Dinner at the five-star InterContinental hotel in Sydney is a plastic container of “unidentifiable food”. The sauce is lukewarm but chunks of meat are still frozen inside.

For Paula Lemmon, who has multiple serious food allergies, two small containers of chopped tomato and cucumber are the only meals she has been able to eat in almost 24 hours since arriving back in Australia and being placed in hotel quarantine.

“We’ve seen a few comments that it’s a five-star hotel and people shouldn’t be complaining,” Paula’s daughter, Olivia, told Guardian Australia. “We completely understand travellers are a high risk – we are 100% for quarantining. We’d be happy to be in a caravan.

“But we’re not staying at a five-star hotel, we’re staying at a government-run quarantine centre and we’re not getting basic needs.”

Similar stories are emerging in Sydney and elsewhere as Australians returning from overseas are put into an enforced 14-day quarantine in city hotels. People say they are not permitted to leave rooms or open windows.

Olivia, her partner Chloe Steffensen and mother Paula arrived in Australia early on Sunday morning. Paula had been visiting Olivia and Chloe, both vets working in the UK, when the coronavirus outbreak worsened.

When they arrived in Sydney, they were put on buses with other travellers and kept onboard for about three hours.

Since arriving about 1.30pm on Sunday, the only food available has been the meals supplied by the hotel.

“When the food arrives it is vacuum-sealed, unidentified food,” Olivia said. “It’s really, really bad. It’s been heated up, you can feel that it’s warm but all the chunks of meat were cold.”

Each time food has been delivered, no allowance has been made for Paula’s dietary requirements.

“When we tell the hotel she cannot eat the food, they just send up cucumber and tomato for Mum. She’s literally starving. And I know that sounds very over the top, but she got off the plane yesterday morning and all she’s been offered since is cucumber and tomato.”

For breakfast on Monday, they were given a bread roll, a small croissant and a container of porridge to share between three.

A friend has offered to cook meals and deliver them to the hotel, but no deliveries have been allowed.

“The hotel manager said: ‘You have to realise you’re not staying in a hotel, the hotel is shut, you don’t have the services of a hotel,’” Olivia said.

“We’re all for the quarantine, but the way we’ve been treated has been worse than criminals. We asked if we can have some fresh air. We have windows but they don’t open and we’re not allowed to leave the room.

“We need to know who is in control at the moment. The staff are just doing what they’re told. Even the manager said he was in no position to change any of the rules that were in place. It’s fine to keep us here but we need our basic human rights respected.”

The InterContinental Sydney general manager, Jennifer Brown, said in a statement the government had put in place “extremely strict rules around the way we operate … and these will inevitably have some impact on the quality of service delivered”.

“It includes a requirement that only three meals are delivered a day, medication and baby formula may be delivered to guests, and nothing else. Let me assure you that every guest staying at InterContinental Sydney has received their three meals per day since they arrived, and that all dietary requirements have been accounted for.”

However, people sent to other Sydney hotels said they had been allowed deliveries from friends, and to order food from hotel restaurant menus.

One woman who landed in Australia after eight years living in the US, told Guardian Australia that she, her husband and two-year-old son were taken to the Novotel in Darling Harbour, where they were given a room and a uniformed police officer was guarding every floor.

While stressing that she did not think her family’s circumstance was “unique or desperate”, the woman, who asked not to be named, was critical of the government for the way the policy had been implemented and said people should be allowed breaks outdoors.

During the long wait before arriving at the hotel yesterday, the woman said, officials appeared to have little idea what the process was supposed to be. The family were not allowed to use baggage trolleys to transport their luggage and she said she watched as airport security, airline staff and Border Force officials argued over whose job it was to assist passengers making their way through the terminal.

The passengers were given no food during the lengthy wait on the bus, and the woman’s two-year-old son was able to only eat snacks that the group’s bus driver and a sympathetic police officer provided.

“I think it all goes to the policy being announced and coming into force without sufficient time and understanding among the people who actually had to enforce it,” she said.

“There clearly just wasn’t time to do the necessary coordination. When you’re in these stressful circumstances and ask the people who are supposed to be in charge for information and the response is ‘I don’t know’, it’s not particularly reassuring.”

The woman said the food provided – which comes at allotted times – was fine, but that she and her husband were now gearing up to spend two weeks with a two-year-old in a single room with locked windows.

“We’ve got four Thomas the Tank books that I must have read 30 times on the trip over – I am ready to throw them in the fire – and some pens and markers,” she said.

“We’ve been drawing pictures with him and trying to stop him drawing on the hotel walls. I really think, like, my husband and I can survive two weeks inside and obviously so many people have it so much worse, but life with a toddler you can’t take outside is not going to be great. I really don’t see why we couldn’t be allowed breaks to walk around a park for an hour a day at least.”

Melbourne woman Catherine, who asked for her full name not to be used, has been sent to the Hyatt Regency hotel in Sydney. She said she and other guests had been given a per diem of $90 to spend on meals from the room service menu.

“That sounds like a lot but it doesn’t go very far,” she said. “Even if you want a cold, preprepared salad it’s quite pricey.”

Catherine said her room was dusty when she arrived on Sunday and appeared not to have been cleaned for several weeks, but that hotel staff had gone out of their way to be helpful.

“I’m still very concerned about air quality because we don’t have windows that open. My room when I opened up was super dusty.

“The hotel staff are trying to do their best and they’re being very polite, and any request they’re doing their best to accommodate. It does feel as though it’s a bit of a rush job to make a political statement that looks like the government is doing something.

“When you see what was happening at the airport just days before, we’re being scapegoated for those people who arrived before.

“Many of us are not from Sydney and had interstate transfers booked. We haven’t been given any guarantee that we’ll be able to get home when we’re allowed out of here.”

At a press conference on Sunday, the New South Wales police commissioner, Mick Fuller, appeared to dismiss many concerns about conditions in mandated quarantine accommodation.

“I know there will be people who are unhappy with the bed, the pillow, the heater, dinner and all those type of things,” Fuller said.

“The reality is they are in a hotel room and yes they will be isolated for 14 days. That is for their own protection, the protection of their family members and the protection of the NSW community.

“We can only take and listen to their complaints and try to reconcile them.”

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