As Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced the state would be reimposing lockdowns on some Melbourne postcodes from Thursday, he said failures in the state’s hotel quarantine program were a key factor in dozens of coronavirus cases.
The government unit responsible for prisons will now oversee a “reset” of the hotel quarantine program and no new travellers will be hosted in Victoria for the next two weeks.
But how did this start and why are these measures being implemented?
What’s the problem?
The Premier said genomic sequencing revealed a number of coronavirus cases can be linked to “staff members in hotel quarantine breaching well-known and well-understood infection control protocols”.
He said several infections that emerged in northern Melbourne in late May and early June can be linked to the breach.
“Clearly there has been a failure in the operation of this program,” he said yesterday.
Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said dozens of cases analysed from that period link back to issues with hotel quarantine, but results on more recent cases were still coming through.
Mr Andrews stressed that there was a lag time in DNA work and that the issues this recent genomic sequencing report raised were from “some weeks ago”.
What do we know so far?
Authorities did not detail exactly what the offending breaches were yesterday, or which staff members were involved.
During yesterday’s press conference Mr Andrews and Professor Sutton were asked about suggestions there had been “contact with guests of an intimate nature”, but the Premier said he could not confirm or comment on that.
“What I would say is that there have been some breaches of well-known and well-understood infection control protocols,” he said.
But we already knew of two coronavirus clusters in Victoria with direct links to the hotel quarantine program:
- The Stamford Plaza Hotel outbreak, which had a total of 29 cases as of yesterday
- The Rydges on Swanston Hotel outbreak, which had recorded 17 infections as of June 19
An outbreak linked to the Stamford Plaza hotel in Melbourne has 29 known infections. (ABC News)
On Sunday the Premier said the spread of the virus among staff working in hotel quarantine may have come from people sharing a cigarette lighter and carpooling to work together.
“An innocent thing that can lead to transmitting the virus,” he said.
And back on June 19, when just seven cases had been linked to the Stamford Plaza outbreak, Deputy Chief Health Officer Annaliese van Diemen said some contracted security workers breached physical-distancing measures by socialising.
“There’s been closer mingling of these guards than we would like in the workplace,” she said.
What is the Victorian Government doing about it?
The Premier announced three main measures to tackle issues with how hotel quarantine is being implemented in Victoria:
- International flights into Melbourne will be diverted to other cities for the next two weeks
- Corrections Victoria will supervise a reset of the hotel quarantine program
- A former judge will lead an inquiry into the hotel quarantine program
Mr Andrews said not taking any more people into hotel quarantine in Victoria for two weeks will allow authorities to focus on dealing with the lockdown.
The inquiry will look at infection-control breaches and “any other issues in relation to hotel quarantine”, and will report in 8-10 weeks.
Corrections Victoria staff will start working in quarantine hotels this week.
What does this situation say about hotel quarantine?
Experts have pointed to Australia’s mandatory hotel quarantine program as one of the most successful public health measures to be implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
UNSW epidemiology professor Mary-Louise McLaws said mandatory quarantining was why Australia has seen “far less cases and far less deaths” than some other countries.
But the leader of the Opposition in Victoria, Michael O’Brien, said Victoria’s use of private contractors to staff hotels contributed to the “disaster” in the state.
“New South Wales has used police and have used the ADF to secure their hotel quarantines. Victoria hasn’t,” he said.
Victoria has used poorly-trained, lowly-paid, private security companies.
“Frankly it has been a mess and now the Government has admitted it has been the hotel quarantine failures which have led to a second outbreak.”