WorkSafe charges Victorian health department over COVID hotel quarantine program

The health and safety watchdog has charged Victoria’s health department with 58 breaches of the Occupational Health and Safety Act in relation to the state’s hotel quarantine program.

WorkSafe alleges the Department of Health, formerly the Department of Health and Human Services, failed to provide a safe working environment for its employees and put non-employees at risk.

The charges relate to Operation Soteria, the iteration of hotel quarantine which ran in the state from March to July 2020 and was in place when infection control breaches led to the deadly second wave.

Evidence of untrained private security guards, poor infection control protocols and a lack of oversight were uncovered in the media during those months.

The hotel quarantine program was ultimately shut for months during the second wave, and returned in December last year under a new system of command.

In a press release, WorkSafe detailed a list of alleged failures, including that the department breached health and safety laws by failing to appoint infection control experts at hotels and failed to provide training or instructions for the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“In all charges, WorkSafe alleges that Department of Health employees, Victorian Government Authorised Officers on secondment, or security guards were put at risk of serious illness or death through contracting COVID-19 from an infected returned traveller, another person working in the hotels or from a contaminated surface,” the organisation said.

The maximum penalty for a body corporate for each of the charges is $1.64 million, meaning the department could be ultimately penalised more than $95 million.

“This complex investigation took 15 months to complete and involved reviewing tens of thousands of documents and multiple witness interviews,” the WorkSafe statement said.

An independent inquiry finalised last year found the private security guards overseeing returned travellers should have received more training and supervision.

WorkSafe said a review of that inquiry “provided relevant context and information that informed parts of the investigation”.

The watchdog had been undertaking a number of investigations into hotels, security firms and other departments, which it said had now been concluded.

The matter is expected to be heard before the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on October 22.

A Victorian government spokesperson declined to comment while the matter was before the courts.

Shadow Health Minister Georgie Crozier said Premier Daniel Andrews needed to explain why he was not being held accountable for the biggest workplace incident in the state’s history.

“This has been a long investigation and after the tragedy that occurred last year, every Victorian wants to see some answers, they want people to be held accountable for that tragic loss and the devastation that occurred — not just with the loss of lives but the extended lockdown, the loss of business, the mental health impacts that have absolutely plagued Victorians,” she said.

“This has been a monumental failure by government — the biggest failure in government administration in the state’s history — and the Premier and the ministers responsible need to be accountable for those failures.”

Health Minister Jenny Mikakos resigned in September last year, as the Coate inquiry into the hotel quarantine system was undertaking hearings.

Source ABC News

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