How Victoria bungled virus response
When Premier Daniel Andrews announced last month that coronavirus restrictions in Victoria would be eased from June 21, he probably didn't expect to be putting the state back in lockdown less than four weeks later.
It is almost unbelievable that it has taken less than a month for Victoria's coronavirus numbers to do a stunning about-turn.
On June 14, Mr Andrews was confirming the state would be easing restrictions. There were only 40 active cases and the number of new cases that day was just nine.
Today, ahead of a six-week lockdown of metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire, there were 134 new cases. There are also 860 active cases - a jump of more than 2000 per cent.
In just 25 days, 1222 new coronavirus cases have been identified. In contrast it took three months for Victoria to reach 1364 cases on May 1.
So how did this happen?
FIRST, THEY BLAMED IT ON LARGE GATHERINGS
When Premier Andrews announced on June 20 that there would be a wind-back of restrictions he pointed out one factor: family gatherings.
"The experts tell us that, largely, the numbers are being driven by families - families having big get-togethers and not following the advice around distancing and hygiene," Mr Andrews said.
"In fact, around half of our cases since the end of April have come from transmission inside someone's home."
On May 31, Victorians had been allowed to have 20 people in their home (including the hosts) but on June 20, Mr Andrews said this would be reduced to five after an increase in new cases.
"You can see how this could happen," Mr Andrews said. "People feeling relaxed at home. Letting their guard down. Letting old habits creep back. But we are still in a pandemic - and people's lives are still at risk."
However, Professor Mary-Louise McLaws of the University of NSW believes the government did not do enough to communicate health messages to those who couldn't read English or understand the language well enough to hear the nuances in the verbal warnings.
"They were getting cranky at families … but if they weren't getting it, this was because they weren't getting it in their own language," she told news.com.au.
Prof McLaws said it was also human nature for people to flout rules but it was the responsibility of experts to consider this and plan for it.
"If people are taking advantage, it's the planners who should have planned or thought ahead about it."
THEN CAME THE HOTEL QUARANTINE INQUIRY
Last week an inquiry was announced into Victoria's hotel quarantine system but Prof McLaws said the government should have recognised there was a problem sooner.
"I can only assume they were overwhelmed," she said.
The government acted after a genomic sequencing report found a "very significant number" of cases in late May and early June could be linked to a breach of infection control protocols by staff at the hotels.
Last week stories about guards sleeping with guests, allowing them to go shopping and not using proper personal protective equipment (PPE) emerged.
Unlike other states Victoria had hired private contractors to monitor guests, Corrections Victoria has now been put in charge of the hotel quarantine program.
Mr Andrews rejected suggestions it had taken authorities too long to take action and said a number of changes to hotel quarantine had been made over a lengthy period of time.
He said he announced the inquiry after a genomic sequencing report "left me in no doubt … there was a significant infection control problem".
However, Prof McLaws said she had noticed a problem with Victoria's hotel quarantine system as soon as cases began popping up in late May and last week Victoria's Health Minister Jenny Mikakos also confirmed she was aware of concerns as early as May.
But it wasn't until June 25 that Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton confirmed a review was underway into the training being received by security guards at the hotels.
There had already been about 16 cases confirmed at the Rydges on Swanston hotel, where returned travellers were staying for two weeks quarantine.
By the 17th, the Stamford Plaza Hotel had also been identified as a potential hot spot, with five security guards testing positive soon after. The number of cases linked to the hotel has since risen to 43.
Prof McLaws said the severe resurgence in cases was related to the hyper-interconnection between people in Melbourne, with travellers from overseas infecting staff working in quarantine hotels, some of who have given the virus to their families.
Yet when Mr Andrews announced Victoria's six-week lockdown this week he pointed to complacency among members of the community.
"I'm not here to criticise Victorians but I've got to call it out and I think every Victorian knows at least one other person who perhaps hasn't been following the rules as much as they should have," Mr Andrews said.
"We have to a certain extent, allowed our frustration to get the better of us."
