Returned traveller left hotel quarantine, infected driver on the way home, inquiry hears

At least one returned traveller left hotel quarantine in Melbourne while infected with COVID-19 and passed it on to the person who drove them home, an inquiry into the ill-fated program has heard.

The person who was quarantined at the Stamford Plaza in Melbourne's CBD was unknowingly carrying the virus, but at the time COVID-19 testing was not mandatory for all returned travellers.

The Stamford Plaza – the source of a major outbreak partly responsible for Victoria’s second coronavirus wave. Credit:Getty Images

Even those who did test positive to the virus could not be held in hotel quarantine longer than 14 days and were instructed to self-isolate at home, the inquiry heard.

Genomics testing later linked the traveller's virus back to an outbreak at the Stamford Plaza.

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton, who is giving evidence at the state's hotel quarantine inquiry, acknowledged other returned travellers would have left quarantine without knowing they were carrying the virus.

"They would have been questioned as to whether they had any symptoms and would have been released on the basis they were symptom-free," Professor Sutton told the inquiry on Wednesday morning.

Counsel assisting the inquiry Ben Ihle asked: "There was no power though was there to keep them in hotel quarantine if they were merely demonstrating some symptoms but refusing a test?"

Professor Sutton replied: "No, other than the issue being escalated to me for consideration for an individual public health order for the purpose of testing or for the purpose of isolation for example …

"That did not happen."

Under new laws introduced in June returned travellers who refuse a COVID-19 test on the 11th day of their initial quarantine period can be detained for a further 10 days.

Professor Sutton said he had no control of how crucial COVID-19 infection prevention advice was disseminated beyond his office.

He said he and his team provided advice on infection control measures to the Department of Health and Human Services.

How that was implemented across Melbourne's ill-fated hotel quarantine program – particularly where major outbreaks occurred at the Rydges on Swanston and Stamford Plaza – was beyond his remit, he said.

Mr Ihle suggested the advice was disseminated across the system at large, "but your team doesn't have oversight into how those policies are being proliferated and whether and how they're being complied with".

"I think that's a fair statement," Professor Sutton replied.

The Chief Health Officer was the first to reveal in July that genomic sequencing carried out by Melbourne's Doherty Institute showed that nearly all of Victoria's second-wave COVID-19 cases could be traced back to quarantine breaches at hotels.

He has previously said he first learnt about major problems with security contractors employed to guard the quarantine hotels when he read it in newspapers.

However, The Age has previously revealed that key players in the hotel quarantine system warned Professor Sutton of major problems with the scheme in April, more than a month before the first infection at Rydges on Swanston was diagnosed on May 26. The Stamford outbreak started on June 17.

A Victorian public health official has claimed he warned senior government figures, including Professor Sutton, that there was considerable risk to the health and safety of people detained in hotel quarantine.

The email, released by the inquiry on Wednesday, was from Public Health Commander Dr Finn Romanes and was sent on April 9, within two weeks of the quarantine program starting.

Dr Romanes, a former deputy chief health officer, wrote there was "a lack of a unified plan for this program" and the people running the program were not "satisfied there is a policy and set processes to manage the healthcare and welfare of detainees, for whom this program is accountable".

"There are now considerable complexity and considerable risk that unless governance and plans issues are addressed there will be a risk to the health and safety of detainees," Dr Romanes wrote.

The email was addressed to state controller Andrea Spiteri and the deputy state controller. Professor Sutton and his deputy Annaliese van Diemen were copied into the email along with Health Department commanders Pam Williams and Merrin Bamert, and department deputy secretary Jacinda de Witts.

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