Patient zero in Victoria’s disastrous second wave of coronavirus was a staff member at a hotel housing returned travellers – not a misbehaving security guard.
The deadly outbreak, which has killed 255 Victorians in just two months and sent the entire state back into lockdown, was initially linked to private contractors employed to guard quarantined guests.
But leaked emails seen by The Age reveal the case that sparked the second wave was a night duty manager at one of Melbourne’s busiest quarantine hotels.
The man, who has not been identified, reported to his superiors on May 25 that he had a high fever and COVID-19 symptoms.
Passengers from Melbourne arrive in Sydney amid Victoria’s second wave
Daniel Andrews’ government is facing mounting criticism as the state’s coronavirus crisis deepens
He tested positive to the deadly respiratory virus the following afternoon and immediately isolated at the hotel he worked at.
Authorities believe he contracted the virus from a returned traveller.
Following the confirmed diagnosis, seven guards from a private security firm who worked shifts at the same time as the man were required to undergo urgent testing.
A small number of hotel and health staff the duty manager came into contact with were also stood down and asked to self isolate.
Coaches wait for their police motorbike escort to take passengers to hotel quarantine off a flight from Melbourne at Sydney International Airport on August 8
Jennifer Coate will be running the inquiry into the botched hotel quarantine program
The hotel did everything possible to contain the virus after learning of patient zero, but it was too late.
Five of the contractors tested positive, taking it home to their families and friends in western and northern Melbourne.
That cluster sparked the current outbreak, which has exploded into more than 15,000 cases.
An infected Victorian travelled to New South Wales and unwittingly spread the infection across state lines, forcing the border reclosure in Queensland.
Recently arrived overseas travellers get off their bus and wait to check in at the hotel in Melbourne ahead of their quarantine
The second wave has infected 15,863 Victorians, including 7,866 active coronavirus cases. To date, 275 people have died of COVID-19 in Victoria.
The Department of Health and Human Services was responsible for managing infection control during the program.
A source close to the debacle told The Age: ‘The suggestion that security guards ever had responsibility for infection control is one of the biggest myths of this debate.
‘Private and public hospitals use security guards, but those guards don’t deliver babies, perform surgery or oversee infection control. Full responsibility for infection control lay with the authorised officers who were brought in from various government departments.’
The bungled program – which has been plagued by accusations of private contractors sleeping with infected guests and lacking basic training for the job – is now the subject of an independent inquiry.
Former state coroner Jennifer Coate will examine the role the hotel quarantine program has played in the second wave of COVID-19, which has been far more deadly than the initial outbreak.
Two people are seen moving a bed in the CBD during COVID-19 in Melbourne
A person wearing a face mask walks down a street in Melbourne amid the second outbreak and lockdown
Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton previously agreed ‘there has been a failure in this program,’ while his former deputy, Annaliese van Diemen, said ‘there’s been closer mingling of these guards than we would like in the workplace’.
The Daniel Andrews government is facing mounting criticism over the operation.
While Mr Andrews has stood firm on his claims that ADF soldiers weren’t offered to assist in the program, Defence Department records show 100 personnel were ready to enforce quarantine, but they were not utilised.
Documents show the offer was refused because Victoria Police were in the ‘advanced planning stages’ of a quarantine program at the time.
An ADF liaison officer told the federal government Victoria’s quarantine plans ‘do not presently include or require ADF involvement’.
The National Cabinet mandated hotel quarantine on March 26, and Emergency Management Victoria Commissioner Andrew Crisp chaired a meeting the following day when he called for private security firms to manage the program.
Passengers in the baggage hall at Sydney Airport after arriving on a flight from Melbourne on August 5
DANIEL ANDREWS DENIES ADF OFFERED HELP WITH HOTEL QUARANTINE
Premier Daniel Andrews used his daily briefing on Wednesday to take a swipe at federal Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, who claimed Victoria knocked back an offer to have Australian Defence Force help with the state’s hotel quarantine scheme.
The premier told an inquiry on Tuesday the ADF never offered to guard the hotels.
The botched program, which used private security companies, was the catalyst for Victoria’s second wave.
‘I don’t know the federal defence minister. I don’t deal with her. I deal with the prime minister,’ Mr Andrews said.
The retort came after the defence minister released a statement saying ADF support was offered to Victoria multiple times.
‘The ADF was consistently advised that its assistance was not required for any ”public-facing roles” in Victoria,’ Senator Reynolds said.
Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions secretary Simon Phemister told a parliamentary hearing on Wednesday the meeting was ‘pivotal’ in the decision to use security guards.
‘We all put forward our views, deferred to the experts when it came to matters of security, when it came to matters of health protection and public health,’ he said.
In the weeks to follow, Defence was ‘repeatedly’ told the hotel quarantine program was being well managed.
Both Queensland and New South Wales took up the ADF’s offer, and neither have reported any major breaches in the mandatory quarantine program.
On April 2, five ADF staff were deployed to assist in Victoria’s program without warning, but they were reportedly tasked with administration jobs.
On June 24, amid mounting pressure and a public health crisis, Mr Crisp requested 850 ADF personnel to support and monitor at hotel quarantine going forward.
The request was almost immediately approved by the federal government, but Mr Crisp never followed through and withdrew the request the very next day.
Meanwhile Mr Andrews told a parliamentary inquiry into the bungled program that his government never rejected the help of ADF officers.
‘ADF support has been provided in very limited circumstances in NSW, not to provide security, as such, but to provide transport from the airport to hotels,’ he reasoned.
‘It is fundamentally incorrect to assert that there were hundreds of ADF staff on offer and somehow, someone said no. That’s just not, in my judgement, accurate.’
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds released a damning statement saying repeated offers were snubbed.
She said in a statement: ‘ADF officials asked whether Victorian authorities required assistance with its mandatory quarantine system on multiple occasions.
‘No request for quarantine support was subsequently received from Victoria at that time.’
Australian Defence Force personnel and policemen on patrol in Melbourne last week