The new path out of lockdown
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From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.
After more than 100 days of strict lockdown, Victorians finally have a new path out of restrictions.
Yesterday’s announcement by Premier Daniel Andrews signals a more gradual easing than the government originally hoped, after outbreaks amongst frontline workers led to a spike in case numbers
Today, Osman Faruqi on the story behind Victoria’s slower path out of lockdown, and where the risk now lies.
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Os, a highly anticipated announcement from the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews yesterday. What did he say ?
Archival Tape --Daniel Andrews:
“Everyone right to go? Firstly I’ll run through the numbers of the day as quickly as I can...”
So he announced some easing of restrictions.
Archival Tape --
“From 11.59 pm tonight, there will be no time limit on leaving your home for exercise or for socialising.”
You’re now allowed to travel up to 25km from your home. That’s up from the previous restriction of 5km.
Archival Tape --
“Outdoor gatherings will increase to 10 people from two households.”
Some outdoor sports like golf, tennis and skateparks have reopened. Hairdressers have also reopened, and there’s already very very long wait lists for people desperate to get a haircut. However, retail and hospitality remain closed, though the Premier did announce that they could reopen with restrictions from November 1st, which is a couple of weeks away.
Archival Tape -- Daniel Andrews:
“We just have a little longer to go, just a little longer to go just in order to see off this second wave, to defeat this second wave.”
Ok and so how does this compare to what was supposed to happen?
Well, we’re not too far off the initial roadmap at this stage, but there are still some pretty key differences. Originally we were supposed to see stay at home orders removed after they had been in place for over 100 days, and the reopening of retail, restaurants, bars and cafes that were allowed to be open for outdoor dining.
Archival Tape -- Daniel Andrews:
“Now I know and understand that not everything everybody wanted is in the announcements I've made today. I just make this point: I've announced today what is safe.”
The Premier was really clear yesterday that the easing that he announced does need to be done much more gradually than initially planned because even though case numbers have been really low over the past few days, there have been a couple of key recent outbreaks have given us a higher daily average, and more mystery cases then we were expecting.
Let's talk about these key outbreaks, Os, the biggest one is the Chadstone shopping center cluster. So how did that start?
So this cluster at Chadstone, it really has its genesis in one contract cleaner who worked at a butcher's shop.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:
“The shutters were down and deep cleaning was underway at the Butcher Club in chadstone today after an infectious staff member spent four days working there last week.”
That cleaner lived in a household of nine people. So quite a large household. And it's thought that they contracted the virus from one of their family members who they also lived with.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #2:
“Almost a third of today's 15 news cases can be traced back to a single household.”
That then led to customers and staff across the entire center being asked to come forward for testing.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #3:
“Chadstone butcher club outbreak has now spread to at least 16 suburbs...”
By the end of last week, there were nearly 20 staff and customers directly linked to Chadstone who were Covid positive.
Archival Tape --Unidentified Man #4:
“The Chadstone butcher super spreader has added another four infections to the shopping centre cluster,”
The virus didn’t just stop at customers and staff, it kept spreading. It spread to two regional towns.
Archival Tape --Unidentified Woman #1:
“The community not taking any chances after an outbreak at the Chadstone shopping centre spread to regional Victoria.”
One of the staff members at the butcher's club lived with his dad, who was a truck driver, and he traveled through regional Victoria for work. And he stopped at those two towns, interacted with people there and passed on the virus.
That cluster is now linked to over 50 infections.
All of this stuff is on the public record, but what isn't is something I've confirmed, which is that the outbreak at Chadstone has also spread to staff who work at a hospital in Melbourne.
So the Chadstone cluster is now linked to a hospital? What do we know about how that happened?
So there’s been infections at the Cabrini Hospital in Malvern and they’ve been linked to the Chadstone cluster. But the only reason we know about this is because of inquiries I made after I received a tip off.
We really don't know a lot about what's happening in other hospitals across the state, and that's despite calls from health care workers for more transparency about what's happening in their workplaces.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Doctor:
“We need to make sure our healthcare workers are protected, we need accurate numbers of who is actually being furloughed from work or being infected at work.”
