COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry in Melbourne
COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry in Melbourne (Image: AAP/James Ross)

The Andrews government is continuing to take fire over its COVID-19 hotel quarantine bungle, with a war erupting yesterday over the largely irrelevant question of whether or not Victoria rejected defence force assistance.

The problem with this judicial inquiry and yesterday’s parliamentary inquiry is that they’re focused on completely the wrong failure.

Whether or not Victoria’s increasingly deadly second wave was caused by poorly trained and woefully paid security guards isn’t the point. It’s the political equivalent of burying the lead.

What seems to have been forgotten in the rush to demonise Andrews is that the federal government had not mandated hotel quarantine at all — in fact the week before Victoria forced the quarantine issue, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was still allowing indoor gatherings of 100 people.

Like the UK, returning travellers from global hotspots were allowed to freely isolate at home and spread the virus among the community — as many wealthy Aspen skiers did

The quarantine program was an excellent idea pushed by Andrews that was unfortunately poorly executed by a stressed and ultimately incompetent area of Victoria’s public service.

But Victoria was hardly alone using security guards. Not only did other states use similar security guards, they are still doing so. Remarkably, yesterday a Western Australian guard entered a quarantining couple’s hotel room looking for TV remote control.

The unforgivable error in the Victorian response was not the hotel quarantine, but the utter failure to prepare for a second wave.

From late March when we became aware of COVID-19’s high reproduction rate, the playbook in dealing with an outbreak was shown by countries like Taiwan and Singapore who had experience dealing with SARS.

High levels of testing and tracing and targeted lockdowns are essential to avoid shutting down an entire economy (which itself has significant human costs).

Victoria had three full months to get testing and tracing infrastructure set up. That is the ability to tests hundreds of thousands of people each day and get results back in 24 hours. In the midst of a pandemic, three months is like a lifetime.

The requirement for rapid and widespread testing is even more critical because the virus doesn’t present symptoms in more than half the carriers. When an outbreak occurs, there are thousands of unwitting spreaders. Unless people are tested quickly and results rapidly returned, the virus will inevitably spread.

Critically, testing needs to be done across the entire at-risk population, not merely the minority of people who are symptomatic. This column was warning of the danger of not testing asymptomatic cases as far back as early April.

The highly asymptomatic nature of COVID-19 may explain why Victorian healthcare workers and those in aged care are showing such an elevated positive infection rate.

It is difficult to find a precise number but there are about 100,000 healthcare workers in Victoria, and about 1100 active healthcare COVID-19 cases (so about 1% of the workforce). This is compared with the entire population in Victoria where 0.12% are active carriers.

While health workers are obviously far more exposed to the virus, most aren’t on the front line. The heightened infection rate can be explained by Victoria testing all health workers rather than just those showing symptoms.

To show how slow Victoria was to respond, we created a basic comparison of Victoria’s test numbers v positive cases:

Victoria’s positive cases started rapidly accelerating in on June 17 when 21 cases were recorded. By June 27 that rose to 40; by July 4 it hit 101. However, look at the actual test numbers during that critical outbreak period:

Mon 15 Jun 4012
Tue 16 Jun 5030
Wed 17 Jun 8931
Thu 18 Jun 12400
Fri 19 Jun 14671
Sat 20 Jun 9504
Sun 21 Jun 15400
Mon 22 Jun 6314
Tue 23 Jun 8149
Wed 24 Jun 20999

Alarm bells should have been ringing very loudly on 15 June when cases increased to 12 (having dropped to zero a week earlier). As a comparison, Auckland was locked down today after a single family tested positive. Yet instead of urgently ramping up testing and ensuring tracing, Victoria was in the midst of a different issue.

On June 16 Labor cabinet minister Marlene Kairouz resigned following a branch-stacking controversy, while Andrews had spent the best part of a month dealing with factional politics. Meanwhile the virus was quietly escaping from hotel quarantine.

Even as cases drastically increased in late June, testing was slow to respond. On June 22 and 23, when it should have been testing 100,000-plus people a day, Victoria was barely testing anyone. Even now, with the state crippled by stage four restrictions, the Department of Health and Human Services website is still advising Victorians that they do not require a test even if they are a close contact of someone who has recently tested positive.

The stage four lockdown is a result of the Victorian government’s inability to properly manage the outbreak. The only option left to eliminate the spread (if that remains the goal) was to essentially destroy the economy at a cost of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of people’s livelihoods. 

Forget hotel quarantine — that was an excellent idea poorly executed. There was no excuse for the Andrews government and DHHS not creating adequate testing and tracing infrastructure, despite having three months to prepare. 

The inquiry is looking at the wrong stuff-up.