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Melbourne quarantine virus outbreak details

Outsourcing such a critical function as security should have warranted closer scrutiny by the government, the board of inquiry report into the scandal of failings in Victoria’s hotel quarantine programme for travellers from March 2020 argued.

Guard firms ‘simply could not have been expected to have had the specific expertise or experience in infection prevention control and use of personal protective equipment’ to assess such risks and know how to train staff. Contracts did not reference training and PPE; as the inquiry pointedly remarked, if the state government could not tell the contract firms what the public health standards were, how could the firms know?! Unsurprisingly, it meant that the three contractors did PPE – disposable gloves, hand sanitiser and so on – differently. This had consequences for the risk of transmission within hotels. The inquiry heard testimony of bad practice, such as guards ignoring social distancing and hygiene, even becoming offended when nurses said they needed to wear their masks, and throwing PPE on the floor instead of disposing of it correctly. One sub-contracted guard told the inquiry he was told ‘nothing’ and had no mask or PPE; and was provided with hand wash, not sanitiser.

As for other shortcomings, the inquiry heard from one quarantined woman that she flirted with security guards to receive more fresh air breaks; a guard asked to stay with her at her house after her quarantine period (she declined). As for other complaints about guard behaviour such as drinking alcohol on the job, the inquiry found these were not ‘systemic or widespread’ and that the guard firms took action; but it did show up the ‘significant challenges’ as the inquiry put it, caused by so much sub-contracting (the three main firms used 19 subbies). The inquiry found that the three main contractors ‘did not comply with their obligations to seek prior written approval to use sub-contractors’. Many guards were recruited online, such as through Gumtree or WhatsApp. As the inquiry noted, there is a question of power in the hands of main contractors; sub-contractors would not want to risk a steady stream of work, let alone during the lockdown.

The inquiry heard from guards of a lack of document checks or training by contractors. As many guards lived in crowded or dense housing, that created an infection risk. Guards also worked at other hotels and further afield; again, a transmission risk.

In the inquiry’s forensic examination of the affair, at 3pm on Friday, March 27, 2020, the Premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews (who did not resign over the scandal) told a press conference that returned travellers would be housed in hotels, motels, caravan parks, and student rooms for their 14-day self-isolation; starting at midnight Saturday; in other words, barely over a day away.

The ‘Hotel Quarantine Program’ was regarded by the Victorian Government as a necessary and justified risk mitigation strategy to prevent spread in the transmission of COVID-19. It meant a lot of hard work by officials, quickly; such as booking thousands of hotel rooms, arranging for the feeding of people; and contract guarding and cleaning; but as the report put it in its chapter on guarding, the procurement was by people ‘without relevant knowledge and expertise’. That sourcing of private security firms was tasked to Alex Kamenev, Deputy Secretary at the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions (DJPR), who delegated it to other DJPR executives; who then further delegated the task to Katrina Currie, Executive Director, Employment Outcomes, DJPR who was there on secondment.

As for the tendering, the report found evidence of a DJPR WhatsApp group chat about suitable companies (with such remarks as ‘cowboy industry’ and some presumably viler remarks redacted); the staff were indeed re-inventing the wheel; meanwhile on a website was a list of vetted security companies. As a sign of how ignorant Currie was of the industry she was looking to procure from, the inquiry found she ‘did not comprehend that sub-contracting was the way the industry worked’.

She made contact by Saturday morning with two security companies and one of them, a tiny Aborigine-owned firm called Unified Security Group (Australia) Pty Ltd (Unified), provided guards by Sunday morning and got the lion’s share of the work later. Such procurement – Unified was not on the State Purchase Contract – was ok because the pandemic met the definition of an emergency, although Unified ‘relied entirely on small sub-contractors’. Allocation of hotels to security companies was not based on any proper assessment of the respective companies’ capacity and suitability to undertake the work, the inquiry reported. Unified was preferred to other firms that had experience of related work; at courts, hospitals and detention centres. Yet (as so often) Unified was the most expensive. As the report showed, one of Unified’s sub-contractors worked on 13 hotels, unmonitored, including a so-called ‘hot hotel’ that was the centre of a highly publicised covid outbreak.

Three private security companies, MSS Security Pty Ltd (MSS), Wilson Security Pty Ltd (Wilson) and Unified were engaged to provide the services of security guards as part of the enforcement regime; at first verbally, then in writing. Thousands of guard from the three firms (albeit many sub-contracted) were present at all of the quarantine hotels until their removal in early July, after a spend of A$60m, roughly £25m. Who decided? As the inquiry put it: “Despite examination and cross-examination, evidence, submissions and counter-submissions, no person, agency, minister or department has been willing or able to identify that the engagement of private security commenced as a result of some action, instruction, agreement or understanding on their own part.”

The role of that hotel security ‘changed significantly’ from static guarding with minimal contact with those quarantining, to including bag searches, food and care package deliveries – including Easter eggs and Mother’s Day presents – and the supervision of exercise. This raised questions: what about PPE (personal protective equipment, as required in the contracts)? Luggage handling was not in the contract agreement; were bag searches lawful – police were generally not on the scene, and did not have to be called for very often, and in any case had many other things to do. Those fresh air breaks meant a ‘much more complex role that included the potential for direct contact with those guests and contact with surfaces and spaces’. However, the inquiry found ‘re-evaluation and risk assessment did not occur was because no person or agency regarded themselves as responsible for the initial decision to engage private security’.

The government contracts explicitly recognised the risk of transmission of covid-19 to security guards; and ‘sought to transfer liability for that harm to the security companies’. This according to the inquiry was ‘not appropriate’.

Another problem was governance; another state body, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) was responsible for returned travellers’ health and well-being; its officers were ‘in charge’ of people in quarantine at hotels. DHHS should have managed the head contracts, the inquiry said. Indeed hotel accommodation contracts were transferred to DHHS on July 1.

At the time, going with private security was uncontroversial, in public and private. As the report said, Victoria Police had worked successfully with private security on major sporting and other events. Guards work at Parliament House; police headquarters. Private sector flexibility was necessary because arrival numbers to go into quarantine changed every day. The initial conception of the role private security contractors were to perform was the role of static guards or sentinels, ‘to ensure guests remained in their rooms’, and would have very limited contact with returned travellers.

The problem was as the report identified ‘infection control’ of a ‘highly infectious virus’; who would tell the guards what to do? Guards were taking guests for smoking and fresh air breaks, and transporting luggage to guests’ rooms, which meant that they moved through potentially contaminated areas or had the potential to interact with covid-positive guests.

In Australia, private security has long been regulated at state level. During the quarantine, and starting before the pandemic, the private security industry was the subject of a review by the Victorian Government, because of concerns about poor training, many guards as recent immigrants not having good English and use of casual labour hire; ironically, the ‘prevalence of subcontracting’.

The inquiry more generally noted that there was no plan for the large-scale detention of international arrivals into a mandatory quarantine when the National Cabinet decision was announced. Those who would have to implement the programme in Victoria had to do so without warning and without any available blueprint. Premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews was aware that there was no plan for a large-scale quarantine in Victoria; but there was ‘clear evidence’ that returned travellers posed a serious risk of carrying the virus into Victoria.

The inquiry acknowledged the quarantine was a ‘complex logistical operation’. It was known from the beginning that it would take a workforce of thousands to cater for thousands of returned travellers, running 24 hours.

For the inquiry visit https://www.quarantineinquiry.vic.gov.au/. For the Victorian government’s response visit https://www.vic.gov.au/hotel-quarantine-inquiry-victorian-government-response.


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