Departmental staff in charge of running Melbourne’s quarantine hotels were more concerned with appeasing guests than infection control, according to a nurse who worked at the troubled facilities.
Some guests were given extra so-called “fresh air” breaks and took advantage of the increasingly relaxed system, threatening to self-harm if they were not given allowances to leave their rooms, the nurse — who does not want to be named — said.
She said she believed the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) was unnerved by a suspected suicide that occurred at the Pan Pacific hotel in South Wharf in April, during the first two weeks of hotel quarantine coming into force.
The suspected suicide is being investigated by the coroner.
The nurse said the whole focus became about ensuring guests were satisfied, rather than quarantined.
“They were just trying to fix guests’ anxiety, and as a result [staff] started having too many interactions with guests,” she said.
“We should have been seeing them as infrequently as possible.”
In one instance, the nurse said she was asked by a team leader to babysit one of the guest’s children for a couple of hours so the guest could clean their room and have a break — a request she refused.
Guests in some hotels also communicated through Facebook groups, she said, discussing how to beat the restrictions, which put hotel staff under more pressure.
“Things like ‘tell them you’ve got a psych issue and then they have to give you a fresh air break’ were doing the rounds,” she said.
“We had people calling us saying ‘I’m going to kill myself if I don’t have a cigarette outside right now’. You’ve got no choice but to take that threat seriously.”
The nurse said guests were only meant to have two fresh air breaks a week, escorted by a security guard or a nurse for roughly 15 minutes, but this became more frequent for guests if they complained.
Some people were allowed to leave their room every day for a half-hour cigarette break because they became threatening and aggressive otherwise, she said.
“Human nature is that you will play up if you’re given the scope to. And these people were allowed to,” she said.
She said some guests and security guards did not wear their masks properly during the breaks, and in some instances guests were smoking and did not wear a mask at all.
At least one guest she escorted out for a cigarette break tested positive for COVID-19 a few days later.
“I had just been standing there a few metres from them while they had their mask off. Members of the public were also walking past. It shouldn’t have been happening,” she said.
The ABC has seen payslips showing the nurse worked at more than half a dozen Melbourne quarantine hotels between April and July, including the Stamford Plaza, where one outbreak occurred.
She said each hotel was run differently, depending on the DHHS member in charge.
When asked if there had been any changes in policy or attitudes after the suicide in hotel quarantine, Mr Andrews said the concerns raised by the nurse “probably speaks to at least that person’s view … a tone or atmosphere very much on the ground”, rather than policy decisions.
“We did have a tragedy … someone did take their own life in that program. That much is true,” he said.
“But beyond that, I couldn’t speak to some of the comments and appraisals that are made in that [ABC] report today, but that may well be of interest to Judge Coate.”
Guards fist-bumped guests, shared lifts: nurse
The nurse also backed up previous whistleblower accounts about the standard of security guards at the hotel, saying she witnessed one fist-bumping a group of guests, multiple staff members travelling in lifts with guests and other security staff sitting down on their phones the entire day when they were meant to be actively guarding hotel floors.
However, she said some of the hotels she worked at had extremely good protocols in place, such as only the one staff member touching lift buttons or travelling in lifts with guests, and it was harder for guests to get special dispensations.
“If more people had spoken out from the start, maybe this wouldn’t have happened,” she said.
Victoria’s current coronavirus outbreak, which has led to tough stage 4 restrictions, could potentially be attributed to the botched hotel quarantine system.
An independent inquiry into the system was expected to begin public hearings this week, but the implementation of stage 4 restrictions resulted in those hearings being delayed until August 17.
The inquiry will focus on the administration of quarantine by Unified at Rydges in Carlton and MSS Security at the Stamford Plaza, but industry figures said more needed to be done to weed out the second and third tier of subcontractors, which were relied upon to service the contracts.
The state’s hotel quarantine system has been put on hold for international travellers during the surge in recent infections.
Messages reveal concerns guards fell asleep on the job
Security guards and subcontractors who worked at quarantine hotels have told the ABC they remain concerned that the inquiry will not fully uncover the litany of errors which plagued the scheme.
Messages sent via WhatsApp by a security guard manager to his staff, and seen by the ABC, indicate the manager was informed as early as April 27 that guards were falling asleep on the job at one hotel.
Other WhatsApp messages from a manager at Silvans Facility Services, which was subcontracted by Unified to provide guards at several hotels, show him telling his staff they should be grateful for the work, rather than complaining about conditions or disregarding instructions.
In early May, the manager forwarded a series of screenshots of messages from prospective guards who he said had contacted him in the past five hours seeking shifts.
“It breaks my heart to say no to them and makes me sad and some are ready to work for $15 an hour or ‘wtever [sic] you can pay’. These guys are waiting to be exploited as they are so desperate,” the manager wrote.
“I just wanted you all to understand my work is not easy. If you are not serious still and disregarding instructions and don’t want to be a team player, then some of these people will replace you.”
Silvans part-owner and national operations manager Kapil Bhatia declined to comment, but said he would cooperate with the inquiry if called.
Another guard who worked for Silvans said he received “perfect” access to PPE and training, and personally saw five guards being asked to leave their shifts because of a failure to wear masks or proper uniform.
A separate subcontractor who provided guards to Unified at Rydges said he had also seen staff sent home for minor uniform breaches, such as wearing the wrong socks.
He questioned whether the system failures were because of the behaviour of individual guards, rather than the contractors.
The subcontractor said the framing of cash payments as something solely pushed by employers was incorrect, as many employees requested to be paid this way to ensure they remained eligible for other government payments or did not breach visa conditions.
He also said reports that hotel guards were recruited via WhatsApp or Gumtree gave the false impression this was a new practice, rather than a necessary measure in an underregulated industry where demand for work can fluctuate wildly.
Dozens of guards can be required to fill shifts at short notice, a fact underlined in a text message seen by the ABC which was sent by a manager at the Security Hub, which was a subcontractor for MSS Security, requesting a guard to fill a shift with less than 10 hours’ notice at the Stamford Plaza.
The Security Hub declined to comment, but a spokesman confirmed they planned to cooperate with the inquiry, which has listed it as one of 14 private entities of interest.
The Premier has declined to give detailed answers to questions about hotel quarantine while the judicial inquiry is imminent.
A DHHS spokesman declined to answer detailed questions about the quarantine program or allegations raised by the nurse, saying it would be inappropriate to comment while the inquiry remained ongoing.