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As South Australian Premier Steven Marshall promises to ‘throw the book’ at a student who allegedly misled contact tracers, epidemiologists fear a punitive response could undermine efforts to trace and contain future outbreaks. By Royce Kurmelovs.

The Woodville Pizza Bar incident

South Australian Premier Steven Marshall.
Credit: Brenton Edwards / AFP

South Australian Premier Steven Marshall stood against a nondescript briefing wall emblazoned with his state’s coat of arms as he shared the news last Friday.

Earlier that morning, he had been informed that, two days into the lockdown that had been called to stem the spread of Covid-19 in working-class suburbs across Adelaide’s north-west, it turned out a crucial piece of information was wrong.

A 36-year-old Spanish national on a temporary graduate visa who had been working as a kitchen hand at a quarantine hotel had also been moonlighting at the Woodville Pizza Bar. When interviewed by contact tracers, he told them he had only ordered a pizza at the shop where a quarantine hotel security guard – a confirmed Covid-19 case – also worked.

The small piece of information fitted with the view forming among health authorities that the state’s outbreak was spreading rapidly from surface contact – in this case, a pizza box. Because modelling suggested a second wave was likely, the decision was made to go into lockdown.

If Marshall could have spun the early end to the lockdown as a win, he instead used the moment to heap blame in an effort to distract from questions about his government’s handling of the situation. In a tense press conference, South Australians watched the premier lash the employee from the Woodville Pizza Bar, partially identifying the student and alleging he had “deliberately misled” contact tracers.

“To say I am fuming about the actions of this individual is an absolute understatement,” Marshall said. “The selfish actions of this individual have put our whole state in a very difficult situation. His actions have affected businesses, individuals, family groups and is completely and utterly unacceptable.”

Although there was still an active 26-person cluster, a 20-detective taskforce was quickly assembled to investigate the man. The premier promised to “throw the book” at him.

The situation took on a kind of mania. Within hours, the social media page for the Woodville Pizza Bar received 21,000 comments. Rumours quickly spread about the business. Some threatened vigilante justice, and a police car had to be stationed outside the shop for safety.

In the days since, the tenor has calmed as Marshall, SA police commissioner Grant Stevens and chief public health officer Professor Nicola Spurrier have sought to re-establish control.

Yet the shifting official narrative, confusion around the cause of the outbreak and ongoing questions about staffing arrangements in hotel quarantine have left officials ducking for cover over their handling of the situation.

Connie Bonaros, of South Australia’s SA-BEST party, sits on the state’s Covid-19 committee and says the Marshall government has been in “damage control” since last Friday.

“Now that things have turned sour, the government is scrambling to save face. And we are completely in the dark about what has actually happened. It beggars belief, really,” Bonaros says. “It all comes down to the questions they were asking during the contact tracing process. At this stage, we don’t know what they are.

“To my knowledge, we’ve never had any specific evidence around the contact tracing process [presented to the Covid-19 committee].”

Though both the SA Public Health Act and Health Care Act guarantee the confidentiality and privacy of a patient, the exact script used by contact tracing teams has never been made public, raising questions about what people are told about how their information may be used and whether it will be kept confidential.

A spokesperson for SA Health did not provide details about what participants are told during the contact tracing process.

“Every case is treated with a high level of sensitivity and any personal information is kept confidential to protect the privacy of individuals,” they said in a statement.

“Our contact tracing follows national guidelines and involves public health officers from the Communicable Disease Control Branch interviewing people with Covid-19 and gathering information to assemble a daily history of their movements in the community.”

University of Melbourne epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely said contact tracing should ideally be treated as an extension of a person’s relationship with their doctor.

“You need the free and frank information for it to work,” Blakely said. “If someone is working a cash-in-hand job, or even if we assume for a moment that they are into something more criminal, so long as that activity is not going to result in mayhem like murder, you respect confidentiality.

“The key for the contact tracers would have been to convey that confidence to the person in front of them. If they don’t mention privacy and confidentiality around things like criminal activity, the South Australian contact tracing briefing does need to include it.”

