Dan Andrews covid-19 class action
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews (Image: AAP/James Ross)

As Victoria plunged into lockdown again last week attention fell on its embattled hotel quarantine system. This time it was the use of a nebuliser by an asthmatic guest which allegedly caused an outbreak.

But that rabbit warren of blame (including whether the federal government should handle hotel quarantine) obfuscated the true failings of Victoria’s administration.

It is the government’s lack of confidence in tracing a relatively small number of infections (Victoria has only 25 active cases of COVID) which led a cabinet, deeply paranoid of a third wave, to impose a minimum five-day mid-summer lockdown.

That it doesn’t trust its team of more than 2000 contact tracers to handle an outbreak initially involving a dozen or so people is deeply concerning, but not surprising.

It is an open secret that Victoria’s check-in process is often ignored and haphazardly enforced by businesses. I am very rarely asked to check-in at restaurants and am often interrupted during the cumbersome process by employees.

Additionally, Victoria seems far slower than other states at contacting even known contacts. A colleague who had the unfortunate luck of passing through the Melbourne Airport exposure site was contacted by Tasmanian and NSW authorities almost eight hours before their counterparts in Victoria.

The process could be easily fixed but Victoria’s health authorities lack any understanding of customer experience. For a start, removing friction by mandating that businesses adopt a unified tracing system is essential (with contact details saved and requiring only a single tap). Currently there are multiple systems being used, with customers often forced to spend several minutes re-inputting personal information. This discourages compliance and is highly prone to error.

But the myriad clunky systems are only half the problem. They don’t prevent people from not checking in at all or entering false details (only partially alleviated by cross-checking credit card information).

This is solvable though “double opt-in”: after you check in at a venue, you receive an automated SMS with a name confirmation and a unique code. Businesses should then be required to record the code and sight identification before providing service. Businesses who cannot verify customer data should be very heavily fined.

There is a perverse incentive for customers to not accurately check in it as it might avoid the need (however unlikely) to isolate down the track. Meanwhile many businesses don’t care at all about the process.

Trusting people to voluntarily disclose information and failing to understand incentives — along with what appears to be Australia’s slowest-moving tracing team — is the major reason why millions of Victorians are locked down again. Don’t blame the nebuliser.