Victoriaâs Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton knew in April of the significant risks of hotel quarantine but was in the dark about how badly the system was run until media reports six weeks later revealed an outbreak that caused Melbourneâs second wave.
Professor Suttonâs evidence to the state hotel quarantine inquiry on Wednesday exposed that even those in charge of the Andrews governmentâs pandemic response did not know who was responsible for key aspects of the program.
Professor Sutton told the inquiry that it was clear from April 9, just two weeks after hotel quarantine was set up, that it carried âconsiderable riskâ because it lacked a clear leader and line of accountability to the Deputy Chief Health Officer.
Professor Sutton gave evidence he was not involved in the decision to hire private security contractors to supervise hotel quarantine and did not find out about it âuntil after the outbreaksâ. It was only in hindsight that he realised how dangerous it was for the state to use a highly casualised workforce with poor job security to fulfil the crucial role of guarding thousands of returned travellers from overseas.
âMy team and I did not have oversight in relation to infection prevention and control personnel and processes in place at each hotel,â he said.
Professor Suttonâs deputy, Annaliese van Diemen, said in her evidence that « everybody has responsibility in some way, shape or form », prompting a query from Arthur Moses, QC, the counsel for security guard company Unified: âAre you trying to blame others?â
Dr van Diemen had earlier warned that the hotel quarantine program was being run as a âlogistics or compliance exerciseâ rather than a health program, meaning she âlost the opportunityâ to know if infection control measures, including the use of protective gear, were adhered to in the hotels.
Private security guards, many working as casual subcontractors at the Rydges on Swanston hotel in Carlton and the CBDâs Stamford Plaza, spread the virus from returned travellers into the wider community. Professor Sutton told the inquiry that, âwith the benefit of hindsightâ, the use of such an insecure workforce was unfortunate.
âI can see that using a highly casualised workforce, generally from a lower socio-economic background, where that means that poor leave provisions, limit how one can care for and financially support oneâs family if unwell,â he said.
Many of the staff guarding the hotels combined multiple jobs âacross different industries to maintain an adequate income, creating transmission riskâ, Professor Sutton said. Guards also often came from relatively larger families and larger networks of friends, âwhich creates additional transmission risks should they become unwellâ.
The evidence came as Premier Daniel Andrews, who set up the $3 million inquiry, once again declined to comment on accusations that he lied to Parliament by saying in August that soldiers working in hotel quarantine in other states had not been offered to Victoria. Mr Andrews will appear before the inquiry next week.
Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos was also quizzed in State Parliament on Wednesday about whether she was aware of the offer by Canberra to deploy the army in quarantine hotels.
âI was not aware of any offers of Australian Defence Force support when hotel quarantine was established, » she said. « Iâve not been involved in approving the structures or the operational plan of this program. »
Professor Sutton told the inquiry that there had been instances where security staff in hotels did not appear to trust the information provided to them about infection control. âIn particular about how to wear PPE gear, and the use of hand sanitiser, in particular … concerns about using an alcohol-based sanitiserâ.
This hand sanitiser concern was also included in notes from the manager of Your Nursing Agency, the company employed to supply nursing staff to quarantine hotels. In mid-June, the companyâs manager noted that security guards had informed the agency âthey were concerned about using hand sanitiser because it is against their religionâ.
The same notes said the registered nurse working at one hotel âraised a complaint of a lack of infection control awareness and [the] sense that security were disinterested in use of PPEâ.
The nurse reported âsecurity staff had masks under their noses, were not removing gloves and even going to the bathroom with gloves onâ. The nurse told the nursing agency that âsomething needs to be done with security to keep everyone safeâ.
The inquiry heard that an email sent by Deputy Public Health Commander Dr Finn Romanes, a former deputy chief health officer, warned on April 9 of « a lack of a unified plan for this program ». This warning, made just two weeks after the hotel program began, said there was âconsiderable riskâ that unless issues were addressed there would be a risk to the health and safety of detainees.
Dr Romanes requested an urgent governance review of the program and said it needed a clear leader and direct line of accountability. Professor Sutton said he backed Dr Romanesâ email. âDr Romanes was acting on behalf of me,â he said.
It also emerged at the inquiry that the deputy state controller Chris Eagle â who was coordinating information between the agencies involved in hotel quarantine â was warned the day after the hotels program began that there needed to be a proper police presence.
The Department of Jobs Precincts and Regionâs executive director of Priority Projects, Claire Febey, warned Mr Eagle after a highly agitated guest quarantining at the Crown Metropole left his room and went to the ground floor foyer for a cigarette that better security was needed.
âWe strongly recommend that private security is not adequate given they have no powers to exercise. Can you please escalate our request for a permanent police presence at each hotel,â she wrote.
Chief Commissioner Shane Patton and his predecessor, Graham Ashton, will appear before the inquiry on Thursday.
Dr van Diemen said that, before the hotels program began in March, health officials considered quarantining returned travellers at home using electronic surveillance to keep them secure.
Clay Lucas is a senior reporter for The Age. Clay has worked at The Age since 2005, covering urban affairs, transport, state politics, local government and workplace relations for The Age and Sunday Age.
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