As the second wave eases, will the Premier’s prevarications hurt him?

As the second wave eases, will the Premier’s prevarications hurt him?

Chip Le Grand – The Age – Saturday 22 August 2020

On the day Daniel Andrews announced all of Melbourne would return to lockdown, he was asked whether failings in hotel quarantine were to blame. His answer, put simply, was that he didn’t know.

Victoria’s Premier spoke of the mysteries and riddles of the virus. “Sometimes you will never know where things came from,’’ he mused. The genomic picture, DNA tracing used to plot the origins and spread of an outbreak, remained incomplete. “There is no further information I can provide to you,’’ he told journalists. “When I can then of course we will.’’

Andrews was not being untruthful. The genomic picture is never complete during a pandemic. Every time a new case emerges, it takes on average five days for scientists from Melbourne University’s Microbiological Diagnostics Unit (MDU), a public health lab that pre-dates the Spanish flu, to break down the viral genome and match it to others in its database. It is science both on the edge and forever playing catch-up.

Nor was the Premier being entirely honest.

On the same day Andrews announced Melbourne’s return to lockdown, senior figures leading Victoria’s COVID-19 response were briefed on the latest developments. This briefing contained information from the Intelligence Section of the COVID-19 Public Health Incident Management Team which, every week, receives genomic data from the MDU.

This information went beyond what the Premier had publicly revealed a week earlier when he said a “significant number and potentially more” of the outbreaks in Melbourne’s northern suburbs were attributable, via genomic sequencing, to quarantine hotel staff. It was now clear that, when the virus first broke out of Rydges Hotel on Swanston Street and subsequently the Stamford Plaza Hotel in Little Collins Street, Victoria was all but COVID-free.

The entire second wave – every known infection – had been traced back to these quarantine hotels.

If not for the failures in quarantine, Melbourne would have been emerging from the social and economic ravages of the pandemic instead of plunging into a second, more deadly COVID-19 crisis. This, to borrow a phrase from Andrews, was further information he could have made public.

Victoria’s trust in its political leadership was tested in two significant ways this week. As details of the hotel quarantine debacle emerged in the Coate inquiry, Andrews’ integrity was drawn into sharp focus by Defence COVID-19 Taskforce Commander Lieutenant-General John Frewen’s testimony to the Senate about the ADF’s preparedness to put boots in the lobbies of Victoria’s quarantine hotels, if only we had asked.

Andrews is not alone in having to account for previous things said in the pandemic. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s defence against accusations the federal government failed to prepare the aged care sector for outbreaks – that the abrupt standing-down of all management and staff at nursing homes like St Basil’s could not have been anticipated or considered – appears at odds with advice provided by his own government to aged care providers two months ago.

Yet it is in Victoria and particularly Melbourne – which remains under crippling stage four restrictions and a curfew – where the stakes are highest.

All of us have a shared interest in the Andrews government successfully leading Victoria out of this crisis. There is a political compact at work which acknowledges the scale of the problems being confronted, the speed with which decisions must taken and the inevitability that mistakes will be made. But if a leader is not entirely truthful about decisions they are taking, do they undermine the additional political licence given to them in an emergency?

When the genomic picture finally did finally emerge, tendered as an exhibit in the inquiry into hotel quarantine chaired by Justice Jennifer Coate, it revealed a story both sad and maddening. It is a graph which, at first glance, appears a confusing mess of dots. When you look at it long enough, the tragedy of Victoria’s pandemic emerges like a gestalt puzzle.

The bottom half of the graph plots Victoria’s first wave of infections. It shows that nearly every strain had disappeared from the chart by early May. Melbourne’s second wave epidemic starts with the band marked ‘Transmission network 2’.

This is the Rydges on Swanston outbreak started by four orange dots – a family of four returned from overseas. Transmission network 3 and the cluster labelled 45A relate to the Stamford Plaza. That mass of black dots stretching from June into July and August represents outbreaks at housing commission towers, schools, meat works, logistics centres and aged care centres. Every black dot is a person. When the graph was prepared for the Coate inquiry, more than 200 of them had died in the second wave.

The Coate inquiry has heard evidence from nurses, security guards and guests from quarantine hotels describing a shambolic approach to infectious disease control. As compelling as some of this testimony was, the most damning evidence was contained in a bland two-page document, developed by the DHHS-led Operation Soteria taskforce responsible for hotel quarantine, advising security guards on the use of PPE.

Professor Lindsay Grayson, the director of the Austin Hospital’s infectious disease department, told the hearing that staff and security guards working at quarantine hotels should have adhered to the same standards of PPE required by healthcare workers at the Austin whenever dealing with people suspected of having the virus.

This means that security guards working in the lobby and stationed on hotel floors should have been dressed in full PPE including level 2 surgical masks, safety glasses or face masks, long-sleeve, single-use gowns and single-use latex gloves. Masks should have been changed at the start of each shift, the end of the shift, after every meal break and otherwise at least every four hours. Security guards should have been shown how to don and doff their PPE without contaminating themselves and fellow workers.

The advice to security guards contained in the Operation Soteria document fell woefully short of this standard. As of June 8, after the virus had broken out of the Rydges and was breaking out at Stamford Plaza, Operation Soteria was telling security guards that so long as they stayed 1.5 metres away from returned travellers, there was no need to wear any PPE in the hotel lobby, on the hotel floors and even in the doorway of rooms occupied by hotel guests.

When Grayson was shown the advice by the Unified Security Group’s counsel, Arthur Moses, SC, he was incredulous.

