Be afraid. Be very afraid. Last Thursday, the Victorian government restarted its Covid hotel quarantine program.
This is the fourth attempt. The first two attempts from March 2020 resulted in Covid being released into the community, months of lockdown and 801 deaths. A year later and we’re still waiting for WorkSafe Victoria to initiate prosecutions over those deaths.
The third quarantine program attempt started on December 7, 2020. On that day Self Employed Australia warned of problems. Our information was that basic, simple procedures were not in place and that quarantine ‘HQ’ was dysfunctional. Despite the government’s media spin of ‘this time a gold program’, by February 12, 2021, Victoria was back into lockdown after breaches and a Covid outbreak from one of the Tullamarine airport hotels.
Procedure breaches were simple. For example, staff who had close contact with quarantined travellers and who were supposed to work in isolated rooms were called into mass staff meetings. Just plain dumb. Not even any common sense. Quarantine HQ was incapable of giving timely answers to hotel staff on simple issues such as PPE.
Even if Covid-19 was ‘unprecedented’ (even though on basic facts it was fully expected and known), the health and safety breaches were overwhelming of basic, common-sense things that should have been done or not done. This is an outcome of dysfunctional management through the Victorian government health system rather than a direct function of the disease itself.
We can only hope that this fourth attempt will be more successful. There is reason to believe it might be better. Our information is that, sometime around early March 2021, WorkSafe inspectors ‘marched’ into Quarantine HQ asking specific questions. “Show us your policy on this?” “Where are the instructions for that?” “Who authorised this?” and so on. This led to a flurry of panicked bureaucrats who couldn’t supply immediate answers.
Since then, we believe that WorkSafe has essentially taken control oversight of the quarantine program. No procedure is put in place unless WorkSafe checks and approves. Additional procedures required by WorkSafe are implemented. Take one example. All men working in quarantine must be clean-shaven. This is to ensure a proper seal when wearing face PPE.
Even with WorkSafe oversight, there are big procedural gaps emanating from quarantine HQ in the form of confused processes and policies.
Some six weeks or so ago, when vaccination of quarantine staff started, the instruction was that vaccination was voluntary. Staff planning happened accordingly. But now, possibly after the WorkSafe review(?), vaccination of all quarantine staff is compulsory. Now there’s a workforce shortage as the availability of vaccinated staff can’t be guaranteed. And it will take several weeks to get additional potential staff vaccinated. Again, this is basic dysfunctional management at play. A year-plus into Covid and surely any claim of ‘unprecedented’ is hogwash!
And there’s more. Covid outbreaks from quarantine have a set pattern. The first line of infection is from infected travellers to quarantine staff. Then from quarantine to, most commonly, the staffs’ immediate family or housemates.
New South Wales has a program of vaccinating quarantine staff and the staffs’ immediate family/house contacts. That is, they’re vaccinating to create two lines of first-level defence. And in Victoria? Nah! Quarantine staff are being vaccinated but there’s no reported intention to vaccinate quarantine staff family/house contacts.
Again, what’s being witnessed in Victoria is dysfunctional management. It’s not Covid itself that is the immediate problem. It’s gobssmackingly bad management that’s the problem. It’s the management of the quarantine system that is the threat to the health and safety of all Victorians. This is why we insist that WorkSafe must prosecute the Victorian government over the 801 deaths.
If prosecutions don’t occur, the full extent of the dangerous dysfunctionality will never be revealed and correction and improvement of the system will not occur.
This time, with the fourth quarantine program underway, let’s hope that the management systems are up to the task. With WorkSafe overseeing the program as we believe, lets’ further hope that this time it will work. And if there are infection outbreaks, as is always possible no matter how good the procedures, that the containment reaction is quick and appropriate. Further, that containment occurs without draconian Victorian lockdowns.
Ken Phillips is Executive Director of Self Employed Australia.
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