In late March, the Victorian government put private security firms in charge of hotel quarantine in Melbourne. This happened without a formal tender process.
It was a decision made at the height of concern about the spread of COVID-19 in Australia. But it is one that has come back to bite Victoria as it stares down a second wave, amid reports of serious infection control breaches in the hotel quarantine system.
The Andrews government has since announced a judicial inquiry into management of the program.
This situation is both distressing and disappointing. But it should come as no surprise to anyone with a passing interest in labour standards in the private security industry or an understanding of governance issues in supply chains.
To put it plainly, the Victorian government used an industry with a long history of non-compliance with minimum standards for a critical public safety job.
According to the Australian Security Industry Association, in March 2020, there were more than 11,000 security businesses in Australia with more than 147,000 individual security licence holders.
It is not difficult to enter the industry. It does not take much capital to start a business and the workforce is relatively low-skilled. As a result, a large number of security businesses compete for security contracts and there is strong competition on labour costs.
The Fair Work Ombudsman has also identified
a lack of awareness and education regarding employer obligations and employee entitlements.
This creates an industry where labour issues are rife. The Ombudsman and media regularly highlight issues in the sector, including underpayment of wages, health and safety problems and sub-contracting.
Sub-contracting is a problem on two levels. Firstly, it often appears in the form known as “sham contracting”. This sees an employer try to hide an employment relationship as an independent contract, to avoid liability for employee entitlements.
Secondly, subcontracting by larger companies to smaller companies dilutes control and responsibility and increases the pressure on costs, especially wages.
It has been reported that at least one of the security companies involved in Victoria’s hotel quarantine system subcontracted work to a smaller security company.
There are also concerns the industry makes extensive use of “zombie” agreements, which are agreements made under WorkChoices-era regulations that were not subject to the “better off overall test”. This means workers potentially receive lower wages and less generous conditions than they would under the current industry award.
The three firms contracted by the Victorian government were MSS Security, Wilson Security and Unified Security.
MSS, one of the largest security providers in Australia, has recently made headlines over a pay dispute with security guards in Bendigo. Five guards were back-paid $52,000 after a years-long dispute.
Wilson, another large security firm, was the subject of a 2018 Australian Competition and Consumer Commission investigation. This saw them pay back more than $700,000 to clients after charging for security patrols it did not carry out.
The Victorian government is also in the middle of a review into the state’s private security industry, with the specific aims of raising industry standards, improving safety of employees and the community, and ensuring workers are paid properly and fairly. It is due to report by December 2020.
The aims are admirable, but the disconnect between the review and the government’s reliance on security contractors for hotel quarantine raises questions about due diligence within government procurement processes.
According to media reports, the companies were engaged without a formal tender process and selected with just 24 hours notice.
The third company used for the hotel program – Unified – was not even part of a pre-approved panel of service providers that allowed certain firms to be contracted at short notice.
This was a decision made in context of fast-moving pandemic. But it was not the only option.
For its hotel quarantine system, NSW has used police and Australian Defence Force personnel as well as security contractors. Victoria is also now seeking parole and prison officers to help with its hotel quarantine.
The Victorian government is taking the blame at the moment, but the problem here is much broader and touches all Australian jurisdictions.
The fact that Victoria has relied on private security firms for a hyper-sensitive public health job is testament to an entrenched culture of outsourcing government services all around Australia. In the federal sphere alone, in 2018-19, there were 78,150 contracts published on AusTender with a combined value of $64.5 billion.
But as governments are among the biggest procurers of goods and services in Australia, they also have a ready-made lever to influence the behaviour of contracted companies.
All levels of government need to monitor the companies who work for them and use their influence to ensure subcontractors adopt best practices in terms of workforce management and labour standards.
Policy is only as good as its implementation. And it doesn’t help that those in charge of procurement within government are not necessarily on the same page as those in charge of industrial relations or industry policy.
Many non-government organisations have similar issues, where corporate social responsibility is at odds with procurement needs.
While the issue seems tricky in highly competitive industries, it can be solved.
A good example here is the Cleaning Accountability Framework set up in 2014. This is an independent, industry-led body that brings together property owners, companies and employee groups to solve labour issues in the cleaning sector.
The hotel quarantine program bungle is the wake-up call we need for a similar body for the security industry.
Sarah Kaine, Associate Professor UTS Centre for Business and Social Innovation, University of Technology Sydney and Emmanuel Josserand, Professor of management, Director of the Centre for Business and Social Innovation, University of Technology Sydney
Metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire are beginning another six weeks of lockdown due to a spike in COVID-19 cases.
