Governments must learn from hotel quarantine failures

Astonishing details have emerged about the hotel quarantine worker at the centre of South Australia’s COVID-19 outbreak and hard lockdown:

At least 20 detectives are investigating the Adelaide pizza shop where an employee on a temporary graduate visa lied to contact tracers, plunging South Australia into the hardest lockdown in the country.

The worker, who initially claimed he was a customer at the Woodville Pizza Bar, is a 36-year-old Spanish man, lawfully in Australia on a temporary graduate visa which is due to expire in mid-December…

Authorities originally thought the man in question had contracted the virus after buying a pizza from the shop, sparking fears the Parafield coronavirus cluster was the result of a possible “super strain” being transmitted through food packaging.

Instead, the man had worked shifts at the pizza bar where he was infected while working alongside a security guard who had contracted the virus at the Peppers Waymouth quarantine hotel in Adelaide’s CBD. The Spanish man also worked as a kitchen hand at another quarantine hotel, the Stamford Hotel.

The Guardian has pinned blame squarely on the South Australian Government for employing transient workers at quarantine hotels:

In [Premier] Marshall’s eyes the facts were simple: a security guard at Adelaide’s Peppers medi-hotel was infected with Covid-19. They also worked at the Woodville Pizza Bar in the city.

A second worker at another medi-hotel – The Stamford – had also become infected. Marshall said that worker “deliberately” lied, telling contract tracers he had only ordered from the restaurant, when he had actually been working there. This alleged lie led authorities to believe the cluster was much more widespread and more infectious than it really was, leading them to impose the wide-scale lockdown…

In some ways it was a convenient out for the state premier and health authorities who were feeling the heat over a decision to outsource security work in the state’s quarantine hotels. Low pay and a failure to regularly test workers had put them at risk and caused what many thought was a second wave.

Ryan Batchelor, executive director of the McKell Institute in Victoria said the framing of the announcement worked to direct blame on an individual worker when there were real systematic issues that needed to be addressed.

“It seemed like the authorities were saying: largely this is the fault of the person who lied to us,” Batchelor said. “The danger here is that this is portrayed as the actions of one person when it actually points to some more systemic issues with the way we work.

“The fact remains that this kind of thing could happen tomorrow, or next week, or in the future as long as we have workers who are engaged on contracts, as casuals, with no securities who are being put on the frontline of a global health pandemic.”

Spot on. The use of transient, low-paid private security working multiple jobs across hotel quarantine and other areas seeded Victoria’s second wave. The failures were well documented. So why didn’t the South Australian Government learn?

Australia’s governments cannot afford to repeat such simple mistakes. With Australia almost eliminating local transmission of the virus, the only pathway for future COVID-19 outbreaks is via importation from abroad via quarantine breaches:

Our governments must stop contracting-out quarantine to transient and low-paid workers and utilise highly trained (and well paid) staff with robust knowledge in infection control.

Effective quarantine is Australia’s number one defence against the virus. It is Australia’s number one risk area and where the greatest emphasis and resources from our governments must be placed. No other COVID-19 mitigation measure comes close to having an robust quarantine system.

Australia’s governments simply must get quarantine right if we are to avoid further damaging virus outbreaks. They cannot continue to cut corners and make the same lazy mistakes.

Unconventional Economist
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