On this evidence alone, the most shocking thing about Victoria’s hotel quarantine program is not that guards and staff were infected at two hotels; it is that breakouts occurred at so few hotels.

The consequences of this are being felt by every household and business in Victoria. Nick Economou, a senior lecturer on politics at Monash University, believes the political implications are also likely to be significant.

“The core problem for Daniel Andrews is the administration of quarantine on his watch. It is very hard to get away from that,” Economou says. “I actually think his position is bad and getting worse and I expect him not to be the leader at the next election.”

Does this help explain why we had to wait this long to see the genomics data?

Over the past two months, Andrews and Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton have been asked about this modelling. Each time they proffered reasons for why it could not be released.

On July 14, Sutton said the data was not his to release: “It’s not my genomic sequencing data, it belongs to the Peter Doherty Institute.’’ He said he wouldn’t comment on the data because it would be subject to a judicial inquiry.

On August 6, the day after Coate issued a statement clarifying there was no legal impediment to anyone discussing matters before her inquiry, Andrews was again asked about the data. “The genomic sequencing report is not a document that I hold, it is not a product that I have,” he said.

Andrews and Sutton did not lie. But neither were they entirely truthful.

The genomic sequencing provided to the Coate inquiry is owned by the MDU, housed inside Melbourne University’s Doherty Institute. The data is shared on a weekly basis with the DHHS, which funds the MDU and is free to use it as it sees fit.

Professor Ben Howden, the director of the MDU, told the hearing: “I understand the data, and related information and reports, are provided to the [DHHS] and the department is able to use that information, including by publishing it for public health purposes.”

An MDU spokeswoman confirmed to The Age: “The MDU does not place restrictions on what DHHS can do with data provided to it by the MDU.”

Sutton, a senior public servant within the DHHS, should have known this. Earlier this year, he co-authored with Howden and Dr Charles Alpren, a DHHS epidemiologist, a study based on genomic analysis of Victoria’s first wave infections. That study and the genomic data it contains have been published on an open access platform since May 16. The Victorian Premier doesn’t need to “hold” a document paid for and provided to his government to authorise its release.

The importance of the genomic data to our understanding of Victoria’s second wave was underscored by Alpren, who told the Coate inquiry that 99 per cent of all current COVID-19 cases in Victoria had arisen from either the Rydges or Stamford Plaza hotels. For all the riddles of this virus, there is no mystery as to why Andrews wanted this publicly known later rather than sooner.

Andrews’ dispute with the ADF is another matter.

When the Premier told a Victorian parliamentary committee on August 11 “I don’t believe ADF support was on offer” for hotel quarantine, he was calling into question the sincerity of previous public statements made by the Prime Minister, ADF top brass and, perversely, himself.

When challenged on this, Andrews cited a carefully phrased statement from Victoria’s Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp, who said that, in the coordination and planning meetings he chaired on March 27 and 28, “I did not seek nor did representatives of the ADF offer assistance as part of the hotel quarantine program”.

Frewen cut through these word games. He told the Senate it was “made plain” that ADF assistance was available to all states and territories to help establish the regime and confirmed that in Victoria, 100 ADF personnel were “stood to” for this purpose.

Andrews refused to budge. The day after the general’s testimony, he said “no one has ever questioned’’ whether ADF troops were put on standby.

No one other than Andrews. It was he who, five days earlier, when asked to respond to the reports of troop readiness carried in this newspaper, replied: “I am not sure who has confirmed that 100 troops were on standby. I see some reports but there are no names associated with any of those reports.”

There was one name associated with those reports; the order to put 100 troops on standby in Victoria was given by Australia’s most senior soldier, ADF chief General Angus Campbell.

Andrews cannot change his position now. To do so would be to admit he misled parliament. The Opposition is already calling for him to resign on that basis. The issue before the Coate inquiry is why Victoria chose not to make use of ADF personnel within quarantine hotels.

Does it matter whether Andrews is being entirely truthful about these episodes? Monash University Associate Professor of Politics Paul Strangio, in contrast to Economou, doubts whether public faith in the Premier has been shaken.

“I think there is a bit of a disjunction with the way the public is looking upon this moment and how the media is looking upon it,’’ he says. “We do have to give some allowance for the complexities of leadership and government in a situation like this. Mistakes are going to be made. There is a massive, bureaucratic machinery working at a hyper pace and politicians don’t always have all the answers.’’

James Paterson, the Liberal senator who questioned Frewen about the quarantine hotels, is less charitable. “We are asking for unprecedented things from Australians and from Victorians. You would think the bare minimum they deserve in response to that is complete honesty about what we are doing and why we are doing it. Either withholding information or trying to play cute games to try to get around responsibility for decisions we have made is not in that spirit.”

Rebecca Huntley, the head of Vox Populi Research, says it is difficult to read the public mood in a fast-moving pandemic. Like Economou, she believes we are approaching a point where the public no longer accepts it is living in a crisis and the normal rules of political engagement resume. When that happens, whatever emergency compact we have had with government will become null and void. In the meantime, further prevarication won’t help Andrews.

The Socialist Left faction of the Victorian Labor Party, to which Andrews belongs, has a simple creed which could just as easily be a bumper sticker for 2020. It is “Live to fight the next day”.

Strangio says that through this pandemic we are seeing the strengths and weaknesses of the Premier’s political style writ large. He bulldozes through controversy and doesn’t admit mistakes. He vows to accept responsibility for whatever emerges in the Coate inquiry yet remains unapologetic for decisions he has taken.

“He is convinced that by his hard work he will be judged and prevail,” Strangio adds.

Are enough Victorians still similarly convinced?

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