05.05.21. Source: The Australian. However hard the Andrews government will try to spin the facts to deflect blame, it must accept full culpability for gross mismanagement of its hotel quarantining from January to last month. Confidential government documents uncovered by Ewin Hannan and Damon Johnston are startling. They reveal, for instance, that Matiu Bush, general manager of COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria’s Infection Prevention and Control program, refused to take a mandatory COVID test and breached infection control protocols. Despite being warned by health staff that e-cigarette mist could promote viral spread, a frontline medical officer defiantly vaped inside a quarantine hotel.
Then there was the airconditioning fiasco. Outside air running into the Parkroyal hotel at Melbourne Airport, where an outbreak happened in January, was switched off every night for 10 to 14 hours to “save energy” — in high summer. The stuffy conditions and contaminants, including viral particles, built up in rooms overnight, creating a transmission hazard.
The shortcomings of untrained staff were a major contributing factor to Victoria’s protracted second lockdown and curfew last year. Despite that abysmal precedent, infection prevention and control training remained limited for hotel quarantine staff this year. And surroundings were filthy — with dirty crockery, bags of rubbish, dirty carpet and smells from dirty nappies and food waste. The Andrews government’s direction that all staff with direct or indirect contact with returned travellers must be vaccinated was ignored. Unvaccinated contractors and tradies were allowed on site, heightening risks of the virus escaping into the community. The documents also expose a misleading claim by officials. The Holiday Inn COVID outbreak that sparked the state’s third lockdown first escaped into a hotel corridor during the lengthy swabbing of an unmasked woman in an open doorway. It did not escape from the room of a man using a nebuliser, as senior officials originally claimed.
The litany of haphazard, sloppy practices and double dealing reinforces the case for the Morrison government establishing purpose-built quarantine facilities. The need for such facilities, however, in no way exonerates the Andrews government from blame, especially in light of Victoria’s second outbreak last year. That catastrophe, caused by bungles involving private contractors at quarantine hotels Rydges on Swanston and the Stamford Plaza in Melbourne that allowed the virus to escape, was blamed for 800 deaths and 20,000 COVID cases. The economic cost of the ensuing lockdown and curfew was greater than the national impact of the 1990s recession, costing the national economy around $4bn a week, according to Treasury estimates.
It also prompted the investigation by retired judge Jennifer Coate. In December last year, her independent report noted there was “inadequate focus in the design and implementation” of the hotel quarantine program, including “the need for specialised and rigorous cleaning to address the risk of virus transmission through environmental contact … This was especially so given the movement of people in and out of the hotels; those in quarantine and the workers and staff and personnel on-site.” The Andrews government has no excuse for ignoring hygiene.
Details of the confidential documents, published on Wednesday, make a mockery of Mr Andrews’ shameless boast in early February that Victoria had “higher standards” of hotel quarantining than NSW and other states. “I can say it because it’s true,” he said, pointing to “about 50” improvements to the program such as overhauling airconditioning systems, ripping up carpets, putting down lino, cleaning “to industrial standards”, and having staff COVID-tested on their days off. At the time we were sceptical, “especially on a day when two more positive cases were linked to the Holiday Inn Melbourne Airport”, bringing the total number of transmissions identified in the program in less than a week to five across three hotels. Judging by the leaked documents, our scepticism was well founded.
Victorians who believed Mr Andrews’ claims that his government had fixed the problems need to think again. The revelations leave Acting Premier James Merlino and Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton, in particular, with detailed and searching questions to answer. The documents cast serious doubts on Professor Sutton’s claim in February that the case that sparked the state’s third lockdown came from the room of a man using a nebuliser at the Holiday Inn. Instead, a report suggests, the virus first escaped into a corridor during the lengthy swabbing of an unmasked woman in an open doorway. It says the virus, “previously contained” in the woman’s room, was blown down the corridor by airconditioning before “pooling outside the door” of the room where the man with the nebuliser was staying.
In providing a damning indictment of the state’s quarantine management and lack of transparency, the documents show why hotels are not ideal for COVID quarantining. But no other state has experienced the level of problems of Victoria or failed so badly to learn from its mistakes.