Victoria ‘at risk of repeating fatal hotel quarantine mistakes’, as row breaks among departments

A row has broken out between Victoria’s health and justice departments over how a revamped hotel quarantine scheme should work when international flights to the state resume.

A senior Department of Health and Human Services source has warned that Victoria risks repeating the bureaucratic failings that led to the bungling of the hotel quarantine system, which seeded the state’s devastating second wave of coronavirus, infecting almost 20,000 people and killing more than 800.

Security guards who contracted COVID-19 from returned travellers at the Rydges on Swanston hotel have been linked to Victoria's second wave of the virus.
Security guards who contracted COVID-19 from returned travellers at the Rydges on Swanston hotel have been linked to Victoria’s second wave of the virus.CREDIT:PENNY STEPHENS

The Justice Department – an “unhappy and reluctant participant” in the scheme – has been attempting to shift greater responsibility to DHHS and Alfred Health ahead of the resumption of the program, according to the DHHS source, who has been intimately involved in hotel quarantine but spoke to The Age on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to media.

The DHHS and Alfred Health have refused to accept a greater role in the program.

Confirmation of the row followed a report in The Age that revealed the Andrews government was investigating scaling back the hotel quarantine program and introducing electronic monitoring devices to track returned travellers asked to isolate at home.

The DHHS source said “tensions had been rising” within the health and justice departments ahead of the overhaul of the program and the suggestion to use GPS-enabled wristbands.

“Electronic monitoring would be something the Department of Justice would need to put in place and monitor in an ongoing way, as they do for offenders in the criminal justice system,” the source said.

The Justice Department is currently responsible for managing hotel quarantine in Victoria. Returned travellers are put in isolation after a detention order is issued by a DHHS authorised officer, while Alfred Health provides clinical services, infection prevention and control expertise, as well as pathogen cleaning at some hotels.

Following an outbreak at the Rydges on Swanston Hotel in June, when security guards became infected with COVID-19 and spread it into the community, DHHS brought in Alfred Health to run the “hot” hotels, where infected returned travellers have isolated. The Justice Department has been pushing to expand the health service’s role to run the hotel quarantine scheme.

“This is outrageous because [Alfred Health] would have to divert hundreds of nursing staff out of its hospitals into hotels at a time when they’re ramping up elective surgery,” the source said.

The inquiry, chaired by former Justice Jennifer Coate, has heard of a litany of bureaucratic failures.
The inquiry, chaired by former Justice Jennifer Coate, has heard of a litany of bureaucratic failures. CREDIT:GETTY

A Justice Department spokeswoman disputed that the department had attempted to shift its responsibility, saying the scheme required a public health and clinical response in partnership with health providers.

“DJCS [Department of Justice and Community Safety] will continue to work closely with DHHS on the COVID-19 accommodation program, including any considerations for the future of the program,” the spokeswoman said.

“We will await the findings of the hotel quarantine inquiry to finalise the operating model.”

An Alfred spokesman said the health service provided clinical leadership at a small number of sites in the COVID-19 accommodation program. The DHHS was contacted for comment.

A senior Labor source said oversight of the program was a “poisoned chalice” for Attorney-General Jill Hennessy, who oversees the Department of Justice.

“One little thing goes wrong with this program under her watch, that’ll spell the end of her leadership ambitions,” the Labor source said.

“That explains why a program that was set up over one weekend is taking four months to reset.”

Premier Daniel Andrews said on Tuesday that he expected national cabinet to discuss electronic monitoring when state and federal leaders meet on Friday.

Private security firms were contracted to guard returned travellers at Melbourne's Stamford Plaza hotel.
Private security firms were contracted to guard returned travellers at Melbourne’s Stamford Plaza hotel.CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES

“If we can get people safely into their own home but have a high degree of confidence that … we’re not spreading the virus and we can monitor their health status, that seems common sense to me,” Mr Andrews said at his daily press conference.

The senior DHHS source, as well as other hotel quarantine insiders, have raised concerns that lines of accountability and decision-making on hotel quarantine remain murky – a critical issue that has been canvassed in the hotel quarantine inquiry.

The source said Victoria risked repeating critical errors made at the start of the pandemic when departments shifted responsibility to each other on hotel quarantine.

Former health minister Jenny Mikakos and former Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles have both resigned following the presentation of damning evidence to the inquiry.

In a submission to the inquiry, health controller Jason Helps said the structure of the emergency operation contributed to inconsistent decision making.

“At times, because of this structure, it was difficult to track the origin of a decision, the role or position responsible and information, data or plans,” Mr Helps wrote.

Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton was asked on Tuesday to provide an additional statement explaining why he gave evidence saying he was unaware private security were used in hotels, despite having received emails on that topic.

By : Sumeyya Ilanbey – THE AGE

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