A key adviser to Scott Morrison on Covid has accused the government of failing to adopt “best practice right across” the national quarantine system.
National Covid-19 Co-ordination Commission Advisory Board commissioner Jane Halton in October released a review on Australia’s hotel quarantine system, calling for additional national quarantine facilities.
Following a series of outbreaks since the review’s release, including the ongoing situation in Victoria, Ms Halton said she was “disappointed” the federal government had failed to adopt “best practice right across the system”.
The federal government announced plans to expand the NT’s Howard Springs facility in the May budget and backed a proposal by the Victorian government to construct a purpose-built facility in state.
But Ms Halton said she was “perplexed” the decision had taken so long.
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“Some of the breaches we have seen recently are a direct reflection of an absence of best practice in some of these systems,” she told ABC Radio on Wednesday.
“So to say that I’m disappointed about that I think is the minimum.”
Appearing before a senate committee on Wednesday, Health Department secretary Brendan Murphy rejected Ms Halton’s assertions.
He claimed she was expressing disappointment over a South Australian quarantine leak.
“Of course, when there are potentially human errors or mistakes, it’s upsetting for people like Ms Halton. But there is a continuous solid program of quality improvement,” he said.
Labor Senator Murray Watt retorted that outbreaks were “upsetting for all of us, not just Ms Halton”.
“It’s pretty upsetting for the 60 people who have now have Covid in Victoria because of a hotel quarantine breach,” Mr Watt responded.
He demanded to know whether the government had spoken to Ms Halton about her criticisms.
“You chose her to do a review of hotel quarantine … What’s she missing?” he asked.
Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck said decisions on hotel quarantine were discussed weekly by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), and the system was constantly improving.
“There is no perfect quarantine system. The only perfect quarantine system is a cessation of movement of all people,” he said.
The exchange came on the same day as revelations a case in Perth’s hotel quarantine was passed between people in adjoining rooms.
Mr Watt demanded the government impose a national standard, applied to Howard Springs, on hotel quarantine.
Mr Colbeck said the states had asked to control hotel quarantine as part of national cabinet discussions, accusing Mr Watt of “developing a narrative that diminishes the state’s responsibilities”.
“If the states want to bring something different back to national cabinet, I’m sure that they’re capable of doing that,” he said.
“You’re the commonwealth government, can’t you just take control?” Mr Watt replied.
Mr Colbeck said on Tuesday he was “comfortable” with the Australia’s vaccine rollout but avoided repeating the comment on hotel quarantine.
He said the number of aged care workers vaccinated on Tuesday would be available at noon, and he would “look into” making that data available each day.
“We don’t know how many of those 130,000 workers who are visiting older Australians have been vaccinated,” he said.
“Correct. That’s right,” Mr Colbeck responded.
Victoria recorded six new COVID-19 community transmission cases on Wednesday, but officials revealed none were aged care workers or residents.
There remained one positive case among aged care residents in the state and one worker.
The committee was told on Tuesday that only 33,000 aged care workers, less than 10 per cent of the total workforce, were confirmed to have received their second dose of the vaccine.
Dr Murphy said the vaccination rate was likely higher than that but conceded an exact number was unclear.
“We’re talking speculatively about something that government said would happen by Easter because it was priority 1A. It feels a lot like priority Z to me,” Mr Watt said.
Mr Colbeck said a reporting portal, set to come online on Friday, would “give us good information”.
“That’s why we’ve developed this system, so that we can have a complete picture of the vaccination rates within the workforce,” he said.
“(But) there was no column on a spreadsheet to figure out how many home care workers were going to be vaccinated? That’s incredible that that hasn’t been thought about yet,” Labor senator Nita Green said.
Mr Watt earlier sparked an argument after accusing Liberal members of asking “Dorothy Dixers” – a rehearsed question – to ease the pressure on Mr Colbeck.
“I didn’t realise the minister was in such trouble he had to be protected … I’ve never seen a Minister have to get a Dorothy Dixer first-up in estimates,” he said.
Liberal senator Holly Hughes said she was “outraged” by the suggestion.
“I’m sorry Senator (Katy) Gallagher wasn’t here to write your questions for you this morning,” she said to Mr Watt.