While this second round of lockdown may bring the case numbers under control, its effects on Victorians’ mental health could be significant.
Australians are already experiencing mental health fallout from COVID-19. A prolonged pandemic, and a second lockdown, might only make things worse.
Our mental health is affected by changes in our social circumstances, and no event in recent history has wrought havoc with our daily lives quite like COVID-19.
Parents of newborns have had reduced access to social support.
Many people have had to grieve alone after the death of a loved one.
People experiencing homelessness have received temporary housing, but may have difficulty readjusting to life without support again.
Nursing home residents have endured months of isolation.
While we don’t yet know the full extent of the mental health fallout from COVID-19, we are seeing an increase in mental disorders like depression and anxiety.
As Melbournians return to lockdown, the impact of loneliness, fear, anxiety and hopelessness is likely to increase further.
A review of the literature around quarantine shows the mental health effects worsen with longer quarantine duration, infection fears, frustration, boredom, inadequate supplies, inadequate information, financial loss, and stigma.
The reality is we don’t know what the mental health effects of a second lockdown will be. But this second lockdown in Melbourne has all the features of a difficult quarantine situation, including enforced isolation from friends and relatives.
Another six weeks will likely bring frustration, anger and a sense of hopelessness, compounding the mental health effects we’ve felt up to this point.
Plus, any “novelty” we might have felt the first time has likely worn off.
This second lockdown also shows us COVID-19 is likely to be with us for a long time. Our hope for a quick resolution and return to normal is fading.
The effects of hardship, trauma and loss associated with lockdown and the pandemic more broadly are unlikely to be spread evenly across the population.
People who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, people who are unemployed, Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people and those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds already have poorer mental health and poorer access to services.
This week’s “hard lockdown” in the North Melbourne tower blocks is a stark reminder of the disproportionate effect this pandemic is having on vulnerable groups.
The longer the pandemic endures, the greater the division between those who have resources to access care and those who don’t is likely to become.
For young people, the sense of hopelessness and worry about the future is escalating.
Professor Susan Rossell from Swinburne University has been tracking the mental health of 18-25-year-olds over the past three months, and has noted a serious spike in mental illness. The mental health impacts of COVID-19 also seem to be more severe for women, and those with existing mental illness.
In the past month, this spike was particularly noticeable in Victoria, presumably due to increasing numbers of new cases.
In many ways, the trajectory of emotional responses to COVID-19 echoes the trajectory of chronic illness.
As a GP, I see people transition from their first episode of illness, where they hope everything will return to normal, to a more chronic course, where they gradually realise they need to adapt to a new and changing idea of what normal will become.
This second wave in Victoria shows us we can’t just wait for things to return to normal. The implications COVID-19 has on our lives — and the associated mental health effects — will be ongoing.
Somewhat like a patient with chronic illness, we need to adapt to the idea that change is the “new normal”. This uncertainty makes life profoundly difficult for people beginning to plan for their future, like young people, and people who have few resources to weather change.
More than ever, we need to offer medical and psychosocial care to the vulnerable people in our community if we’re to prevent mental illness becoming more damaging than the virus itself.
On the other hand, there’s always hope the new normal will become more equal, more sustainable and more humane.
If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
You’re nervous, I get it.
Panic buying is back, not as strong as in March and more localised in Melbourne. Once again shop shelves have been emptied of pasta, toilet paper and other household items.
When will things get back to normal? Soon, more than likely in a matter of days, rather than weeks.
Last time most of Australia was involved. Taken by surprise, supermarkets struggled with shoppers across the nation going into “hoard mode” simultaneously.
Normally supermarket supply chains run like well-oiled machines with highly predictable demand. Products move slowly and continuously from factories to distribution centres to stores. Supply chains are “skinny”, with stores ensuring they have just enough stock to meet that demand, particularly for low-margin products like toilet paper that take up a lot of shelf space.
A spike in demand can thus quickly empty shelves. It can prompt other shoppers to also start stockpiling, due to fear of missing out, making the problem worse.
Responding to this situation in March took weeks, as supermarkets adjusted their orders and manufacturers ramped up production to supply more products. The supermarket chains used every trick in the book to balance supply and demand – including imposing limits on the quantity of products shoppers could buy at any one time.
This time suppliers are more prepared. Their lean supply chains have built some fat. Inventory has not been at a minimum. Limits on the amount customers can buy have been quickly reintroduced.
So why are shelves empty at all if this time businesses are more responsive?
Well, one thing has not changed: there’s still a lag in supply chains responding to any sudden change in demand.
With toilet paper, for example, orders are generally fulfilled in about ten days. Last time it took about three weeks for more paper to make to it shops.
