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A leaked government document shows more staff in Victoria’s quarantine hotels have tested positive for Covid-19, even after an overhaul of the entire system. By Osman Faruqi.

Exclusive: New Covid-19 cases among staff in hotel quarantine

Almost four months after Victoria’s second wave of Covid-19 broke out, following failures in the state’s hotel quarantine system, there has been a string of further positive cases among staff at quarantine hotels – again involving private contractors.

Government documents obtained by The Saturday Paper reveal that since August 1 there have been at least 12 reports made to the Victorian government of positive cases among staff at two quarantine hotels. None have been publicly disclosed by the state government.

The state’s original hotel quarantine system was overhauled in June after numerous private security contractors caught Covid-19 while guarding international arrivals, and then spread the virus into the community. The infection control failures were largely blamed on the fact private contractors lacked adequate training for working in the high-risk environment.

As Victoria’s second wave picked up speed, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) made a deal to hand over the running of hotel quarantine to Alfred Health, the operator of The Alfred Hospital. The Saturday Paper has learnt Alfred Health in turn subcontracted a significant proportion of the work to its long-term cleaning and security provider, Spotless.

Since international travel into Melbourne was banned on June 29, Alfred Health has operated “health hotels”, also known as “hot” hotels, to quarantine people who have tested positive for Covid-19 but are unable to safely isolate at home. This includes healthcare workers who have contracted the virus, as well as positive cases from public housing towers.

The two “hot” hotels where cases have been reported to government since the start of August are the Brady Hotels Central Melbourne and the nearby Hotel Grand Chancellor. The Grand Chancellor’s involvement with the health hotel program ended on September 14.

Spokespeople for both Brady Hotels and the Hotel Grand Chancellor said the hotels had no role in the operational side of the quarantine program once Alfred Health took over, and that none of their own staff had tested positive for Covid-19. By their description, the hotels effectively leased the property to the state government, which in turn contracted the running of the quarantine program to Alfred Health.

In a draft memorandum of understanding between DHHS and The Alfred, tendered to the ongoing hotel quarantine inquiry, it was agreed that Alfred Health would subcontract a range of cleaning and patient management roles at the health hotels to Spotless, which could, in turn, bring on further subcontracted staff if there were “unavoidable workforce gaps”. Spotless subcontractors are now among the positive Covid-19 cases reported to the government.

The draft MOU notes that subcontracted Spotless staff were responsible for escorting guests during fresh air breaks, delivering parcels and food to rooms, completing health screening questionnaires upon guests’ arrival, moving luggage, cleaning and providing support for Covid-19 swabbing at the “hot” hotels.

Initially, security at the hotels was subcontracted again by Spotless to a private security company, Southern Cross Protection. However, following a request from DHHS, private security guards were replaced by Corrections Victoria staff and Victoria Police on July 17.

The Saturday Paper put detailed questions to Spotless about whether any of its staff at the “hot” hotels were working across multiple worksites when they tested positive. Spotless did not answer those questions but said it complied with all government reporting requirements.

Spotless provides cleaning staff to a range of private sector and government organisations, including schools.

In July, the logistics company took its staff to the Fair Work Commission after half its workforce at a laundry services facility refused to work following reported Covid-19 cases at the site.

Since the state government forced employers to report Covid-19-positive cases on worksites on July 28, more than 30 reports involving Spotless staff have been submitted, including at primary schools in Melbourne. Spotless said multiple notifications could have been made covering the same positive case.

The Saturday Paper cannot confirm whether the staff cases reported from quarantine hotels were the result of transmission from Covid-19-positive guests, or whether the staff working at the hotels acquired the virus elsewhere and were infectious during their shifts.

 

A month after the “hot” hotels were established, Premier Daniel Andrews said these buildings were “essentially” being run as hospitals. “They’re a campus of that health setting,” he said.

By that stage, the government’s own documents show, there had been seven reports of positive staff cases already made to the state government across Brady Hotels Central Melbourne and the Hotel Grand Chancellor, at least one of which was for a subcontracted Spotless employee.

“I’m confident [Alfred Health] have arrangements in place,” the premier said on August 15, “… not only looking after those people who need looking after, but also protecting all of us by doing nothing that would add to the number of cases in the broader Victorian community.”

However, doctors and nurses who work on Covid-19 wards in Melbourne hospitals say the use of subcontracted staff without medical backgrounds or experience in healthcare environments would be highly unusual for the kind of work being undertaken by Spotless contractors at these hotels, such as direct interaction with Covid-19-positive patients.

One intensive care nurse at a major Melbourne hospital said she was “speechless” when she heard that subcontractors were involved in a program designed entirely to quarantine Covid-19-positive guests.

