COVID-19 cases in Victoria skyrocketed by more than 2000 per cent in a matter of weeks. In trying to understand the predicament once again faced by businesses and communities in the lockdown regions, it begs the question… are governments – in their capacity as an employer – held to the same workplace safety laws as the private sector?
How did we get here?
From late-May through to mid-June, all signs were pointing to a recovery. Cafes resuming their familiar buzz, the hum of traffic navigating the peak-hour commute, and Australians planning great escapes within the trans-Tasman bubble.
Alas, it was short lived.
On 16 March, the Victorian Government declared a state of emergency to help minimise the spread of the virus. The lockdown, which has been extended three times since it was first introduced, sees metropolitan Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire effectively cut-off from the rest of the country until 16 August at the earliest.
In the process, the nation’s second biggest economy – not to mention small businesses, families and communities – are being impacted in ways we could never have imagined. So much so, that people across the state and, indeed, the country are asking themselves, ‘how did we end up back here?’
All of that might well be true. But not more so than the root cause itself, the mismanagement of hotel quarantine.
Hotel quarantine a workplace health and safety breach
When the initial state of emergency was announced earlier this year, so too were a raft of new workplace health and safety measures designed to prevent and manage exposure to coronavirus.
“About 80 per cent of the state’s new infections since mid-May are being driven by transmission in workplaces, including private-sector aged care”
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews
The importance of these measures being enacted in the workplace cannot be understated, with Premier Daniel Andrews attributing “about 80 per cent” of new infections since mid-May to transmission in the workplace.
From having the right PPE gear, to physical distancing, to regular and thorough workplace cleaning, businesses are, for the first time, being held accountable for stopping the spread of a social disease. It’s reached the point where entire industries are under threat of shutdown if businesses fail to comply with the guidelines and cases continue to rise.
While the new measures effectively extended to hotel quarantines, where the stakes were higher, cases continued to escalate behind (what were presumed) closed doors.
Stories quickly began to emerge of close contact between returned travelers and the personnel put in place by private security companies, which were contracted by the state government.
Despite the Australian Defence Force being on standby for deployment, a decision was made to use private security companies instead, with the subsequent fall-out documented in detail in the weeks since.
If the decision to deploy security firms over the ADF was the result of a government edict, does it not follow that the state government is effectively in breach of Victoria’s workplace health and safety breach laws?
Inquiry announced, but will it do its job?
In early July, Premier Daniel Andrews announced that The Honourable Jennifer Coate AO would lead a Judicial Inquiry into the Hotel Quarantine Program.
The Inquiry is due to examine decisions, actions and communication between government agencies, hotel operators and private contractors, as well as contractual arrangements, and guidance and equipment provided to staff in hotels.
If the workplace health and safety laws introduced to safeguard Victorians are found by the Inquiry to be breached, should we be asking the government – as an employer – to hold itself accountable, in the same way any other organisation would be for breaches of the Act? And, should it follow that the recently-introduced industrial manslaughter charges see the state government, as an employer, responsible for the death of scores of Victorians as a result of its failure to keep their workplaces safe?
The Victorian Government has been quick to introduce measures to limit the spread of the virus and to enact financial support programs to mitigate the economic impact. For this, it must be commended.
However, if we’re to overcome the second wave of the pandemic, we need to consider how we ended up back here. If the answer is a failure on the part of employers to both enact and enforce health and safety regulations, then compliance by all levels of the public and private sector is how we can protect our community from further spread of the virus.
Deborah Coram, Safetrac’s CEO, will regularly share industry-relevant news to keep you informed on what’s happening in the world of compliance and brand protection.
As an authority on compliance training for almost 20 years, Deborah’s insights are thought-provoking, relevant and timely.
These courses are broken into two versions – an Employee version to assist staff in understanding the COVID-19 outbreak, what they can do to reduce the risk of infection, and a Manager version to assist with knowing what signs to be aware of, and what they can do to protect their health along with the health of their staff.
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