During two meetings of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), Victoria’s Chief Health Officer came under pressure to explain why almost half of the close contacts from the cluster linked to the Melbourne Airport Holiday Inn were not contacted within the benchmark 48-hour period on Tuesday.
The AHPPC consisting of chief health officers from each state and territory and chaired by the Australian Chief Medical Officer, met late on Thursday night and again on Friday morning to discuss Melbourne’s latest outbreak.
According to three sources familiar with the meeting, Victorian health officials were challenged on contact tracing data that showed 8.9 per cent of close contacts were not contacted within 48 hours on Monday and, by Tuesday, that number had risen to 43.7 per cent before dramatically falling later in the week.
One meeting participant told the Herald that, while Victoria had “vastly improved its contact tracing”, some jurisdictions had expressed concerns about keeping the borders open, given the delay in reaching close contacts.
NSW on Friday night remained the only state or territory not to impose border restrictions on Victoria, with Premier Gladys Berejiklian saying the state would screen all passengers returning from Victoria at Sydney Airport. Anyone arriving by road or rail would be required to complete a declaration form.
“The border between NSW and Victoria will remain open,” Ms Berejiklian said in a statement. “NSW Health continues to monitor the situation closely.”
People who crossed into NSW from Victoria after midnight Friday are only permitted to leave their homes to shop for essential items, medical and other care and caregiving, exercise, and essential work. The NSW government has strongly advised against all non-essential travel to Victoria.
Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews described the British variant as “hyper infectious”, moving at “hyper-speed”.
“This thing is not the 2020 virus … it is moving at a velocity that has not been seen anywhere in our country over the course of these last 12 months,” he said.
The Australian Open tennis tournament will continue despite the lockdown, though crowds will be banned from Saturday.
Any NSW resident in Victoria should not enter NSW unless they have permission to do so and anyone from NSW who had been in Victoria since midnight Friday must abide by Victoria’s snap lockdown measures and self-isolate for the next five days under the new Public Health Order.
NSW recorded its 26th consecutive day of zero new locally acquired cases from 14,518 tests reported during the 24 hours to 8pm on Thursday, compared with the previous day’s total of 16,397.
NSW government sources said the Victorian government’s virus rhetoric on Friday reflected a level of alarm that was not shared in NSW.
“Dan Andrews is jumping at shadows,” a NSW minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. “He knows in his heart he can’t trust his own system.”
Ms Berejiklian was “instinctively cautious” and the most conservative voice in managing the pandemic in the NSW cabinet, a minister said. “That’s why you have the approach that we have.”
Victorian health officials were concerned about exposure to the virus by people who had visited the Brunetti cafe at Melbourne Airport Terminal 4, where one of the newly identified COVID-19 cases worked.
The terminal is largely used for Jetstar flights, including those to Sydney. Between 4000 and 5000 people are believed to have passed through the terminal during the exposure period.
Anyone in NSW who was at any terminal of Melbourne Airport on Sunday or Monday has been directed to come forward for testing and self-isolate until they receive a negative result.
Anyone who was at Terminal 4 between 4.45am and 2pm on Tuesday is being urged to get tested immediately and self-isolate for 14 days, regardless of the test result.
Household contacts of people who were at Terminal 4 at this time were also asked to self-isolate until the person received a negative test result.
with Mary Ward
Annika is state political editor for The Age.
Kate Aubusson is Health Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.
Lucy Cormack is a state political reporter with The
Sydney Morning Herald.