Law firm outbreak prompts probe, decision on restrictions looms

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Worksafe is probing an outbreak of coronavirus at a Melbourne law firm after concerns were raised about staff working from the office instead of at home.

HWL Ebsworth has come under scrutiny after six members of its team contracted COVID-19 earlier this month.

Health officials now believe at least one lawyer who had coronavirus worked at the company’s Collins St office while infectious on June 29 and 30 — but the firm said no one had symptoms at the time and a positive test was not returned until about a week later.

Authorities are also likely to look at how the virus spread to three graduates who attended a dinner of 18 junior staff at the Saint and Rogue pub on July 3.

A company whistleblower said select teams had been told of a positive case in the workforce before everyone was alerted on July 7. Two floors were cleared for deep cleaning, which occurred on July 10.

But national marketing manager Russell Mailler said the firm was unaware of a positive case on July 3.

“We had no reason to believe that any of our team members were carrying the coronavirus on Friday, July 3 as no team members were experiencing any symptoms at that time,” he said.

This week Premier Daniel Andrews hit out at those thumbing their nose at his work-from-home directives after 80 per cent of outbreaks in Melbourne had been linked to work sites.

CLOSE WATCH AS DEADLINE PASSES

The Victorian government is desperately trying to avoid stage four restrictions despite another massive jump in the state’s coronavirus tally.

Wednesday marks the two-week deadline Premier Daniel Andrews and Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton had set as the point when tighter rules would be introduced if cases were still skyrocketing.

On Tuesday the Premier announced 374 new cases and three deaths, taking the state’s toll to 42.

The increase was one of the biggest daily surges since the pandemic began and took Victoria’s total cases to 6289.

However, Mr Andrews backed away from a stage four announcement, saying “we are taking it one day at a time”.

Instead of further shutdowns he announced the incoming mandatory mask policy, to start on Thursday, as the next step.

“A couple of points we have made consistently — things will need to get worse before they got better,” he said.

“Then there will need to be a period of relative stability and then until you achieve that, any reduction wouldn’t be meaningful.

“So it’s too early for us to be talking about next steps.”

IMPACT OF JOBKEEPER, JOBSEEKER CHANGES REVEALED

LEFT HIGH AND DRY BY JOBKEEPER

New small businesses are being forced to fend for themselves with no government support despite being thrown back into lockdown.

Husband and wife team Kris Medson and Milan Gnawali have been left fighting to survive after opening their Seymour cafe on June 1 after restrictions across the state eased.

The lawyer and chef had planned to open the cafe in April, but postponed because of the pandemic.

They were open for just five weeks before metropolitan Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire, which includes Seymour, were sent back into lockdown.

“We had fantastic support from the community, we were doing really well, we were getting very positive feedback about our food and our coffee,” Ms Medson said.

But they do not qualify for JobKeeper because it is only for businesses that employed staff before the coronavirus pandemic began.

“We might be able to make it through, but that’s going to mean ongoing difficulties on the other end,” Ms Medson said.

WAGE HELP LIFTS BIT OF WEIGHT OF UNCERTAINTY

For gym owner Simon Olive the key to surviving the past few months has been living day to day.

Mr Olive, who runs Anytime Fitness in Kew with wife Merryn and daughter Hannah, said his business had been hit hard by two lockdowns, but they had managed to hold on with the JobKeeper supplement.

“Businesses like mine are at the eye of the storm,” he said. “Without JobKeeper we would be haemorrhaging even more.

“Getting through is a real case of worry about what you can influence and don’t waste emotional energy on things you can’t.”

With the future looking uncertain, Mr Olive said the announcement the scheme would continue until next year was a weight off his shoulders.

“It’s a step in the right direction; you can’t hang your entire future on that,” he said. “It’s one small piece of a bigger picture; we need this whole COVID-19 situation to be managed one way or the other. What we can’t afford to have is this opening and closing again.”

Mr Olive said in the two weeks they were open before the second lockdown he saw at-first hesitant clients returning, but he wasn’t so sure this would happen when the second lockdown eventually lifted.

“If you want to support local, don’t cancel your memberships, come to the gym and adhere to all of the sanitising and hygiene procedures,” he said.

REGIONAL ABATTOIR WORKERS SENT HOME

More than 700 workers at a regional meat processing plant have been forced to self-isolate after a coronavirus outbreak.

The massive lockdown of staff connected to the Australian Lamb abattoir in Colac was ordered after 13 cases were linked to the site.

All 718 staff from the main processing floor have been told to get tests in Geelong, overseen by Colac Area Health, and stay at home.

Schools in the area have also been forced to close, after family members of abattoir workers also tested positive.

Investigations are now under way into whether the COVID-19 cluster stemmed from another abattoir, JBS in Brooklyn in Melbourne’s west, where a worker may have given the virus to a relative who worked at Australian Lamb.

Agriculture Minister Jaclyn Symes told the ABC this week Australian Lamb had ensured staff were being tested and that WorkSafe were assisting the clean-up.

But Polwarth MP, Liberal Richard Riordan, accused health authorities of dropping the ball and said contact tracing had taken too long to do.

“Country people have a long history of dealing well with a crisis but we need DHHS to step up, provide relevant and current information and assist the community so that we can work through this epidemic,” he said.

Australian Lamb is one of the biggest employers in the Colac Otway region.

All of those who work on the main meat processing floor, which is a large proportion of the 1000-strong workforce, have been classed as a potential close contact of those who contracted the coronavirus, which has led to the shutdown of the plant for two weeks and a deep clean.

A spokesman for the company said other processing options were being investigated to keep the supply of meat going, and it was assisting staff awaiting results.

“We are going to be helping the community as much as we possibly can over the coming period,” he said.

FREE PANDEMIC KIT HANDOUT AT TWO SITES

Free pandemic kits including masks and sanitisers will be distributed in two locations on Wednesday.

The idea came from Tony Lotzof, who was moved on overhearing an elderly couple at a bakery saying “Can we ­afford to buy bread and masks?”

Mr Lotzof raised more than $2000 from a GoFundMe page and bought up supplies.

Coronavirus kits with five level-three surgical/protective masks and a 60ml bottle of sanitiser will be handed out on Wednesday at Virginia Park, Bentleigh East, at 11am, and at Oak Park Leisure Centre at 1pm.

Moreland deputy mayor Oscar Yildiz, who will hand out kits in Oak Park, said Mr Lot­zof had contacted him when he heard of the outbreaks in the northern suburbs.

“Many in our communities have lost jobs and are financially struggling, to the extent they may not be able to buy masks at exorbitant prices, if they can find them,” Mr Yildiz said.

Mr Lotzof wants to extend the pandemic kits project to both eastern and western suburbs.

gofundme.com/f/ give-a-family-some-masks

THE STORES THAT WILL BAN MASKLESS SHOPPERS

Shoppers without a mask will be refused entry at some major stores this week as new COVID-19 rules come into force.

Retailers including Myer, Bunnings, Officeworks, Target and Kmart will be enforcing a “no mask, no entry” rule from Thursday in line with new government guidelines to stop the spread of the virus.

The new rules will mostly apply to residents in metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire, and will come into effect from 11.59pm on Wednesday.

Australian Retailers Association chief Paul Zahra said it was about “safety first”.

“The situation in Victoria remains very concerning and it’s safety first,” he said.

“We need to get ahead of this, we need to stick to the rules and what we’re trying to avoid here is the potential of a stage four (restriction).

“And we’re asking everybody adjust to this as the new normal.”

READ THIS FULL STORY HERE

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matthew.johnston@news.com.au

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