But, given the information of a spike in demand in Victoria made its way from shops and distributors to manufacturers almost instantly, things should happen faster this time.
Retailers have already moved to answer the call by rerouting deliveries to increase supply where it is needed the most. The only thing stopping supply returning to normal is the speed of transportation and restocking.
Also, the spike in demand is heavily localised in Melbourne. While there have been reports of panic buying and stockpiling in other states, it’s nowhere near the level of a few months ago.
So shortages in Victoria will not be as prolonged as last time. Redirecting inventories will be a lot simpler.
Think of it this way. Panic buying during March was like a big detour in the supply-chain highway given the whole country was involved. Now it is more like a car with a flat tyre reducing traffic speed locally. It’s not less dramatic for the people affected, but much simpler from a supply-chain perspective.
So don’t panic. There’s less reason to join in the panic buying (or stockpiling, if you think of it as a rational response to lockdown) this time. We’re likely to experience these disruptions so long as COVID-19 outbreaks continue. The “new normal” is like a faulty switch. Regions will be on and off the spot until the pandemic is over.
But as long as the entire nation does not move backwards all at the same time, supply chains from one state will quickly support the one experiencing difficulties.
There’s really no reason for you to add to the problem.
From midnight Wednesday, all of Metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire will return to Stage 3 lockdown for six weeks. There are only four reasons for residents to leave their homes: shopping for essentials, care-giving, exercise, and work and study if it can’t be done from home.
But it should have happened weeks ago.
It’s now time to consider measures aimed at stemming the spread among families, by admitting infected people to hospitals or other health facilities.
The problem with watching daily numbers is small numbers do not show a clear pattern until it’s too late. To choose a larger period to observe a pattern, epidemiologists usually use the length of time an average person takes to become infected (the incubation period). If you use 14 days (roughly twice the incubation period) this approach is a classic epidemiological method to tell if an outbreak is getting out of control.
Using this method, the two weeks up to June 18 suggested the spread was becoming out of control. From June 5 to June 18 the total number of cases was 102. Then the subsequent 14-day periods doubled to 224 cases and doubled again to 441 cases.
As these numbers show, controlling the outbreak becomes extremely difficult once this number hits 100.
The cumulative number of cases from the last 14 days in Victoria is now 1,048. This is similar to the numbers seen Australia-wide in late March, near the peak of Australia’s pandemic so far.
Victoria will likely see even greater increases in the next few days, especially as people who don’t realise they’re infected spread the virus further.
Ultimately, governments around the world face the tough choice of being proactive or reactive during the pandemic. Being proactive to small spikes might be perceived as being heavy-handed, especially economically. Victoria, so far, has been more reactive than proactive — but the time has come to consider different approaches.
We know many people pick up the virus in their own homes from another family member, even if the infected individual isolates in one room. This is partially because indoor environments often have crowding and poor ventilation. It’s also quite difficult to practice good sanitation, cleaning high-touch surfaces properly with detergent or bleach.
The best option is to relocate an infected family member to reduce the risk of spread to the rest of the family. An option is to relocate them to hospitals or other suitable purpose-built health facilities. Victoria’s numbers will get worse unless infected individuals are relocated. This is a particular risk for crowded high-rise housing.
Victorians should also be wearing masks in all public places. Recent evidence suggests wearing masks reduces the risk of catching and spreading the virus. The World Health Organisation released updated guidelines on June 5 acknowledging masks can reduce transmission when physical distancing can’t be maintained or in places of high prevalence. Metropolitan Melbourne is now a place of high prevalence.
Ring-fencing is an effective control method when the pattern of infection is not the same across regions. Recently, China lifted lockdown of Wuhan and then ring-fenced hotspots to effectively repress a spike in case numbers.
As of July 1, hotspots in Melbourne were ring-fenced, which gave other regions with very low or zero cases a reprieve from unnecessary restrictions.
But we’ve since seen cases leaking out of these hotspots and rising rates of community transmission. This forced the government to apply a wider lockdown.
Further, ring-fencing is an effective control method when people’s needs — food, heating and internet access — are well looked after. If we get that wrong, we lose people’s collective good will and cooperation. The “hard lockdown” of public housing towers in Melbourne’s north and northwest hasn’t been done in a compassionate manner that meets people’s immediate needs, which erodes trust in the process.
It also lacks epidemiological sense. Forcing people into even closer quarters creates a pressure cooker environment where family outbreaks are even more likely.
A pandemic is a long term project, so it’s essential trust is built and maintained over time. Building trust is an investment in resilience that enables our community to continue to respond well during this extended outbreak.
