South Australia’s police commissioner has said it would not be possible to run the state’s hotel quarantine program without allowing staff to work multiple jobs, despite the Victorian inquiry into the failures of its program specifically recommending staff hold only one posting.
South Australia has entered the first day of a six-day lockdown to prevent the further spread of a Covid-19 outbreak out of the Peppers quarantine hotel in Adelaide. There are now 23 cases associated with the outbreak after the virus transferred from a returned traveller from the UK to a cleaner, on to two security guards and then into the community.
Contact tracers in the state are now attempting to track down people who attended the Woodville Pizza Bar between 6 and 16 November, after it was revealed on Wednesday one of the two security guards also worked at the venue.
The path the virus took through casual workers in two high-risk settings echoes how the virus spread in Victoria at the start of its second wave, with the state’s hotel quarantine inquiry hearing of a security guard who continued to work both at the hotel and as an Uber driver while infectious.
The spread was partly put down to casual workers fearing they would not be paid if they needed to isolate. Eventually the Victorian and federal governments made payments to those needing to isolate while waiting for test results, or for the two-week infectious period.
A key recommendation of the interim report delivered by the head of Victoria’s inquiry, Jennifer Coate, earlier this month stipulated that “every effort must be made to ensure that all personnel working at the facility are not working across multiple quarantine sites and not working in other forms of employment”.
“Every effort should be made to have personnel working at quarantine facilities salaried employees with terms and conditions that address the possible need to self-isolate in the event of an infection or possible infection, or close contact exposure, together with all necessary supports, including the need to relocate if necessary and have a managed return to work,” the report recommended.
Under South Australia’s model for hotel quarantine, known as medi-hotels, the state has police at hotels, but also uses private security.
On Thursday, the South Australian health minister, Stephen Wade, said the health department and the SA police commissioner, Grant Stevens, had reviewed the findings in Victoria, but Stevens said it was an “unreasonable” expectation.
“They have mortgages to pay, they have other bills to pay, and this is simply a necessity in order for us to fulfil our obligations,” he said.
“They have lives beyond their responsibilities in any hotel, and we need to find that balance and it’s simply not possible for us to bring in the total number of people required to run this function in South Australia, and have them not participate in other activities that they consider necessary for their personal circumstances.”
Stevens argued it would mean people working in the system would need to isolate themselves entirely from the rest of the community.
“That’s police officers, it’s nurses, it’s caterers, it’s cleaners, it’s hotel staff, it’s the Australian Defence Force. Your expectation is unreasonable, these people are part of our community, and we require them to do a really important job at the moment.”
The South Australian premier, Steven Marshall, defended the operation of South Australia’s medi-hotels, arguing the federal review conducted by the former health department secretary Jane Halton gave South Australia “a very good report card”.
However, Halton’s report made no recommendations around staffing, outside of states and territories having “end-to-end assurance mechanisms and look to continuously improve hotel quarantine”.
Marshall said there was no evidence South Australia’s system had not met the standard.
“This is a highly infectious disease, but even with all that PPE, that supervision, that social distancing, that extraordinarily high-level hygiene – this is a highly contagious disease, and we’re learning more and more about this disease and if we do need to take corrective action, then we will do that.”
South Australia has now brought in a new requirement that everyone working in hotel quarantine must be tested for Covid-19 every seven days, and must report symptoms.
The final report of Victoria’s hotel quarantine inquiry will be delivered on 21 December.