Australia

People may have left Victorian hotel quarantine unaware they had coronavirus, inquiry hears


A returned traveller was released from Victoria’s hotel quarantine while infected with COVID-19 and passed it on to the person who drove them home, an inquiry has heard.

The person was released from the Stamford Plaza hotel in Melbourne’s CBD after completing their mandatory 14-day quarantine and was unaware they had the virus.

At the time, COVID-19 testing was voluntary and available only to returned travellers with symptoms.

Those who did test positive to the virus, meanwhile, could not be held in hotel quarantine longer than 14 days and were told to continue to self-isolate at home.

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton concedes there could have been other returned travellers who left quarantine unaware they had the virus.

“They would have been questioned as to whether they had any symptoms, and would have been released on the basis that they were declaring that they were symptom-free.” Professor Sutton told Victoria’s hotel quarantine inquiry on Wednesday.

In late June, it was revealed about 30 per cent of returned travellers in hotel quarantine had refused testing.

New laws were introduced on 1 July, which forced returned travellers to spend an extra 10 days in hotel quarantine if they refused a COVID-19 test on their eleventh day.

By that stage, the virus had already spread from travellers to hotel staff and security guards and then into the community, sparking the state’s deadly second wave.

In Professor Sutton’s statement to the inquiry, he states he was not involved in the decision to hire private security guards to oversee guests.

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“Until there were outbreaks, I was not in fact aware that they were using security guards,” he states.

“With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that using a highly casualised workforce, generally from a lower socio-economic background, where that means that poor leave provisions limit how one can care for and financially support one’s family if unwell.”

Professor Sutton is also expected to be questioned over a decision to abandon the state’s pandemic plan.

The inquiry has previously heard Department of Health and Human Services bureaucrats Jason Helps and Andrea Spiteri jointly held the role of state controller during the pandemic, before the DHHS secretary Kym Peake stepped into the role herself in late July.

Under the state’s plan for an influenza pandemic, developed in 2015, the chief health officer is supposed to assume the role of state controller and the “overall responsibility for emergency response operations”.

Professor Sutton did not agree with the decision to abandon the plan.

Both Mr Helps and Ms Spitieri will give evidence to the inquiry on Wednesday, as will Deputy Chief Health Officer Annaliese van Diemen.

Dr van Diemen is no longer involved with the state’s COVID-19 response, having returned to her former role overseeing other communicable diseases in late July.

Metropolitan Melbourne residents are subject to Stage 4 restrictions and must comply with a curfew between the hours of 9pm and 5am. During the curfew, people in Melbourne can only leave their house for work, and essential health, care or safety reasons. 

Between 5am and 9pm, people in Melbourne can leave the home for exercise, to shop for necessary goods and services, for work, for health care, or to care for a sick or elderly relative. The full list of restrictions can be found here.

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All Victorians must wear a face covering when they leave home, no matter where they live.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus


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