All is not lost. To prevent the virus spreading further all Melburnians should wear a mask when in public places.
It’s widely hoped the lockdown will help to reduce case numbers but this must be done with compassion and ethics.
Victoria’s experience should be a lesson to governments everywhere that it’s crucial to act quickly and early when flareups occur. Don’t wait until the moment of crisis arrives.
It’s also time for the Victorian government to closely consider how to reduce transmission among families, and part of that may be housing infected people outside the home until they are well again.
This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.
The reimposition of stage 3 restrictions on metropolitan Melbourne is, as Victorian premier Daniel Andrews says, a matter of life or death. That’s also true for small businesses.
A further six weeks of stay-at-home orders for the city’s 5 million residents will kill off many small and medium sized businesses unless there are critical changes to federal and state government assistance policies.
Even with assistance many will not survive. But ensuring those that are viable are not lost is crucial to the recovery of both the Victorian and national economies.
Small businesses are the engine of economic growth. They are typically the first to innovate and respond to economic changes. The abnormal economic shock wrought by the necessary public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic means they have generally been hit hardest. Without policies and money to address their core needs, this second wave of restrictions will be a killer blow.
These fundamentals are absolute to the success of small business.
First, and most obviously, they need customers. Those providing essential local goods and services, such as groceries or health services, may cope. But those offering discretionary goods and services, such as hospitality, will suffer both from loss of foot traffic and suppressed consumer spending, as people save more in uncertain times.
Second, they need access to credit. This is much harder for small businesses to obtain than large businesses with assets. Small businesses are typically started by entrepreneurs who finance their endeavours with their own savings, through mortgaging their homes, or taking out personal loans.
They typically have extremely limited cash reserves to ride out tough times. Many juggle their bills from month to month to stay afloat.
Third, they rely on momentum. They grow by acquiring both customers and knowledge of their market. When repeat business stop, they lose that momentum. If they have to shed employees, they lose “business knowledge”, which sets them back even further in their recovery.
All economic slowdowns typically reduce demand, but this health/economic crisis has calamitously damaged all three aspects.
The federal government’s Job Keeper program and subsidies being provided through the Australian Taxation Ofice to boost business cash flow has enabled business to hold on to employees for now. But without customers or credit, even extending these measures beyond their scheduled September 30 end won’t be enough.
It’s my view it will take three to five years for consumer confidence and spending to return to pre-COVID levels. This assessment is based on past recessions where high unemployment prevailed compounded by the novel problem that health fears will suppress consumer confidence long after the coronavirus is contained and things return to “normal” (or at least a new normal).
The Melbourne outbreak of COVID-19 underlines there is no quick fix to the COVID-19 crisis. The only light at the end of tunnel is a possible a vaccine, which might take years, or never be found. The economy must therefore adjust. Not all businesses are viable. To continue indefinitely to pump public money into direct grants to prop them up is unsustainable.
To do so will lead to “perverse” consequences – providing windfalls to businesses that would have failed anyway – as many small business ventures do – while providing inadequate support to those that are important and would have survived but for the crisis.
Therefore I offer three suggestions.
First, continue JobKeeper and the tax office’s cashflow boost for as long as COVID-19 restrictions are in place. Businesses would need to apply for this on a month-by-month basis, and need to meet set criteria.
Second, the government should ensure easy access to low-interest loans for the next two to three years. Loans are more efficient than direct grants or subsidies. The fact the loans have to be repaid will encourage only those businesses with a good chance of being sustainable of seeking them.
Getting a loan is slow and hard for small businesses because banks scrutinise them due to the risk. Few small business have the skills to prepare the extensive documentation banks require. Banks will be motivated to lend faster and to more businesses if governments remove the risk by buying those loans.
To speed up the lending application process, there should also be subsidies to licensed financial advisers to prepare those applications.
Third, a system of subsidised vouchers for financial management advice from accountants and financial advisers (who are also mostly small businesses).
Financial services are critical for small businesses. In tough times it might be tempting to dispense with these services. But sound financial advice will be critical to business owners making the right decision – including whether they should be borrowing money to sustain their businesses or making the hard decision to cut their losses and move on.
The Victorian government will lock down all metropolitan Melbourne for six weeks from Wednesday night, as a new wave of the coronavirus takes hold in the city.
The lockdown will also cover the Mitchell Shire, north of Melbourne, which includes the towns of Broadford, Seymour, Kilmore, Tallarook, Pyalong and Wallan.
Under the restrictions, people will only be able to leave their home to shop for essential goods and services, for care and compassionate reasons, exercise, and for work and study if it cannot be conducted from home.
