Victoria’s chief health officer, Prof Brett Sutton, had no idea private security guards were being used in hotel quarantine until the outbreaks in June that led to the state’s second wave of Covid-19 cases.
The inquiry investigating the state’s botched hotel quarantine program heard on Thursday Sutton and his team had “no oversight” of hotel quarantine, and expressed concerns as early as April of the risks the program posed to hotel guests.
“I did not have a view about the use of security companies in hotel quarantine. I did not know that security guards were used until after the outbreaks,” the chief health officer said in his written submission to the inquiry.
There was early concern among Sutton’s team that the operation, codenamed Operation Soteria, was mainly run as an accommodation program with not enough focus on public health.
In an email sent to the program’s commander on 9 April, Sutton and deputy chief medical officer Annaliese van Diemen requested an urgent review of the governance of the operation.
“Unless governance and plan issues are addressed, there will be a risk to health and safety of detainees,” the email stated.
Following the email, a public health command liaison position was connected to the operation to give Sutton’s team greater visibility into hotel quarantine.
The chief health officer maintains, however, that he was unaware private security had been used in hotel quarantine until outbreaks among security guards at the Rydges and Stamford Plaza hotels had occurred.
Sutton said in hindsight, the use of private security guards was a risk.
“There are a number of vulnerabilities with respect to transmission risk because of that workforce,” he said.
“The demographics of that workforce cohort provide for significant risks of transmission within the community.”
He said the casualised nature of the work and the dependency of employees on the program made it an incentive for staff to keep working in hotel quarantine, while still attending to other jobs potentially symptomatic or aware of their diagnosis.
“The casualised labour that was involved with a number of them [who] had other work that they needed to do … brought the risk of transmission to other workplaces and other individuals.”
Sutton said there were also potentially cultural and language issues in understanding social distancing rules and infection control, and identifying close contacts.
“It’s clear that there must have been close contacts who were not identified because we’re aware that this virus extended to the broader community without a clear epidemiological link back to the staff at hotel quarantine,” he said.
This meant, Sutton added, that “there are unidentified close contacts in that chain who were never raised as close contacts with the outbreak management team”.
In June, the then-federal chief medical officer, Prof Brendan Murphy, suggested in an email to Sutton that, given the issues with casualisation, casual staff should be paid their normal hourly rate for two weeks if required to isolate.
Murphy also offered to provide Aspen Medical staff as a surge workforce. Sutton replied security was the main issue.
“It is security staffing that is our main risk at the moment,” Sutton said in an email to Murphy on 21 June.
The inquiry also heard from van Diemen that in March, before hotel quarantine came into effect, returned travellers who later tested positive for Covid-19 admitted in contact tracing interviews to leaving home, despite being ordered not to.
“During the contact tracing process, [they] asked where they had been in the proceeding days preceding their symptom onset, and a number of them stated that they had been out and about in public places,” she said.
But those who admitted to breaching the order were not issued $20,000 fines, she said, in the interest of maintaining trust and people’s willingness to provide accurate information to contact tracers.
On Thursday, the inquiry will hear from Victoria police commissioner Shane Patton and former commissioner Graham Ashton. The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, is due to give evidence next week.