The Saturday Paper spoke to two people who have been through the state’s contact tracing process and one who had completed a stay in the state’s hotel quarantine regime as a returned traveller. Speaking on condition of anonymity, they described being contacted by phone and could not recall being given information about their rights or assurances that information provided during the conversation would be kept confidential.

Stressing that they had been through the process early on in the pandemic, meaning the process may have evolved since, they described the contact tracers as professional and thorough but also quick to “jump right in”.

There is now concern Premier Marshall’s moment of frustration could undermine the state’s contact tracing efforts in the long run, and in the rest of the nation.

Professor Catherine Bennett, the chair in epidemiology at Deakin University, said SA authorities had “gone too far” by releasing information that could identify the man who had allegedly given false information about working in the pizza shop.

“Contact tracing is built on a trust relationship. To undermine that trust in any way may stop you getting the information that helps you getting that next piece of the puzzle,” Bennett said.

“We know this virus tracks through the community to the less socially connected and most exposed. They’re people who have complex lives and complex stories.

“The risk going forward is not just that people won’t disclose information, they won’t even get tested. And if they don’t get tested, you won’t know where the virus will turn up in the community. And this guy in South Australia, whatever his story, he did get tested voluntarily.”

During the course of its four-month lockdown, Victoria had similar setbacks with contact tracing. In one case, a truck driver told contact tracers he visited two towns when in reality it was three – an omission discovered when a new case was diagnosed in the regional community of Shepparton.

Bennett said threatening people with prosecution creates an incentive not to engage with contact tracers. A person could be moonlighting at a second job, cheating on their partner, involved in criminal activity or have “any number of reasons” they are fearful of speaking with authorities.

Rutgers University sociologist Lee Clarke and human ecology professor Caron Chess have coined the phrase “elite panic” to describe what happens when people in authority act in ways that do not match the actual demands of a crisis, often making things worse in the process. In relation to Covid-19, Clarke said the past eight months have provided many working examples.

“Elites the world over have been panicking since the start of the pandemic,” Clarke said. “This is why we end up with truly ridiculous statements from them like: ‘there are only 15 cases’, ‘let’s all take hydroxychloroquine’ and ‘don’t be afraid of Covid’.

“Whenever you see a platitude or some statement [during a crisis or disaster] that makes you think, ‘That must be an oversimplification or possibly even wrong’, you’ve found a good candidate for further investigation as an instance of elite panic.”

Late on Tuesday, the lawyer acting for the man alleged to have lied to SA authorities released a statement on behalf of his client, who is not fully aware of what has happened as his devices have been confiscated by police for examination.

“He is extremely remorseful and deeply sorry for any part his conduct played in any unnecessary lockdown actions. He did not foresee or intend that things might unfold as they have,” the statement read.

“I am however instructed that some information is not fair, accurate or complete notwithstanding the state government’s comments, and he is concerned he has been all but publicly named.”

The proportionality of the SA government’s response remains under scrutiny as new information about this most recent outbreak emerges. At a press conference on Wednesday morning, Professor Spurrier explained a review of 400 hours’ CCTV footage had found the cluster had actually begun with a security guard and not a hotel cleaner as first thought.

A revamp of the state’s hotel quarantine regime has also been announced, with a dedicated facility to be set up with security to be provided primarily by police. Over the past two months, there have been more than 100 breaches of quarantine across seven hotels in Adelaide.

Asked about growing calls for an independent inquiry into the events of the past fortnight, Premier Marshall said one would be held – but only after the pandemic was over and emergency provisions were lifted.

As for the fate of the man he had outed, the premier said he was committed to seeing him punished.

“I think that we need to have this full investigation and find out what opportunities are open to us. Yes, I do think that there needs to be consequences for this type of behaviour,” Marshall said.

Other than that, he would not comment further – perhaps aware he had already said enough.

This piece was supported by funds from the Google News Initiative.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 28, 2020 as "Tracing against time".

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Royce Kurmelovs is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist and author.