The ramifications are now being felt across the working-class and ethnically diverse northern and western suburbs of Melbourne, where more than 300,000 people have now been locked down for a second time to try to prevent the spread.
The government confirmed this week that genomic sequencing – a form of testing that outlines which specific variety of the virus is spreading in which clusters – shows that much of the latest outbreak has emerged from those original cases in hotel quarantine.
While further outbreaks of the virus in Australia were always likely, the high level of community transmission in Melbourne’s suburbs is enough to have the Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton declaring himself “nervous” for what’s next.
‘Three minutes’ training’
Until now Australia and Victoria’s response has been an overwhelming public health success with far fewer deaths per capita than nearly every comparable country. And despite the recent outbreak, the virus in Victoria is still not out of control.
But the northern suburbs lockdown has led to tough questions of both the government and the security industry it relied upon.
A key issue, according to industry insiders, was training. Guards were being expected to work with difficult, potentially infectious people, to use personal protective equipment and have a working knowledge of infection control techniques.
But for some, according to Kazim Shah, a United Workers Union organiser who has worked with Melbourne quarantine hotel guards in recent months, the preparation was severely inadequate.
“Some guards are saying they had no training,” Shah said. “Some were saying they had three minutes’ training.”
One trainer had a background in managing security for car parks, Shah said. Until recently security guards had been working at multiple quarantine hotels, adding to infection spread risks.
Details have since emerged of the lax hygiene standards in some Melbourne quarantine hotels and significant breaches of quarantine. Premier Andrews has drawn attention to guards sharing a cigarette lighter, and having “carpooling arrangements”.
More lurid rumours have also emerged, but a common story is that there was too little personal protective equipment or it was being worn wrongly or for too long; there was a lack of medical waste bins and that there was insufficient medical oversight.
So bad were the practices in some places that one returned traveller from New Zealand who stayed at a Crown hotel, said he felt more at risk in quarantine than going home.
“I noticed a lot of guards, they’d hug each other or give each other a pat on the shoulder,” returned traveller Patrick Enright told The Age.
“They were definitely in their personal space. One guard escorted me outside with the mask over his mouth but not his nose.”
Andrews has admitted there has been “unacceptable infection control breaches in hotel quarantine.”
Then the virus spread. Security workers acquired infections from travellers and then took it home to family members and contacts – an event that will now be subject to a new government-ordered inquiry amid fierce scrutiny on the Andrews government.
Low pay, insecure work
The pandemic has seen government work at warp speed. Decisions that would normally take months are being made in days. Corners are being cut and mistakes are inevitable.
In Victoria, the Andrews government has moved more than 20,000 people – many from places with major coronavirus outbreaks – through the hastily constructed hotel quarantine system, guarded by three security industry players MSS, Wilson and Unified.
The problem that emerged from those contracts has not been one of money. Victoria has already spent tens of millions of dollars on hotel quarantine alone as it hired out more than a dozen hotels to provide rooms for returned travellers.
Rather the problems are similar to those in some other Australian workplaces and industries – insecure work, exploitation of temporary migrants, inadequate training and decades of de-unionisation.
Recent research from the Fair Work Ombudsman said the private security industry had disproportionate levels of workplace disputes, including issues of contractors bidding down tenders to below the cost of paying employees lawfully.
Some of the quarantine contracts were sub-contracted to smaller operators, a practice that drives down wages and muddles responsibility. A former guard himself, Shah said workers employed directly by big companies typically were paid legal rates and penalties and overtime, but they would then pass off work to sub-contractors that regularly paid migrant workers flat rates of $20 an hour.
“They don’t have contracts and sometimes they don’t get paid at all,” he said. “This is an ongoing issue for the security industry.”
This week The Herald Sun reported claims of taxpayers being charged by security firms for “ghost shifts” – shifts that were never worked. Workers in the industry are not surprised.
The problems with the industry are well documented. Unions affiliated to the ALP have spoken out about it for years, and the Australian Centre for Corporate Responsibility’s director of workplace rights, Dr Katie Hepworth, said investors and companies needed to urgently review the use of sub-contractors in high-risk areas during the pandemic.
“The failure to provide proper training and personal protective equipment to subcontractors is common practice,” she said.
