Mr Burnes said the two-day, face-to-face training sessions were run by DHHS and included information on what questions to ask and how to deal with traumatic phone calls.
Mr Burnes said DHHS staffers were also embedded in Helloworld’s two Melbourne offices, which were running contact tracing, to provide support and ongoing training to the company’s staff if needed.
“There was continuous training on the job,” he said. “Obviously nobody had ever done this before. Our people having a connection with the people they were talking to on the phone was very important and that was something they got better at over time.”
The inquiry was established in late October to probe the state government’s handling of the crisis after Victoria’s contact-tracing system buckled during the second wave.
Helloworld won a contract worth $7.6 million to provide contact-tracing workers to the state government earlier this year.
Mr Burnes told the inquiry that to his knowledge, none of the company’s contact tracers had prior medical qualifications and he was not privy to how the multimillion-dollar contract was funded by the government.
“The scripts were continually being updated,” he said. “We were asked to provide feedback into DHHS about the keys issues people were having out there that needed further explanation.”
The Australian Medical Association’s Victorian president, Julian Rait, told the inquiry that general practitioners could bolster the state’s contact-tracing capabilities.
Professor Rait said the culture within the Health Department was “defensive” and it failed to take accountability for its failures in contact tracing.
“When we make a mistake, we have an open disclosure with patients, but that’s not modelled by the department,” Professor Rait said.
“They have been very defensive and kept their imperfections to themselves. There isn’t that sense of humility and that willingness to learn or to admit that perhaps things could be done better. DHHS has to be less defensive and learn to benchmark its performance against other states.”
The government has faced repeated criticism over a failure to properly communicate its public health message with ethnically diverse communities during the pandemic and for sidelining GPs in the contact-tracing process.
Professor Rait said GPs often had the trust of culturally and linguistically diverse communities, many of whom had fled their homelands and did not trust government officials, “but will trust their local GP.”
He said there should be a ministerial taskforce of doctors reporting to Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley.
Professor Rait said during the recent COVID-19 outbreak in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, which delayed the reopening of the state, a nearby respiratory clinic of 15 doctors, many of whom are bilingual, was not notified by the department.
“It seemed to be a real oversight in that situation,” he told the inquiry.
Professor Rait told the inquiry My Health Records and Medicare data should be accessed for every positive coronavirus case to ensure the last GP that treated them was notified and that follow-up care was being provided.
QR codes would help
A US tech firm Salesforce that provides the Health Department with contact-tracing software also told the inquiry the contact tracing would be much more efficient when the state’s centralised QR code was developed.
Michael Bonaddio, the company’s principal architect in Australia, told the inquiry the QR code app would allow contact tracers to more quickly establish where a person of interest had been, instead of relying on information communicated during a telephone call.
The Andrews government is developing a QR code tool that will allow people to check into venues, including restaurants and bars. The centralised system will provide information directly to the Health Department where it will be used to ascertain the movement of COVID-positive people or their close contacts.
“One of the key things that will help accelerate the process is the integration of QR code solutions that can help understand where a person has been and where they’ve checked in automatically,” Mr Bonaddio said.
“All of a sudden you go from a process where you’re asking that information over the phone… [To an automated system that] can save time during the data entry process.”
Salesforce confirmed a report in The Age in September that the company offered contact-tracing services to the Andrews government in March.
Premier Daniel Andrews has previously said his government did not entertain the March offer because its contact-tracing capacity was “swamped” and it was not the right time to switch IT systems.
Pip Marlow, Salesforce’s Australian chief executive, said Victoria requested a presentation from Salesforce in mid-July when more than 100 cases were being recorded each day after COVID-19 leaked from two quarantine hotels. The contract between the two parties was signed in late August.
Ms Marlow said Salesforce did not encounter any problems setting up the digitised system with the Victorian Health Department, which was until that point using a paper-based system.
“We didn’t declare any frustration with the department,” she said, adding that the challenges faced by Victorian health authorities mirrored those in other jurisdictions – including in the US, South Australia and Western Australia – serviced by Salesforce.
The first phase of syncing the Salesforce system with Victoria’s IT system had been completed and two more phases were under way, she said.
The committee also heard from Barwon Health department of infectious diseases director Eugene Athan and deputy director Daniel O’Brien and Deakin University faculty of health Professor Catherine Bennett.
The inquiry continues.
Melissa Cunningham is The Age’s health reporter.
Paul is a reporter for The Age.