On Tuesday, the Premier said the military would not be required to assist with Victoria’s hotel quarantine system. The following day, the government said up to 1000 military personnel would be called in to assist, indicating the ADF would indeed have a role in hotel quarantine.
But by Thursday evening, the state’s position had changed again, with the request for military assistance downsized and the government indicating Victoria Police and protective services officers would take the lead in the hotel quarantine program.
Federal health authorities remain concerned about the security of hotel quarantine arrangements in Victoria, with two virus clusters identified as originating in hotels used to house overseas arrivals, but the changed arrangements mean the military will not be involved in the program.
The Premier said health workers would aim to test an additional 10,000 residents each day, including those without symptoms, telling people that getting tested was their “civic duty”.
ADF medical personnel will be on the ground from Friday to help with the testing push. Personnel deployed to help with the COVID-19 fight across the country have no coercive enforcement powers.
Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, said the door-to-door testing blitz would give authorities a better idea of community transmission rates and eliminate “logistical challenges” for the public.
“It’s bringing the testing to their home,” Professor Sutton said. “We are throwing everything at this.”
State Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien claimed on Thursday evening that infighting within the Labor cabinet had been behind the downsizing of the request for military help.
“Daniel Andrews should be welcoming ADF help with open arms, not turning his back on it,” Mr O’Brien said.
In Melbourne’s coronavirus hotspots, residents say they are back at their highest level of alert, heading back into self-isolation and abandoning plans for school holidays as cases continue to rise.
Deer Park couple Simon Vallone, 34, and partner Ashleigh Vandenberg, 33, who live in Brimbank – one of six local government areas labelled a “hotspot” by authorities – are expecting their second child within weeks.
Mr Vallone said Saturday’s announcement had caused anxiety in the home they share with their three-year-old daughter Tahlia and Ms Vandenberg’s 68-year-old mother, Charmain.
“We’re having to develop a COVID-19 plan. We’ve got checklists of items we’ll need, we’re now planning to go shopping fortnightly instead of daily or weekly,” he said.
Mr Vallone said he felt there was a divide between those adhering to social distancing and those ignoring it.
“I’ve had comments made to me in relation to my face mask, people asking me not to come too close with sighs of discontent or comments of ‘It’s just a virus’,” he said.
“We have family in Robinvale [north-west Victoria] that we won’t be able to visit. It’s left us feeling quite isolated and worried.”
Jamie Ramsay, from nearby Sunshine North, visited the CBD and botanical gardens with his wife, Thi, and daughters Alyssa, 4, and Cara, 7, in early June, their first excursion in months.
“It was short-lived joy,” Mr Ramsay said. “Now we’re back to the same as March, where we only take the girls out to ride their bikes around the block.”
The family’s local dentist is Hampstead Dental in Maidstone, which closed on Wednesday after two staff members tested positive, and the family now wears face masks when they leave home.
“We’re smack bang in the middle of Brimbank,” Mr Ramsay said.
“We’re meant to be going to the Peninsula Hot Springs at the end of the school holidays, that’s on hold at the moment.”
A new family cluster has emerged in Brimbank, made up of five cases across two households. A Keilor Downs family outbreak grew by two cases, taking the total to 19 people across eight homes.
A second case was announced at a Coles distribution centre in Laverton, where a case linked to the Keilor Downs cluster tested positive on Monday. One household contact of a worker at the Stamford Plaza hotel tested positive, taking the outbreak to 16.
Analysis of government data shows that while Victoria’s coronavirus hotspots three months ago were affluent areas in Melbourne’s inner east and Mornington Peninsula, seven of the 10 suburbs identified by Mr Andrews on Thursday rank in the top 20 per cent of the state for disadvantage based on Australian Bureau of Statistics metrics.
Health Department data also indicates that at 33 per cent, the proportion of community transmission over the past week is higher than the earlier months of the coronavirus pandemic, when 13 per cent of infections were community transmission with no known source.
Health workers will also use a new type of saliva test developed by the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity that is less invasive, and painful, than nose and throat swabs.
Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, an infection control expert and adviser to the World Health Organisation, said the saliva tests were slightly less accurate than nose and throat swabs but were a “very reasonable and cost effective” option considering the scale of the testing.
She said the testing blitz would only be effective if residents in the 10 suburbs deemed hotspots also adhered to self-quarantining measures, including only leaving home for essential reasons.
“While it’s commendable [the government] is doing this testing blitz, it’s a shame we have had to be reactive, rather than proactive a little earlier on,” she said.
Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien blamed the need for the testing blitz on government failings, including the hotel quarantine outbreaks.
“I think his [Daniel Andrews’] government needs to actually look in the mirror and look at the mistakes that they have made,” he said.
NSW again stepped up its precautions against Victorians on Thursday, banning them from attending NRL and AFL matches in the state and warning all fans would have their drivers’ licences checked at stadium gates.
With Angus Livingston
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Noel Towell is State Political Editor for The Age
Michael is a state political reporter for The Age.
Melissa Cunningham is The Age’s health reporter.
Craig Butt joined The Age in 2011 and specialises in data-driven journalism.