MELBOURNE (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Australian police are probing alleged security lapses at Melbourne hotels used to quarantine overseas arrivals, including claims that guards slept with guests.
Health authorities are investigating whether the breaches have contributed to a resurgence of coronavirus in the nation's second-largest city.
Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Thursday (July 2) he supported a judicial review into "strong claims of inappropriate behaviour" by guards employed by security companies contracted by Victoria's state government. If the allegations proved true, the authorities should "throw the book" at those responsible, he said in a Sky News interview.
Among the allegations revealed by the Herald Sun newspaper are that security firms charged for shifts never worked, which led to under-staffing. The firms also allegedly allowed misuse of personal protection equipment, didn't provide proper training on infection protocols, and allowed quarantined families to visit others.
Victoria state has experienced more than two weeks of double-digit daily increases in new Covid-19 cases after social distancing restrictions were eased, jeopardising its economic recovery and prompting other states to delay plans to open their borders.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison in March closed international borders to non-residents, and all returning Australians have been required to quarantine for two weeks in hotels. Unlike most states and territories which enlisted their police forces to regulate the quarantine, Victoria contracted out the task to security firms.
The outbreak has caused state Premier Daniel Andrews to order 10 areas of Melbourne, comprising about 7 per cent of its estimated 5 million people, to re-enter lockdowns for the next four weeks.
Victoria reported 77 new cases on Thursday, up slightly from the previous day and in line with weeks of double-digit daily increases, while most other states and territories have recorded few, if any, community transmissions for weeks.
It's important the inquiry into the alleged breaches proceed independently so mistakes aren't repeated, Mr Andrews said in an Australian Broadcasting Corp television interview late on Thursday.
"We can't go back, we can't change beyond the very important reforms and the changes that have been made right across the journey," he said.
"We have got more staff in there that come from different places. We are confident today that challenges that occurred many, many weeks ago will not be repeated."
Australian police set up suburban checkpoints in coronavirus hotspots in Melbourne on Thursday and were considering using drones to enforce stay-at-home orders. More than 1,000 police set up posts around 36 suburbs.
“I’m obviously concerned about the outbreak, and I’m pleased that the premier has taken the action he’s taken by putting in place the lockdown for the outbreak in those suburbs,” Mr Morrison said in a televised news conference, referring to the Victorian state government.
“We have seen some levelling (in new cases) although they remain at elevated levels and that is of concern and that means as the lockdown now is in place, we would hope to see those numbers fall again.”
Victoria police commissioner Shane Patton promised a heavy presence in “high-volume public places” and said police may even use drones to track down people travelling for reasons other than work, school, healthcare and grocery shopping.
“People will not know where we will be, they will not know how long we’ll be there for, but they’ll be intercepted,” he said.
A director at Phat Milk cafe in Melbourne’s Travancore, one of the affected suburbs, said the sudden return to lockdown had left him with a kitchen full of food.
“What do you do with that stock? You have to close the kitchen because it’s takeaway,” said the director, who gave only his first name, Hach. “From four to six staff, you only have one staff on. It is hard, but you just got to find the passion, the drive, and be a bit creative and hang in there.”
While Australia has been one of the standout performers globally in limiting the spread of the virus to less than 8,000 cases, Victoria's flare-up - mainly amid Melbourne's poorer and more multicultural suburbs - shows just how hard it will be to eradicate without a vaccine.
Mr Morrison has been pushing for all of Australia's internal travel restrictions to be lifted this month in a bid to boost an economy set for its first recession in almost three decades. Instead, most states and territories are signalling they will keep their borders closed to Victorians.
The neighbouring New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, on Thursday said residents of the 10 locked down areas in Victoria would face six months in jail or an A$11,000 (S$10,614) fine if they attempt to cross the border.
New South Wales had just put 50 staff at a Sydney branch of supermarket chain Woolworths Group into isolation after a worker tested positive to the virus despite clearing a mandatory two-week quarantine in Victoria, authorities said.
Meanwhile, remote Northern Territory reported its first infection in two months after a traveller who had entered the country via Melbourne and completed quarantine showed symptoms after returning to his home territory.
“People will be anxious hearing this news ... but we have measures in place to protect our community (and) these measures have been followed,” Northern Territory Health Minister Natasha Fyles told reporters. The infected person, aged in their 30s, has been isolated in hospital, she added.
Globally, coronavirus cases exceeded 10 million on Sunday, a major milestone in the spread of a disease that has killed more than half a million people in seven months.