies. She has been advocating with Australian governments and policy makers for better planning for children in emergencies for over a decade and is a member of the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilient Evacuation Handbook Revision Working Group.

Karleen grew up on the edge of Royal National Park in Sydney and experienced evacuation because of bushfire as a young child. She now lives in the bush on the NSW Central Coast where her home was threatened by the Gospers Mountain during the Black Summer or 2019-20. Karleen is Project lead on the Australian Breastfeeding Association’s Community Protection for Infants and Young Children in Bushfires Project. This Australian-first project is conducting research on the experiences of caregivers of infants and young children during the Black Summer will work with organisations in Eurobodalla on the NSW South Coast to plan and prepare to support very young children in future bushfires.


Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.

© Maskot/Maskot/Getty
© Tai's Captures/Unsplash
© runnyrem/Unsplash
© Photo by Caleb Woods/Unsplash