Opposition Leader Michael O'Brien said the Premier's tone was "disappointing" as the lockdown was caused by problems with the hotel quarantine system.
"He was looking to blame Victorians, to point the finger at Victorians instead of looking in the mirror and accepting responsibility for the government's mistakes," he said.
"Daniel Andrews let the COVID genie out of the bottle with hotel quarantine bungles and now everyone's paying the price for it."
Mr Andrews' comments quickly drew criticism and he later apologised after being asked why he had singled out families when the outbreak appeared to have been caused by major issues in the state's hotel quarantine.
"I apologise for the position that we find ourselves in," he told ABC. "I'm accountable as the leader of our state, the key point here is - I can't be making popular and easy calls, I got to make the tough calls that will bring this under fundamental control. That's where we find ourselves."
Associate Professor Hassan Vally, an epidemiologist at LaTrobe University said it was difficult to give weight to different factors and to isolate the most important one in the current outbreak.
"I think it will come out later on but there is no doubt the hotel quarantine contributed and there is no doubt complacency of the public was a contributor," he told news.com.au.
"What we have to take away from this is the virus will exploit any weakness in our activities," he said.
"It's a huge lesson for other states not to be complacent as things can turn around very quickly.
"I see no reason why, in a couple of weeks time, this would not be NSW."
WHAT ABOUT THE BLACK LIVES MATTER PROTESTS?
Mr Andrews has also fielded criticism that his attitude towards the Black Lives Matter protests fuelled complacency among the population.
"Coupled with the hotel quarantine breaches, there were a small number of people who felt that once the protests had occurred, then 'gosh if it's okay for 10,000 people to get together, then surely it's okay for 10," Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt told Sky News host Chris Kenny.
"The sense of a double standard was quite strong, and there was a clear mood against that as a result".
But Mr Andrews hit back at suggestions he encouraged Black Lives Matter protests to go ahead in Melbourne.
"No one gave the go- ahead. Logic tells you you shouldn't do that. I was clear they should not be protesting, it is the virus we should be working against. The influence that has had is for other people to judge," he told Today.
"A small number have come from (the Black Lives Matter rally). No one got it at the rally. There are four people that attended the rally that have had it. Police were pretty clear, I was crystal clear, don't protest. Unless you are going to lock up 10,000 people … think about the close contact involved with that."
Ahead of the rally on June 6, Victoria did not take legal action to stop the protest, like NSW did, but police did warn people they would fining protesters.
Each of the organisers were later fined $1,652 for breaching COVID-19 orders, Assistant Commissioner of Victorian Police Luke Cornelius said in a statement after the protest.
Prof McLaws did not think the protest led to an outbreak and said there were only four cases among protesters and none of them appeared to have caught the virus at the rally.
"I think the community are hearing a lot of mixed messages anyway," she said, pointing to messages around schools.
"They are hearing messages that are very difficult and to put the spotlight on one message suggests there is an ulterior motive that could be political," she said.
"If people are worried they should wear a mask. I don't think it helps anybody to point the finger at one group."
'IT'S GOING TO BE A LOT HARDER'
Prof Vally said the latest outbreak in Melbourne would be harder to contain than the first one, where most cases had been linked to returned overseas travellers or passengers on the Ruby Princess cruise ship.
"If you took away those cases, we had pretty low case numbers," he said.
"In lots of ways we had control of transmission because we knew the sources."
This time round, it's a different story.
As of Wednesday, there were 438 cases acquired in Australia from an unknown source and another 290 cases that were still being investigated.
"That's why the Premier is using strong language and saying we are in a precarious situation - we are - we are in a much more challenging position and it's going to be hard to bring it under control," Prof Vally said.
"The good news is we know how to get it under control, we need to maintain physical distancing, hand hygiene and not have mass gatherings.
"We've seen it work before and we've seen in work all around the world. We know what we need to do but it's just a difficult thing to do."
Originally published as How Victoria bungled virus response