So on top of the infections at the Cabrini Hospital, I’ve also confirmed that staff at another four hospitals in Melbourne have tested positive for Covid-19 in the past couple of weeks, and none of those locations have been publicly disclosed.
And that’s a concern both for staff who work there, but also for patients and the wider community, who I think at this stage in the pandemic really want as much information about what's happening with the virus as possible.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Doctor:
“We are seeing outbreaks at hospitals around the city. We need to make sure these people are protected.”
And there is one hospital outbreak that has been publicized and it's probably the biggest concern at the moment. It's an outbreak at Box Hill Hospital.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #5:
“A patient and two staff from Box Hospital are tonight at the centre of a concerning new coronavirus outbreak.”
By the end of last week, there were 12 cases linked to the cluster there.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #6:
“We know how quickly health clusters can spread, parts of the hospital are currently closed for deep cleaning and staff and close contacts are being isolated and tested.”
And I think it's also really important to remember that when we're talking about these outbreaks in health care settings, often we think about doctors and nurses and that has been a big chunk of who has contracted the virus. But they're not the only kinds of staff working in health care settings who are getting Covid-19. I mean for example at the Box Hill cluster, one of the staff who has got the virus was actually a cleaner.
And I've also discovered that there have been 160 cleaners working across hospitals in Victoria and other health care settings who've tested positive to Covid-19. So these are issues for all sorts of staff working in these high risk environments.
Os, what is all of this telling us about the way in which Covid-19 is spreading and what's going wrong still in Victoria?
I think it highlights a really specific problem.
And that's that, look, despite the lockdown where millions have been confined to their homes and most businesses aren't operating as usual, there are still a significant number of people doing essential work like cleaning. And often those workers, they're in really economically desperate situations. They're largely migrant workers or international students. And they've been cut off from federal government income support. So they're desperate for work and they're often working multiple jobs, at the same time living in crowded housing with shared bathrooms. All of these things basically create the perfect condition for Covid-19 to spread.
And there's actually one company in particular here in Victoria which has got key contracts across big shopping centers, aged care facilities, even the hotel quarantine program, as well as schools.
And that company has notified the government of more Covid-19 cases among its staff than any other organization in the state outside of hospitals and aged care facilities.
And that company is Spotless.
And I've spoken to one of their former employees who's highlighted a whole series of really major concerns about the way staff working for Spotless on the frontline during the height of the second wave were being treated by the company.
We’ll be back in a moment.
Os, you've been talking to a whistleblower who used to work at Spotless, which is the company which has been involved in key contracts across Victoria. What have they said to you? And is what they’ve said in contrast at all to what the company itself has been saying about it’s practices?
Yes. So there's been a large number of cases linked to Spotless staff in Victoria and Spotless tells me that they've done everything they can to support infected staff as well as prevent transmission risk across their workplaces .
But one former Spotless employee got in touch with me, actually after I did reporting on Spotless staff contracting the virus whilst working in hotel quarantine. They worked for the company throughout the second wave as a cleaner and they really disputed what Spotless had told me about their risk management approaches.
This former cleaner wanted to remain anonymous because they were scared that they might face retribution from the company for speaking up, which I guess kind of highlights one of the challenges of telling this story.
They told me that, when they worked, staff weren't given adequate PPE, for example, they were asked to to wear their own masks when they came to work. They also told me that there was no attempt by the company to organize staff rosters in a way that minimized interaction between workers and therefore limited the chance for the virus to spread amongst the teams working as cleaners.
The former cleaner told me that these issues around workplace safety were exacerbated by the fact that almost everyone they work with was an international student who was desperate for work and too scared to speak up because they didn't want to lose their jobs.
And eventually they quit the job after the company denied that staff they were working alongside had tested positive. They said that they just no longer felt safe. And even though they needed the work, they just would rather not work than continue to work in such an unsafe environment.
Right. And all of this is significant, obviously, because Spotless, as you've just said, is a company that's had more notifications as a result of staff testing positive for Covid-19 than any other organization in the state. So what do we know about that? Where have those cases been?
It's a really great question, Ruby. And even though Spotless has got quite a large number of contracts working in a whole range of different settings and have confirmed a significant number of their staff have tested positive, they wouldn't provide me with a breakdown of where those staff worked.
