Second outbreak of Covid-19 in Victoria

It is clear that, after our initial success in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, Australians are disappointed and even angry that we have been thrown back into lockdown. Rates of infection have, relatively speaking, shot up.

The entire Melbourne Metro area has been locked down, residents of high rise towers have been placed under virtual house arrest, and the economy has screeched to a halt, again.

This has caused a cascading effect, where the other states are keen to blame Victoria, and some Victorians are equally keen to blame Dan Andrews and his Government. The Government, in an attempt to divert attention away from the cause of the outbreak, at least until it is contained, has scheduled a judicial inquiry, commencing on July 20.

What went wrong?

Returning Australians are required to quarantine for fourteen days on arriving in Australia. It is compulsory, and they are tested for the virus while in quarantine. At the end of quarantine, they go home. It was a system employed around Australia, with Melbourne and Sydney taking the bulk of the returnees. The system was very effective until the outbreak in Melbourne.

It appears that the Government turned to contract labour firms to provide essential security staff at the quarantine hotels. These companies, in their turn, then sub-contracted the work out to other labour hire companies. There is doubt as to who contracted the security contractors, as the Health Minister denies hiring them.

Compounding the problem, the Government had a list of approved providers. One of the companies contracted was not on the approved list. The contracts also appear to have been granted without a tendering process. One explanation for this is the haste with which the arrangements were put into place.

Notwithstanding any contract irregularities, as the chain of responsibility lengthened, so did the Government’s control of the situation weaken. Genomic sequencing of the outbreak has traced it back to the quarantine hotels. So there seems little to investigate. We know where the outbreak started, we know that many of the security guards became infected, and we also know that some then transmitted it to their families, and so on. What was the reasoning behind the decision to outsource the security work?

Why did the Government outsource?

Outsourcing is akin to the ‘cargo cult’ of old, where believers think that if you cut costs you will reap an immediate benefit, with no downside. It is usually implemented without adequate research, with very little evidence supporting the practice, and it is often ‘imported’ because it is reported as a rising trend overseas.

It has a number of problems however, the most important of which is a trade-off between cost and quality. There is ample evidence that the more important the function, the higher the risk of an expensive failure. There is also a compulsion to overstate savings, which almost never eventuate.

Although the New South Wales Government used some private security in their own hotel quarantine system, they mainly used Police and ADF members. It appears to be a matter of some luck that they did not suffer an outbreak similar to Victoria’s. Such is life.

Health Minister Jenny Mikakos on Friday said her department was not responsible for hiring private security guards to work at the hotels. Again, who hired them then?

Who is responsible for the outbreak?

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton, along with other public health staff, was warned of major problems with the scheme in April, more than a month before the first outbreak was detected.

Professor Sutton is fourth in the chain of command at the Department of Health and Human Services’ Regulation, Health Protection, and Emergency Management Division. He reports to Melissa Skilbeck, who has subsequently been stripped of many of her responsibilities in the Division. This seems premature, considering the inquiry has not started yet.

The problems included an inadequate supply of masks and gloves, poor infection-control systems, inadequate training in even the most basic hygiene protocols, and open breaches of physical-distancing guidelines by hotel staff, security and health personnel. Poor literacy and English language skills were cited as aggravating factors, and the lack of preparation time made the situation even worse, as did the fractured lines of command. Who was in charge? Was it hotel management, or the security provider, the Health Department or the federal Department of Immigration?

Some of the guards were provided at the last minute, and were unsupervised, as is often the case with labour hire staff. Some of them are alleged to have been less than professional in their interactions with each other, and more worryingly, with some of the quarantining guests.

Another problem is that the qualifications framework within the security industry is considered haphazard at best, and criminally inept at worst. There is widespread confusion as to the minimum standards required, and there is apparently a black market for bogus security officer’s certificates.

There is a two tier system, between registration and licensing, which weakens definitions and position descriptions. The industry has been the subject of a disparate number of investigations by the Fairwork Commission, due to its record of wage theft, and also its use of sham contracting. Many guards are paid in cash, and are employed under their own ABNs. This means that many are without any sort of leave entitlements, no workcover insurance, and no superannuation. Such conditions can lead to over working, unsafe practices and exploitation by employers. There is no real union representation.

Several were rumoured to be working two jobs during the hotel quarantine period, which led to fatigue and possible under-performance. It has been reported that several were employed at more than one location during this period of time. This might have increased the risk.

Any lessons to be learned?

Many of us have laid the blame for the outbreak firmly at the guards’ feet. They were undertrained, under resourced, under supervised, underrepresented and chronically underpaid. They were undervalued, as was the role they were expected to play. No matter who employed them, it was our public health being protected, and there was a cavalier disregard for the importance of the task. Whoever was in charge of the hotel quarantine project failed. They should have thought it through. The guards deserved better.

On a systemic level, perhaps it is time in the 21st century to put aside our arrogance and our sense of entitlement. They are security guards. They are doing a job most Australians turn their noses up at. And many are recent migrants. Perhaps we could reflect on the fact that most of our forebears were migrants, and every man or woman deserves to be treated with some respect, and to be given consideration. When did we start throwing the vulnerable to the wolves?

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Mark Buckley is a writer based in regional Victoria. He has a particular interest in politics, history and ethics in public life. He blogs at www.askbucko.com

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