Victoria launches judicial inquiry into hotel quarantine program

A number of cases have been linked to an infection control breach in the hotel quarantine program.

Updated

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has announced the launch of a judicial inquiry into the state’s COVID-19 hotel quarantine program following a recent spike in cases.

Justice Jennifer Coate, one of the state’s most experienced judicial officers, has been appointed to lead the examination of Victoria’s hotel quarantine program for returning travellers.

Justice Coate was one of six Royal Commissioners appointed to lead the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and has served on the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria, the Coroners Court of Victoria, the Federal Court and as President of the Children’s Court of Victoria.

The Chief Health Officer has advised the government that a number of cases of coronavirus in the community have been linked through genomic sequencing to an infection control breach in the hotel quarantine program.

“It is abundantly clear that what has gone on here is completely unacceptable and we need to know exactly what has happened,” Premier Daniel Andrews said.

The inquiry will examine a range of matters including decisions and actions of government agencies, hotel operators and private contractors; contractual arrangements; information, guidance, training and equipment provided to staff in hotels; and policies, protocols and procedures.

The Victorian Government has provided $3 million to support the inquiry in its work, with a report to be delivered to the Governor by Friday, 25 September 2020.

Dr Katie Hepworth, director of Workers’ Rights at the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR), said the failure to provide proper training and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to subcontractors is common practice.

The ACCR is calling on companies to urgently review the use of subcontractors in high risk, front line sectors during the pandemic following comments made by a contracted security guard at quarantine hotel to the Today Show that he was only given five minutes of training and only one set of protective equipment per day.

“It is the result of years of outsourcing in the security industry, that has seen the hollowing out of wages and conditions, and seen experienced workers locked out of the industry in favour of inexperienced, lower paid workers,” Hepworth said.

“The Melbourne quarantine clusters highlight the broken chains of responsibility for worker and community safety.

“This short-term profiteering puts the whole community at risk – and has major implications for the economy as we are seeing a secondary lockdown.”

Cleaning companies have also been urged to review their processes, including infection control training and social distancing protocols after a cleaner at Melbourne airport tested positive for coronavirus last week.

Bridget Gardner, director of HPC Cleaning Solutions, told Inclean the case at Tullamarine Airport is a timely reminder of how infectious the coronavirus is.

“We’ve been focusing hard on cleaning and disinfection to protect the building occupants, but this reminds us of the responsibilities that cleaning companies have toward their own staff,” Gardner said.

“How many staff members have been in contact with the infected cleaner and will now need to be quarantined for two weeks as well? This could have a huge impact on a small cleaning business. Did they have a risk management plan for their business continuity? Or how to manage their other staff in this situation?”

Gardner, who has developed a Guide to Cleaning for COVID-19 which includes risk plans, standard operating procedures, high touch point protocols and a COVID-Safe Cleaning Plan, said cleaning companies need to re-evaluate their infection control training processes and ensure services are scheduled so cleaners can work while social distancing.

“This is also a timely reminder of how infectious the coronavirus is. Twelve of the 14 cases from the Melbourne Stamford Hotel outbreak were security guards and it appears to have been spread by sharing cigarette lighters and car-pooling to work.

“How well are cleaning companies training their staff in infection control and scheduling their services so they can work while social distancing? Or are they piling into the cleaner’s room together and not cleaning equipment?”

As of 8 July 2020, the total number of cases in Victoria is 2,942, with 134 new cases since yesterday’s report. The overall total has increased by 118, with 16 reclassified, largely due to duplication.

Of the new cases, 11 are linked to outbreaks and 123 remain under investigation. More than 450 cases have been acquired in Australia where the source of infection is unknown.

The Victorian Government has announced Stay at Home Directions for metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire from 11:59pm on Wednesday 8 July until 11.59pm on Wednesday 19 August.

For six weeks, people who live in these areas are only allowed to go out for four reasons: shopping for food and supplies, health care and caregiving, outdoor exercise, and study or work – if unable to work or study from home.

“These restrictions have become necessary because of the sharp increase in cases,” said Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton.

“These are tough measures but this virus is not selective – it will impact anyone it encounters, and personal contact is the clear source of its transmission. We need everyone to do their part and ensure it is stopped in its tracks.”

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