But one of the biggest outbreaks amongst Spotless staff was actually at the Chadstone shopping center, believe it or not, and that's not related to this current outbreak, this is another outbreak that happened there back in August.
There were nine cleaners working for Spotless who tested positive for Covid-19 within the space of about a week and a number of other staff working at the centre for different shops also tested positive. But the biggest group of infections came from Spotless cleaners.
And to be really clear, like I said, there's no link between what happened in August and the most recent case, the cleaner of the most recent outbreak doesn't work for Spotless.
Though I think it’s really extraordinary that we’ve got this big cluster now, which is the result of a contract cleaner working at the centre. And a couple of months ago there was another cluster at the exact same shopping centre also related to cleaners.
So these outbreaks really highlight this kind of precarious situation that we are in. These workers are working jobs that keep being associated with positive Covid cases. And we're seeing how quickly the virus can spread from those vulnerable cohorts into the wider community.
So, Os, is there a solution here? Because we're seeing ongoing cases of Covid-19 among health care workers and outbreaks sparked by vulnerable workers like contract cleaners. So what's going to happen, is this going to hold Melbourne in lockdown indefinitely?
The government is seemingly shifting its approach. It's no longer relying on hard and fast targets that were pretty ambitious the way that they first were. And I think that's an acknowledgment that it's very, very hard to break transmission chains when you're talking about these high risk settings.
And I spoke to Professor Catherine Bennett, who's the chair of epidemiology at Deakin University.
Archival Tape -- Catherine Bennett:
“There's going to be risk everywhere. But it's about managing risk. And that's something that we're getting better and better at all the time.”
She said that even though we've got continued cases in these high risk areas, they don't need to be a reason why we're in lockdown in perpetuity.
Archival Tape --Catherine Bennett:
“So I do think the combination of that really targeted approach to locking down around cases and clusters, as well as focussing on that early warning systems that we have, particularly the sentinel surveillance of high risk workplaces.”
She told me that we just need to get smarter and more targeted about how we deal with those outbreaks.
How so? How would we do that?
Well, that could involve things like testing staff in high risk industries, regardless of whether or not they've got symptoms. And that's happening in some industries like abattoirs, which were a key source of outbreaks early on in Victoria.
But it's not happening for health care workers or cleaners.
Archival Tape -- Catherine Bennett:
“So it's those things that give, not just the broader population and community, but also industry and workplaces, the agency, you know, to actually help determine our destiny and we will have to live with the virus for some time. And I do think, you know, we can do that.”
Of course, the deeper issue here is the fact that we've just got a significant group of people in this country who don't have proper income support, who aren't being looked after in the middle of a pandemic and feel like they need to work these jobs, even if it's putting them at risk in terms of their health and safety.
I mean, that's an issue that needs to be looked at much more deeply, much more seriously. And If we can really be targeted and invest in protecting those who are working right now to keep the rest of us safe, that could be a way where we could open up even if we still see the odd outbreak here or there.
Os, thank you so much for talking to me about all of this today.
No worries. Thanks, Ruby.
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Also in the news today:
NSW recorded five new cases of COVID-19 yesterday, four international travellers in hotel quarantine and one case of local transmission.
Health authorities say the local transmission case is linked to the cluster in Sydney's south-west.
Jacinda Ardern has claimed a decisive victory in New Zealand’s general election, after a landslide result for the Labour Party.
Ardern promised to rebuild following the Covid crisis, and create an economy that ‘works for everyone’.
And in the ACT - Labor has claimed victory in the territory election, with the Chief Minister Andrew Barr set to maintain his coalition government with the Greens.
I’m Ruby Jones, this 7am see you tomorrow.
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After more than 100 days of strict lockdown, Victorians finally have a new path out of restrictions. It signals a more gradual easing than the government originally hoped, after outbreaks amongst frontline workers led to a spike in case numbers Today, Osman Faruqi on the story behind the slower path out of lockdown and where the risk now lies.
Guest: Editor of 7am Osman Faruqi.
Where Victoria’s second-wave cases are still occurring in The Saturday Paper
7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.
Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.
Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.
New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Subscribe in your favourite podcast app, to make sure you don’t miss out.
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