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Welfare checks in Victoria’s hotel quarantine program were not frequent enough, and in some cases were conducted by an unqualified travel agency in the days before a man took his own life, an inquiry has heard.
It was also revealed that the Victorian chief health officer, Brett Sutton, objected to a decision not to appoint him as the state controller of the virus response, and wanted to take on the role in February.
On Thursday, the state’s inquiry into its hotel quarantine program heard that a man who was presumed to have killed himself while in quarantine only received one welfare check in nine days in mid-April.
The man did not receive his first welfare check until day five, due to a lack of staff, according to a review that was shown to the inquiry.
Reviewers also raised concerns that unqualified staff from a Melbourne travel agency called Hello World were asked to conduct some of the welfare checks.
Returned travellers were supposed to be checked on day three and day nine of a 14-day quarantine period, the inquiry heard, but the man was checked only once in his nine days. It was not said whether the man’s welfare check was conducted by the travel agency.
A review, conducted by Safercare Victoria, found the welfare check team was “unable to undertake welfare check calls to the planned schedule as they did not have enough staff to match the required workload”.
Staff also frequently did not follow up on missed calls, the inquiry heard. On the day of the man’s death, staff made at least five missed calls that were not answered. There was a delay of 24 hours from his last answered call until staff entered his room, and found he had died.
Prof Euan Wallace, the CEO of Safercare Victoria, said that nurses called returned travellers every day to check for their symptoms, and the welfare checks were a supplementary call that checked on their mental health.
“The initial plan was they would get a welfare check on day three and day nine,” he told the inquiry. “By day five, he had five phone calls from the nurse”.
Another report, given to Wallace and Safercare Victoria, also found that the welfare checks were “not sufficient”.
The report from 29 April said“Team concerned these are not sufficient (only 2 required across 14 days) they are completed by non-clinical people – either at [department of health office at] 50 Lonsdale or via Hello World (travel agency).”
Wallace confirmed that Hello World conducted some welfare checks, but defended the practice.
“Hello World had been engaged by the department of health to conduct a series of welfare checks, with pre-approved scripts,” he told the inquiry. He then said they performed “excellently”.
When asked by counsel assisting the inquiry, Ben Ihle, what qualifications the Hello World staff had, he said he did not know. Wallace said it was not in the scope of the Safercare review.
Later on Thursday, the inquiry also heard that the chief health officer, Brett Sutton, was passed over the role of state controller.
Under Victoria’s State Health Emergency Response Plan, known as the Sherp, the chief health officer is presumed to take on the role of state controller.
But at the start of the coronavirus outbreak in February, this was overruled by a deputy secretary of the health department, Melissa Skillbeck, against Sutton’s wishes.
Skillbeck, who was in charge of emergency management at the time, told the inquiry she made the decision because of the demands on Sutton’s time, and because his expertise was best used in other roles.
She said the state controller role involved a lot of “programming and logistics” rather than public health, and that Sutton was already extremely busy.
“Already on 1 February, the chief health officer was engaged with the AHPPC…[and] as the response nationally evolved, the reasons I cite were only reinforced,” she said.
“In particular the personal time requirement on the chief health officer…his expertise needs to be in AHPPC…in communications. The key tool we have to respond to a pandemic, particularly a novel virus, is educating and changing behaviour in the community. And that is essentially a communications task.”
She added that her decision might have been different if Sutton had “a greater number of possible substitutes”.
Counsel assisting the inquiry, Ben Ihle, asked Skillbeck whether Sutton was “in agreement” with her decision.
“No he was not,” she said.
“Would it be fair to say he was against that decision?” Ihle asked.
“Yes, he was initially,” Skillbeck said.
The inquiry was also shown an email from Wallace that said there was no “consensus” on who had responsibility for health in quarantine, and this “fundamentally undermined governance and decisions”.
In an email sent to aSkillbeck, on 1 May, Wallace wrote that the program was confused over who had “overall responsibility” over detainees.
“There is not a consensus on this and a lack of consensus/clarity fundamentally undermines governance and decisions,” he wrote.
One of the Safercare reports also found there was no centralised system for nurses and welfare staff to track the information of detainees.
Wallace said this was because there were more than 3,000 people in hotel quarantine by mid-April, and the system had been set up “extraordinarily quickly”.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Victoria hotel quarantine: welfare checks not frequent enough and staff not trained, inquest hears | Australia news