Jen, a nurse working in hotel quarantine, was shocked by how staff from the department of health responded when she told them, during a shift earlier this year, that a guest at the Parkroyal had reported suicidal thoughts.
“A person who worked for DHHS told me they had specifically called this guest in the room and told them that they needed to stop threatening suicide just so they can get a cigarette,” Jen said this week.
The message was basically “stop being so dramatic”, the nurse added.
She rang the patient to no avail and waited an agonising five minutes before calling back again. After a second call went unanswered, she donned a mask, goggles, gown and gloves and did a physical check, fortunately finding the person unharmed, but anxious and distressed.
The incident made Jen want to stop working in hotel quarantine. She did not return to the Parkroyal for a week. That was the worst thing that happened during her time in the program, she said, but it was far from isolated.
The struggles of patients and nurses working in the “shambolic” hotel quarantine system have been aired over the past week, as Melbourne’s inquiry into hotel quarantine kicked off. To put it politely, it seems Murphy’s Law applied. There were problems with the most fundamental aspects of the program, such as who was in charge, and there were problems with the daily operations: record-keeping, cleaning, personal protective equipment, food.
Wildly different rules and resources across different hotels left guests, many of them communicating with each other over quarantine Facebook groups, feeling confused and frustrated. And all the while they were detained in tiny rooms, many unable to access fresh air at all for days on end.
In its first days the inquiry, chaired by judge Jennifer Coate, revealed the long awaited data showing that Victoria’s COVID-19 disaster does indeed stem from the hotel quarantine program. The DHHS believes 99% of current cases originated from two hotels, including nine in ten from Rydges on Swanston St, where a family of four tested positive in mid-May.
What remains a mystery, though, is how the virus escaped into the community, investigators coming up short on the precise moment of transmission.
That moment has, of course, been the subject of much discussion. The sensational guard-had-sex-with-a-guest theory was addressed by Arthur Moses SC, counsel for Unified Security, who said the inquiry would sift fact from fiction when it came to the “rumour and innuendo” surrounding the program.
“To be blunt,” he added, perhaps unnecessarily, “what I‘m referring to is rumour and innuendo about alleged sexual activity between security guards and guests.”
The inquiry heard nothing more about that particular allegation. But there were plenty of other shocking stories, atrocious errors, farcical mix-ups and general drama revealed about exactly what occurred in hotel quarantine. As the evidence was heard, an unfortunate green screen backdrop applied a blurry outline to Coate and others, giving the proceedings a distinct feel of being beamed from a suspiciously low-fi version of the future.
Luke Ashford, an authorised officer in hotel quarantine, told the inquiry he quit after less than four weeks working across seven different hotels.
“There was never anyone formally identified as being in charge,” he said. One day, the chaos turned dangerous, he said, when a large intake streamed into the Mercure Welcome hotel foyer, which was not “fit for purpose”.
Procedures around social distancing and infection control went out the window as security and guests milled around and protocols for elevators and baggage handling weren’t followed. “That was it for me,” Mr Ashford said.
During his brief time in the quarantine system, he was at one end of a confusing and ever-changing system. On the other was guests in their rooms, some pushed to breaking point by their situation.
One guest, Ron Erasmus, was put off from pursuing grief counselling over the recent death of his father by having to constantly re-explain what had happened to him to new people on the phone.
Another, Liliana Ratcliff, became so concerned about the infection control breaches she witnessed that she staged a protest, refusing to confirm her COVID-19 symptoms to a nurse and asking them to listen to her worries about mental health and high risk patients instead.
Jen the nurse, whose surname cannot be published, said “problem guests” had their names listed on a mysterious whiteboard in the DHHS boardroom.
She also alleged untrained nurses were rostered on as mental health nurses. One mental health nurse called a patient “crazy”, Jen said, and another directly told her that she had no mental health training. (YNA denies it rostered nurses with no relevant training onto the mental health shift.)
Another nurse, Michael Tait, started work on March 29, the very first day of the hotel quarantine program. Many of the first guests he encountered had only learned they would be detained for two weeks when their flight landed at Melbourne Airport.
It was “shambolic” and “chaotic”, Mr Tait said, and there was a serious shortage of PPE, leaving him feeling uncomfortable as he administered risky nose swabs to patients. He knew the virus travelled through droplets, and the swabs often caused people to sneeze or their eyes to water. He continued regardless as he thought testing was important, he said.
Mr Tait made the astonishing allegation that in the early days of the program DHHS simply allowed people to leave quarantine three days after testing positive.
“If someone tested positive, we would call them up three days later and check their symptoms. If they had no symptoms, they could leave,” he said. “It seemed like the department did not care if positive COVID-19 patients just left the hotel and walked onto the street.”
Mr Tait, who worked across several hotels but primarily at the Crown Metropol, said he was “blown away” to see a woman who had tested positive standing in a busy hotel lobby with no mask on as she waited for her transport. In another incident, he said, a DHHS staff member told him not to test a known positive patient so the man could leave quarantine early.
Misuse of PPE was a common theme. Several witnesses testified that security guards, from private firms contracted by the Victorian government, frequently wore masks down under their chin instead of properly fitted around their face, and that they wore the same pair of gloves across an entire shift, during which time they used communal tea and coffee facilities and used their mobile phones. Used PPE was discarded on the floor or into public bins instead of into proper contaminated waste bins.
Infectious diseases expert Professor Lindsay Grayson described advice given to the security guards by the federal and state governments on when they should wear PPE as “inaccurate” and “inappropriate”.
Other mistakes tended towards the absurd. Mr Tait said “crazy” orders were made for ten boxes of large size gloves for a medical team comprised mostly of women with small hands. A man whose two toddlers were mistakenly listed as the adults in his room ended up fielding calls from officials asking to speak to his two-year-old.
The hotel quarantine system is currently not operating, as no international flights are entering Melbourne. Ministers and senior public servants will be hauled before Coate and grilled on the program as the inquiry continues.