Contact tracing faltered as ‘hyper-infectious’ COVID strain pushes state into lockdown

Victoria’s public health team is under pressure to explain why contact tracers took too long to get in touch with people exposed to coronavirus after health officials privately conceded delays in the system during a meeting with other states.

The admission to the nation’s top health emergency advisory body worried officials from other states, which closed their borders to Victoria as it entered a snap five-day lockdown to halt the spread of the “hyper-infectious” British coronavirus strain.

Premier Daniel Andrews announces the five-day lockdown at a press conference on Friday.Credit:Joe Armao

Premier Daniel Andrews on Friday imposed a statewide return to stage-four lockdown rules. Business have been told to close and Victorians must stay within five kilometres of their homes, and only go out to shop for essentials, caregiving, exercise and essential work.

Schools will remain closed until Thursday and visitors are not be allowed in private homes or aged-care facilities.

The lockdown followed two meetings of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) in which Victoria’s Chief Health Officer came under pressure to explain why almost half of the close contacts from the Holiday Inn quarantine hotel cluster were not contacted within the benchmark 48 hours on Tuesday.

The AHPPC met late on Thursday night and again on Friday morning to discuss the outbreak linked to the quarantine hotel at Melbourne Airport.

According to three sources familiar with the meeting, Victorian health officials were challenged on contact-tracing data submitted to the Health Department during the week. Speaking on the condition on anonymity, those sources said that when presented with the data the Victorian health officials conceded the tracers had slipped below their own benchmark.

It showed 8.9 per cent of close contacts were not contacted within 48 hours on Monday, and by Tuesday that number had risen to 43.7 per cent before dramatically falling later in the week.

One meeting participant told The Age that while Victoria had “vastly improved its contact tracing”, some jurisdictions expressed concerns about keeping borders open, given the delay in reaching close contacts.

In a potential sign that the federal government shared concerns over Victoria’s ability to curtail the outbreak, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a Melbourne radio station he supported a state-wide lockdown, rather than a specific locality as was the case in NSW’s northern beaches outbreak which did not involve the British strain.

Shoppers stock up at Costco in Docklands, Melbourne before the five-day lockdown in Victoria.Credit:Jason South

As news broke of the snap lockdown, shoppers stripped supermarket shelves. Federal politicians and staff were instructed to quickly board flights to Canberra before a parliamentary sitting week next week amid fears they would be trapped in Victoria. An anti-lockdown protest was scheduled to be held outside Flinders Street station on Friday evening.

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said he and members of cabinet began discussing the prospect of a lockdown in the early stages of this week. He said authorities were on Sunday expecting household contacts of infected hotel quarantine workers to test positive later in the week, which occurred on Thursday when five additional cases were announced.

Professor Sutton, who said the lockdown decision was a consensus, said the infection of a worker at the Brunetti airport cafe at Terminal 4 on Thursday had a “significant” bearing on the decision to confine people to their homes.

The cafe worker had face-to-face contact with customers on February 9 while potentially infectious. Almost 30 flights left the terminal during that period and anyone on those flights is being urged to get tested.

Professor Sutton acknowledged there was no sign yet of a “mystery” case that could not be traced back to someone linked to the Holiday Inn, which has been shut down, but he said “we need to be ahead of it”.

“There is a risk that if we have a case in a non-household contact that it’s already beyond us. … We want these settings to be in place now so if that occurs they will have minimum to no other actions with other people,” he said.

A spokesman for the Victorian Health Department said QR code information provided by some businesses was incorrect and incomplete and the government uses information from entities like VicRoads or banks to supplement missing data.

“This can take time,” the spokesman said.

“We are grateful for all Victorians who are doing the right thing and taking their QR code check-in at venues seriously.”

Cabinet ministers were summoned to an emergency meeting on Friday morning to discuss the lockdown as Departmental secretaries also met to discuss the outbreak.

Epidemiologist professor Mike Toole from the Burnet Institute said the government’s rationale for the lockdown had a basis in scientific evidence.

Two NSW government ministers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Victorian announcement reflected a level of panic not shared by the Berejiklian government.

“Dan Andrews is jumping at shadows. He knows in his heart he can’t trust his own system. Let’s not do that,” one said.

Another minister criticised Mr Andrews for signalling he wanted to cut the number of Australians returning to Melbourne. Victoria takes less than half the 3000 people who arrive in NSW each week.

“If he had invested in contact tracing like NSW he might not have to lock down the state again,” they said.

Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien said: “Victorians have got every right to be absolutely furious with the Andrews Labor government.”

Melbourne lord mayor Sally Capp said the lockdown would be “devastating” for businesses and urged the community to follow the rules to ensure it ended after five days.

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