Spotless has used the temporary staffing app Sidekicker to advertise for staff to work in quarantine hotels. One ad said that while experience working in a healthcare environment was “advantageous”, it was not essential, despite the fact staff would be required to interact with Covid-19-positive guests. A spokeswoman for Spotless told Guardian Australia the company had received 600 applications within three hours and “successful candidates undertake a two-step induction process, including an online and in-person training covering communicable diseases, correct use and disposal of PPE”.

In his witness statement to the ongoing hotel quarantine inquiry – which is looking at the first hotel quarantine outbreak, not these new cases – Victoria’s chief health officer, Brett Sutton, acknowledged that the use of a “highly casualised workforce, generally from a lower socioeconomic background” for the provision of security services in quarantine created “transmission risk”.

In further testimony to the inquiry on September 16, Sutton said: “The casualised labour that was involved meant that a number of them had other work that they needed to do, which brought the risk of transmission to other workplaces and other individuals.”

Sutton also told the inquiry that designating particular hotels within the quarantine program as Covid-19 “hot hotels” was not “directly discussed” with him.

He confirmed he had no role in establishing the relationship between the government, Alfred Health, the Hotel Grand Chancellor or the Brady Hotels.

Sutton was asked whether the idea of “a Covid-positive or ‘hot’ hotel clearly represented a risk of transmission from quarantined individuals to contracted staff”. He replied, “Yes.” He agreed a “hot” hotel created an even greater risk than a standard quarantine hotel.

When asked if it would have been best practice to keep these patients quarantined in an infectious diseases ward, Sutton answered, “I think – yes. I think if the capacity is there, in terms of the space and the human resources required, that it’s clear that a clinical setting provides a higher level of clinical care and infection and prevention control than might occur outside of that setting. That’s uncontroversial.”

 

This week, the hotel quarantine inquiry heard further concerns about the use of contract staff in high-risk settings during the original quarantine program. Victoria’s Health minister, Jenny Mikakos, told the inquiry “there is an unacceptable risk in using a largely unskilled and casualised workforce”.

The secretary of DHHS, Kym Peake, said workers involved in the original program “did not have requisite knowledge and skills that were required under their contracts”, and said the new model had improved security and infection control procedures.

The oversight for the current Alfred Health program is now under the Department of Justice and Community Safety (DJCS), after responsibility was transferred from DHHS.

In testimony to the hotel quarantine inquiry on September 8, Alfred Health’s chief operating officer, Simone Alexander, said no distinction was made between Spotless contractors working in security roles who had experience in infection-risk environments and those who did not. “There’s always a need to have a basic or a baseline understanding of infection prevention,” she said.

Alexander told the hotel quarantine inquiry that because there was not a constant police presence on all floors under the current system, Alfred staff were stationed to monitor each floor 24/7 to deal with “escalating behaviours in the rooms or to be able to stop anyone that might want to leave their room”.

The decision to hand over the running of hotel quarantine to Alfred Health came as the state government faced criticism for its oversight of the original hotel quarantine program. A key area of focus for the hotel quarantine inquiry has been staff working across multiple locations, increasing both the infection risk and the chance of community transmission.

Since July 12, in order to minimise transmission risk, Alfred Health staff working in the hotel quarantine program have been rostered to work at only one specific hotel, and they are not able to work any shifts at other Alfred Health sites.

However, Alfred Health acknowledged to the hotel quarantine inquiry that it could not prevent staff from completing shifts with other employers, if they chose to do so. This is a particular concern in relation to subcontracted staff working for Spotless, who may be working multiple jobs with multiple employers – an issue already identified as a factor behind the initial quarantine virus leak.

Neither Alfred Health nor Spotless answered questions about whether staff working at the hotels were also working at other sites.

Alfred Health’s chief operating officer told the hotel quarantine inquiry that she was only aware of “a couple of positive staff members” but had “no evidence to suggest that that’s anything to do with any breakdown of processes or systems within any of the hotels, and I understand that it’s as a result of community transmission”.

The Saturday Paper provided Alfred Health with the dates of the 12 “incident reports” for Covid-19-positive workers at “hot” hotels, filed between August 1 and September 1. A spokesperson said the information was “incorrect” but failed to provide further details. Alfred Health directed further queries to the Department of Justice and Community Safety.

DJCS told The Saturday Paper that no departmental staff working at the hotels had tested positive, but did not answer queries about workers from Alfred Health or Spotless. DJCS said it was “strengthening infection control, professional standards and oversight”.

“If there are a significant number of staff in the quarantine program that have been infected then that poses ongoing risks to the community, as do all infections in high-risk areas,” said Dr Sarah Whitelaw, from the Australian Medical Association. “When you have staff from multiple different businesses that is an additional risk. If anything these [contract] workers need more training and more monitoring than anyone else to ensure that things are working properly.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 26, 2020 as "Exclusive: New Covid-19 cases among staff in hotel quarantine".

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Osman Faruqi is a journalist and the editor of 7am, Schwartz Media’s daily news podcast.