“I can see it happening all over again,” said the health worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear she could lose her job. “When [international] flights start again, we (Victoria) will be screwed.”
The government confirmed on Tuesday that nine workers had tested positive to COVID-19 in hotel quarantine since the program was overhauled in late July, including five Spotless employees. The government claimed that none of those people were infected as a result of their work on the hotel quarantine program.
The Age and Herald have confirmed that the COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry, which finished public hearings on Friday, will investigate how those workers became infected.
The new structure was put in place after failure of the Health Department-led hotel quarantine system for returned overseas travellers was blamed for 99 per cent of cases in Victoria’s deadly second wave.
The inquiry into flaws of the previous quarantine program heard evidence that poor infection control practices among private security guards, who were not given adequate safety training, allowed the virus to escape into the community.
On Wednesday, a Department of Justice and Community Safety spokeswoman confirmed Spotless floor monitors at the Novotel had been removed and replaced with police officers. On Tuesday, quarantined people were moved from the Brady Hotel in Melbourne’s CBD to the Novotel.
The Justice Department spokeswoman said there were plans to increase training and infection control standards for the remaining Spotless cleaning staff.
The health worker said she had seen breaches every day at the Brady “hot hotel”, used to house infected people who could not isolate at home. These included floor monitors making mistakes while receiving protective equipment training in areas with infected guests known as “red zones”.
She said she had seen cleaning staff entering incorrect rooms containing COVID-19-positive guests.
“I’m concerned [about] the practice of training brand new staff in a positive environment,” she said.
“We [had] an overabundant number of brand new staff in a very tight and unsafe environment training in red zones.
“They stuff up because they’ve never done a dry run of doffing (removing) their PPE safely.
“It’s so frustrating. I’m always telling new staff to keep their distance or clean their work stations.”
A Spotless spokeswoman said all of its hotel quarantine staff completed PPE- and infection-prevention training and had regular refreshers.
She said adherence to infection-control requirements was routinely checked and staff had to declare daily that they had not worked at another site in the 14 days prior.
Spotless staff are subcontracted by Alfred Health, which the government contracted to provide clinical services. They are not required to have a background in health and previously performed customer service roles within the hot hotel, including grocery checks and assisting nurses with intakes. Justice Department officers now carry out these roles.
The health worker said problems arose from a confusing chain of command, which included the Justice Department, the Health Department and Alfred Health.
“There’s more fingers in the pie than ever and no more accountability,” she said.
Premier Daniel Andrews has described the revised hotel quarantine program as “essentially a hospital”, but on Tuesday he would not answer a question from a journalist about the work performed by Spotless staff and instead referred them to the Justice Department.
Newly appointed Health Minister Martin Foley said the program now sat under the Justice Department, which was in charge of staff acquisition, but “sophisticated, high level support”, including on infection-control protocols, was provided by Alfred and DHHS.
The Justice Department spokeswoman declined to say who was ultimately responsible for infection control, but said there was a clear structure of department managers that staff could raise concerns with.
“We have been strengthening infection-control practices, professional standards and oversight and we have a zero-tolerance approach to any breach,” she said.
The Board of Inquiry agreed to examine the nine recent COVID-19 cases after opposition legal affairs spokesman Ed O’Donohue wrote to the Hotel Quarantine Board of Inquiry on Wednesday.
“Government spokespeople suggest that the workers contracted the virus in the community and not at work in the hotels,” he wrote. “However, no proof has been provided to support this assertion.”
Mr O’Donohue said Alfred Health chief operating officer Simone Alexander had given evidence at the inquiry on infection control at the hotels.
“The evidence to the inquiry, that was essentially uncontested, is that infection control procedures Alfred Health had adopted at the ‘hot’ hotels were superior to those used throughout the hotel quarantine program for returned travellers,” he wrote.
“The suggestion that workers at the two hotels may have been infected from work contact is inconsistent with the evidence at the inquiry.”
Chloe Booker is a city reporter for The Age.