Security guards and health workers at the Rydges on Swanston and the Stamford Plaza cited the same problems raised with Professor Sutton as the cause of coronavirus transmission at both hotels.
The Department of Health and Human Services on Friday moved to shake up the health bureaucracy amid the fallout from the hotels debacle, with deputy secretary Melissa Skilbeck stripped of responsibility for emergency management but maintaining her seniority.
Victoria recorded 66 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday as outbreaks that began in the state’s hotel quarantine system spread in the northern and western suburbs, where more than 300,000 residents are subject to renewed stage three lockdown rules.
Speaking at a media conference on Friday, Premier Daniel Andrews and Health Minister Jenny Mikakos both said the first they knew of problems in hotel quarantine system was when the first infection at Rydges on Swanston was diagnosed on May 26.
Mr Andrews told reporters: “Infection control is an issue that has been brought to my attention, and I think it’s fair to say that … the first infection-control breach that led to a positive case [was the first he had heard].”
The offices of Professor Sutton and Mr Andrews refused to answer questions about the April briefing. Both cited a judicial inquiry as the reason they could not discuss whether their offices were told of emerging problems. Ms Mikakos’ office asked that questions be directed to the Premier’s office.
Mr Andrews this week announced the inquiry into the running of the state’s hotel quarantine system. The government has appointed former family court judge Jennifer Coate to run the $3 million probe.
The Department of Health and Human Services on Friday confirmed to The Age there had been a restructure in the department’s senior ranks.
Those changes resulted in deputy secretary Melissa Skilbeck being moved out of the emergency management field. She retains her role as deputy secretary.
Professor Sutton, the public face of the state’s pandemic response, sits directly below Ms Skilbeck in the department’s organisational structure. Unlike his counterpart in NSW, Professor Sutton is not a deputy secretary, meaning he sits three operational tiers below Health Minister Mikakos.
Opposition health spokeswoman Georgie Crozier said Ms Mikakos should resign over the handling of the hotel clusters and an earlier Cedar Meats outbreak.
“If these reports are correct, it looks like a senior bureaucrat has been forced to take the fall for the health minister’s incompetence and continued pressure for her own resignation following the hotel quarantine bungle which has contributed to the continued increase of COVID-19 cases in Victoria,” Ms Crozier said.
More than 20,000 people have spent a mandatory two weeks in the hotels since the quarantine system began in late March.
The Health Department instituted a review of hotel protocols in early June after poor hygiene practices, first reported by The Age, were blamed for the Rydges Hotel outbreak.
More than 20 Rydges on Swanston staff and their close contacts have been infected in the outbreak since it was identified on May 27. The Stamford outbreak started on June 17 and has grown to 35 cases.
Rydges on Swanston was initially a “hot” hotel to where people infected with COVID-19 were directed. In June, Rydges on Swanston stopped taking confirmed COVID-19 patients. The hotel’s first returned travellers were those who disembarked from the Greg Mortimer cruise ship from Uruguay.
Andrew Buntine, a supervising guard contracted to work at Rydges through security firm Elite Protection Services, said guards repeatedly raised concerns with Health Department officials in April and early May about substandard infection-control.
Guards, who Mr Buntine said received 10-minute inductions on hygiene protocols and worked 12-hour shifts, were asked to share elevators with infected returned travellers, some of whom were let out to communal areas including the swimming pool.
Elite’s contract was terminated on May 11. In the weeks before the termination, guards had also expressed concern about infected Cedar Meats workers who were allowed to leave their rooms because they were not subject to strict detention rules.
Paul is a reporter for The Age.
Noel Towell is State Political Editor for The Age