“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.”
Buck passing and an inquiry
What occurred in the hotels and why the private security industry was selected will be key questions for the new $3 million inquiry ordered by the Andrews government and headed by retired judge Jennifer Coate.
Among the issues to be examined include the “decisions and actions of government agencies, hotel operators and private contractors” along with contractual arrangements and the training provided to staff. The report is due to be completed by September 25.
The state opposition health spokeswoman Georgie Crozier wants the inquiry to be public and extended to include the earlier Cedar Meats cluster, while state opposition leader Michael O’Brien called for the health minister, Jenny Mikakos, to be sacked.
“This has been a complete and utter debacle,” Mr O’Brien said. “There has to be accountability for this, and this means the health minister has to go.”
On Friday Mr Andrews said Ms Mikakos had his support and said as leader he took responsibility for “these and all matters”.
“I absolutely acknowledge this is unacceptable what has gone on here.”
Ms Mikakos said she welcomed the judicial inquiry and said she had “no concerns whatsoever” about the role of her department. She said the decision to award the contracts was not made by her Department of Health and Human Services.
“I’m deeply frustrated by what has happened here,” she said. “We have managed this before (virus spread) and we will manage it again.”
Despite days of questions of the government, it remains unclear who made the call to outsource quarantine to the private security industry. Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said on Thursday the decision to use private security was not his.
“But it was jointly oversighted by emergency management within the Department of Health and Human Services, Emergency Management Victoria and Department of Jobs Precinct and Regions,” he said.
A significant overhaul has already begun in what the premier has called a “reset”.
No international travellers will arrive in Melbourne for two weeks. Andrews said diverting flights would allow the government to focus on existing cases rather than worry about new returning ones. The state government has also moved to toughen the rules for those in hotels, cancelling outside walks for everyone except those with mental health problems.
The move mirrors the more stringent lockdown already in NSW for quarantine hotels.
At the start of the pandemic, there was a major debacle in NSW over the virus spreading from passengers disembarking from cruise ships. But their hotel quarantine program has had far fewer issues than Victoria’s and has been run using a different model.
A NSW Police spokeswoman said they were responsible for that state’s hotel quarantine operation along with the Australian Defence Force, NSW Health and a private contractor. People who have stayed in quarantine in Sydney describe strictly enforced rules. This is the model Victoria is now moving to.
On Thursday Police Minister Lisa Neville said that the private security program at 15 quarantine hotels would be stopped by the end of next week.
Corrections Victoria, which runs the state’s jails and parole system, recently took over supervision of the quarantine program and will work with the Australian Defence Force to manage the hotels.
The Age has reported that MSS had been guarding the Stamford Plaza hotel in Melbourne’s CBD. Unified Security had been responsible for the Rydges on Swanston in Carlton.
The Andrews government said that the security companies “were bound by the standards of their service agreement with the Victorian government” and staff were required to complete training programs”.
That may be the case. But given the well-known state of the industry, it still required a leap of faith to believe it could deliver. Now the government is advertising for parole and prison officers, sheriffs and other authorised officers not already deployed to fill hundreds of new quarantine jobs.
The new roles will pay a base rate of $54 an hour. That’s more than double what one former guard said he was paid. “I was on a $25 set flat rate, that didn’t [move] whether you were on a day or night shift,” former guard Sebastian Porter said.
He said guards he worked alongside from other security firms “were on way less than that”.
Professor Sutton has conceded there has been “some concern about the distancing between those contracted security guard staff”. He also confirmed some of the staff spaces where security guards and healthcare workers were gathering at the quarantine hotels “were too close together”.
“Sometimes it was clear that there wasn’t as robust an understanding that was required among contractor staff” about social distancing,” he said.
“Sometimes it was a case of not having embedded all of the procedures for hand hygiene.”
Professor Sutton said he was now confident the system had been “strengthened” in recent weeks to a point where they do not expect to see more outbreaks.
The public and the government will be hoping he’s right.
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Ben Schneiders is an investigative journalist at The Age and has reported extensively on the underpayment of wages, corruption, business, politics and the labour movement. His reporting has won a number of major honours including Walkley awards. He has been part of The Age’s investigative unit since 2015.