It looked like Victoria had the situation under control.
Daniel Andrews, the state premier, took a hard line on Covid-19 measures during the first wave of the virus, kept the state’s schools closed despite federal opposition to the stance, and resisted pressure to relax restrictions.
But now his government’s handling of the pandemic has come apart at the seams.
Now Victoria, whose capital is Melbourne, has been sealed off from neighbouring New South Wales, and cases continue to surge.
The new cases have been traced back to significant gaps in the system, including in ‘quarantine hotels’, in which at least one guard is accused of having had sex with one of the people under quarantine.
Rather than placing the hotel system under the direct control of Victoria’s police or health officials, or the Australian Defence Force, the state government opted to contract the task out to private security firms.
Genomic sequencing of the second wave points to Covid-19 spreading from guards at hotel quarantine taking the virus back to their families, some of them in large multi-generational households.
The United Workers Union described the scenario as a “disaster waiting to happen”, with guards receiving insufficient training and PPE, and inexperienced sub-contractors used across several hotels.
One guard anonymously revealed to Australia’s Nine Network that he received five minutes’ training, and the number of guards per level at his hotel worksite had been cut from three to one.
It has also been reported that security guards have not turned up to shifts but still charged for them, leaving hotels inadequately guarded.
Melissa Skilbeck, deputy secretary of the Victorian Health Department, was stripped of her responsibilities days after Mr Andrews announced a judicial inquiry into the quarantine system.
On 29 June, Victoria’s chief health officer, Professor Brett Sutton, admitted the government had not properly engaged with linguistically diverse communities about the coronavirus.
Having slowed the spread of the virus down significantly after its initial surge, Victoria has now recorded at least double-digit daily growth in new cases for 22 days, including 108 new cases on Saturday and 134 new cases on Wednesday, and there are at least 69 cases in the public housing estates under an extreme lockdown.
This week new cases were reported in the Australian Capital Territory, linked to Victorians, and on Wednesday a flight from Melbourne disembarked in Sydney without being screened. Authorities say the 48 passengers were screened before departing Melbourne, but all on board are now being tracked down for testing.
Australian epidemiologist and World Health Organisation adviser Professor Mary-Louise McLaws told The Project that the Victorian surge in Covid-19 cases was the result of “lifting restrictions, not taking control of clusterings”, creating a “perfect storm” that could spread throughout the country.
“Sadly it’s a coming together of a lot of issues that have caused this spike… And it’s something that the authorities could have been proactively identifying and working against, had they identified family clusterings earlier, to try to give them verbal instructions on how to prevent further infection,” she said.
Mr Andrews has been criticised by some as too cautious, and the State Opposition and some Federal Liberal Party MPs had branded him a “dictator” for keeping restrictions in place, Professor McLaws said the Victorian government had “definitely” lifted restrictions too soon.
“There have been many cases of this overseas and we need to learn from our own observations of Melbourne… But also from overseas, South Korea, Israel, they had definitely a second wave, not just a spike, when they lifted restrictions too soon… They didn’t test enough, and of course they didn’t wear masks in public.”
Professor McLaws urged Victorians to stay at home, and Melbournians to not go to regional areas.
“During an outbreak, you don’t just control the numbers, you don’t just look to see how you’re going, but you actually have to bring along the people with their hearts and their minds to trust you.”
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