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Bureaucrat denied Andrews’ request for infected travellers to quarantine away from CBD

Instead, Melissa Skilbeck, then Professor Sutton’s boss as deputy secretary of the health department, said one hotel had already agreed to take infected guests – the Rydges on Swanston.

“At this late stage of planning it would be risky to seek to convince another hotel to contract to take such guests,” Ms Skilbeck wrote.

Victorian health department deputy secretary Melissa Skilbeck at the hotel quarantine inquiry this week.

Victorian health department deputy secretary Melissa Skilbeck at the hotel quarantine inquiry this week.

Ms Skilbeck was suddenly removed from her position handling the emergency response to the pandemic on July 3 as the fallout from hotel quarantine failures escalated. Mr Andrews and Chief Health Officer Professor Sutton have refused to explain her demotion.

On Saturday the Premier announced seven deaths and 21 new cases of coronavirus – the lowest since June 20. The state remains on track for restrictions to be eased slightly on September 28.

“These numbers tell a powerful story of what can be achieved when you stay the course,” Mr Andrews said.

About 90 per cent of Victoria’s second wave of infection can be traced to infections among staff and security guards at the Rydges on Swanston in late May. They were at higher risk because of the number of positive cases in the hotel.

The Rydges on Swanston became a 'hot' hotel that hosted COVID-positive travellers from other hotels.

The Rydges on Swanston became a ‘hot’ hotel that hosted COVID-positive travellers from other hotels.Credit:Penny Stephens

The Premier’s office refused on Saturday to answer questions on why he wanted COVID-positive travellers to quarantine at a hotel away from the CBD in April and whether Ms Skilbeck’s inability to fulfil his request had played a role in her demotion.

“We will not run a commentary on the ongoing work of the judicial inquiry,” a spokeswoman for the Premier said.

Emails between Victoria’s health executives show their urgent preparations for a 112-person flight of Greg Mortimer cruise ship guests who had been in Antarctica that was due to land from Uruguay on April 12. Eighty of the passengers were COVID-positive.

On April 9, Kym Peake, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, wrote to several executives including Professor Sutton and the then deputy chief health officer Dr Annaliese van Diemen, then state controller Andrea Spiteri and Ms Skilbeck.

“Flight will be proceeding,” Ms Peake wrote at 7pm. “Annaliese – I think now is the time to reflect your suggestion of two flights to separate people who have not tested positive.

“Premier has also requested that we use a hotel that is close to the airport, not in the CBD. If possible could we say tonight which hotel that would be? If not, we can confirm with everyone as soon as possible.”

Ms Skilbeck responded 45 minutes later.

“We have one contracted hotel who is ready willing and able to accept COVID-positive guests – Rydges Swanston Street,” the health department deputy secretary wrote.

“At this late stage of planning it would be risky to seek to convince another hotel to contract take such guests.”

An upbeat Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton announcing 21 new cases on Saturday.

An upbeat Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton announcing 21 new cases on Saturday.Credit:Penny Stephens

The hotel quarantine inquiry, chaired by former judge Jennifer Coate, has heard of the hasty establishment of the program and ineffective infection control measures in hotels, where some security guards failed to use personal protective equipment correctly and guests were sometimes allowed to exercise in neighbouring lanes and streets.

Ms Spiteri, who was state controller from February to July, told the inquiry this week that Victoria wanted to concentrate COVID-positive travellers into one hotel to reduce the number of sites with high-risk guests.

This is the first time it has been revealed that Mr Andrews wanted that hotel to be near the airport, not the CBD.

On Saturday, Melbourne’s 14-day COVID case average was 39.3 per day – safely within the 30 to 50 range for the city to move to step two out of restrictions on September 28, when outdoor gatherings of up to five people from two households will be allowed.

Mr Andrews said Saturday’s tally of 21 was proof the government’s strategy was working and encouraged Victorians to continue to get tested after almost 11,900 tests were conducted up to Saturday.

“Logic, common sense, international, our own experience shows us that you can’t hope to keep numbers low until you first get them low … we’ve got to see this thing off,” he said.

Professor Sutton said a cluster of 34 people in the city of Casey, in Melbourne’s south-east, was under control by Saturday, while 89 Victorians were in hospital including eight in intensive care. Six of Saturday’s seven deaths were linked to aged care.

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