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Melbourne quarantine virus outbreak report

At the outset of the covid-19 pandemic, contract guarding went in at hotels in Melbourne, Australia to quarantine travellers. It was rushed and pressured; without any risk assessment or public health input. That quarantine – brought in to keep covid-19 out of Victoria – became the cause of an outbreak of coronavirus in the state in mid-2020, due to a ‘failure of proper contract management’, an official inquiry found.

A board of inquiry headed by Jennifer Coate, set up in July, heard of cases that guards after a quarantine shift did a second 12-hour shift when they fell asleep; or went ‘to deliver Uber Eats or do cleaning jobs’. As disclosing symptoms of covid-19 to their employer would risk them losing work and income, ‘it created a risk that potentially infected security guards would continue to work within hotels and increase the risk of transmission’, the inquiry reported.

As many security guards as in other countries had their hours reduced or had no work at all, due to first lockdown, they were only keener to take any work. To that risk you can add ‘role creep’ – the guarding at first was assumed to be purely static, but in time guards even bought toys for children and looked after exercise breaks – which ‘ultimately created risks for the entire programme’, according to the inquiry. Among its many recommendations – it ranged over the whole shortcomings of the programme, not just its guarding – the inquiry’s final report asked for a 24-7 police presence on-site at each quarantine site; and Victoria Police now perform security services at such ‘health hotels’.

A little-considered factor was what the inquiry report called ‘aggressive and threatening behaviour of some quarantined travellers towards staff and personnel working in the facilities’. Besides, the inquiry excused the actual guards from blame, as ‘the overwhelming majority’ worked honestly and with goodwill; rather, the inquiry queried whether they should have been brought in to do what they did: ‘enforcement in a quarantine programme was not a static guarding function and therefore not a function for private security to perform’.

Blame for the public health threat due to the quarantine was placed on contract management ‘deficiencies’, and ‘systemic governmental failings’ by the Victorian government. The role of private security was ill-defined from the beginning, the inquiry judged; too much was at stake ‘for the state to have conferred such responsibilities on private security service providers whose ordinary roles were so far removed from infection prevention and control measures’. An example of confusion was the ‘contradictory information given to security guards as to when PPE should have been worn’.

In response to the board’s interim report of November 6, the state government announced a ‘re-set’. A new agency, COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria (CQV), would be set up. Victoria Police would focus on enforcement and compliance at quarantine sites, supported by Australian Defence Force personnel.

The final report in December was voluminous; the chapter on private security alone ran to more than 25,000 words. Visit https://www.quarantineinquiry.vic.gov.au.

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Comment

At the industry body the Australian Security Industry Association (ASIAL), Kevin McDonald, President temporarily stood aside as ASIAL President and asked ASIAL Vice President, John Gellel to act in the role pending the outcome of the inquiry, because his employer was one of the three companies engaged in the quarantine programme. After the inquiry’s final report, he pointed out that the quarantine guards ‘did their duty without receiving adequate government training, equipment or supervision’, at risk to themselves of infection.

He said: “While there will no doubt be a prolonged blame-game played out in coming months, the fact remains that orphan or not – whoever made the decision within government, the Security Industry was called to serve and we answered that call.” For further comment, visit the ASIAL website.


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