The dramatic action comes as the Victoria-NSW border closes on Tuesday night, amid some chaos in Albury-Wodonga, and follows the lockdown of suburbs in 12 Melbourne postcode areas, and the “lock in” of 3,000 residents in nine community housing towers.
Regional Victoria, which is not so far hit by the virus, has been saved from the latest restrictions.
On the key issue of schools, students in years 11 and 12 at government schools will return next week, after the holidays, and so will students in year 10 who are taking VCE subjects (for that component of their learning).
Specialist schools will also reopen next week for normal face-to-face programs. There will be supervised school holiday activity provided for the children of parents in essential jobs.
For other students, the school holidays will be extended by a week.
The government will announce more decisions on schooling by early next week. Talks are being held with Catholic and independent schools to reach consistent arrangements.
Victorian health authorities have been surprised by the number of school children who have been detected with the virus.
The Victorian restrictions will be a major blow to the re-opening of the national economy, and will have to be factored into the federal government’s July 23 economic statement on the road ahead. The new hit to the Victorian economy may mean more patchwork arrangements in federal government assistance.
Premier Daniel Andrews told a news conference he had just spoken to Scott Morrison and “I am confident that the Prime Minister knows and understands that there will be different forms of hardship in different parts of the country, different industries, different sectors”.
Announcing the lockdown, Andrews warned: “There is simply no alternative other than thousands and thousands of cases and potentially more, many, many people in hospital and the inevitable tragedy that will come from that”.
He said the restrictions went no further than last time but “we’re in a more precarious, challenging and potentially tragic position now than we were some months ago.”
Andrew said he’d asked Morrison for another 260 members of the Australian Defence Force to help on the ground. They will support the police patrolling the perimeter of the metropolitan area where there will be spot checks of cars.
The premier said there now 772 active cases across the state. This included 69 cases linked to the towers.
He said the numbers were “unsustainably high” – it was impossible to have enough contact-tracing staff and other resources to continue to suppress the virus without more measures.
“We have to be realistic,” he said.
He said “I think a sense of complacency has crept into us as we let our frustrations get the better of us”.
He warned Melburnians they must stay in their main home, and not relocate to holiday homes. When people left their home for exercise they should not think of driving to regional Victoria for a bushwalk.
Metropolitan Melbourne and the shire of Mitchell will returned to Stage 3 stay-at-home restrictions as of midnight Wednesday, Premier Daniel Andrews has announced, after 191 new cases were recorded in the state overnight – its highest ever daily case total.
The lockdown means for the next six weeks, people in metropolitan Melbourne and the shire of Mitchell will only be able to leave home for one of four reasons:
Andrews said people cannot leave metropolitan Melbourne to get daily exercise (so, no bushwalks or fishing outside the city) and people must stay at their principal place of residence. That means no escaping to a holiday home.
School holidays will be extended for many students, although some — including students in year 11 and 12 or specialist schools — will return to school when the holidays end, he said. Children of essential workers will be able to attend supervised holiday programs.
At least nine Melbourne housing blocks are now in day four of a hard lockdown, under which they are not allowed to leave for any reason.
Today’s announcement comes as NSW Police and Australian Defence Force personnel gather to enforce the NSW-Victorian border closure announced earlier this week. Police have warned of “dire consequences” — including jail time or hefty fines — for those who those who try to cross without an exemption permit.
A return to citywide lockdown is unsettling, but the good news is we know restrictions work when we adhere to the recommendations.
We can bring COVID-19 case numbers down, as long as we follow the golden rules: meticulous hand washing, maintaining physical distancing, staying home when unwell and getting tested if you have any COVID-19 symptoms.
From a public health point of view, a return to lockdown for the whole of metropolitan Melbourne is the logical thing to do right now. It’s time to accept that moving in and out of various levels of restriction may just be a part of life as we know it in 2020, and likely 2021.
For many Victorians, this will feel frustratingly like a reset; back to square one. For the rest of Australia, it’s disquieting news — a reminder this situation could occur at any time in any other state or territory. None of us can be complacent.
It’s hard, but this is just how vigilant we have to be until a vaccine is found. We’re all keen to go back to “life as normal” but the reality is, life as normal doesn’t exist for 2020.
Restrictions will have to be scaled up and down as needed in response to local outbreaks. It’s not just a matter of doing lockdown once and then going back to “normal” after the numbers come back down.
We have to accept the fact that this is an abnormal year, and the lives we had planned for ourselves as of January 1 aren’t going to pan out like we’d hoped.
We know people are getting weary of this; we are too. To go back to step one is a dent in the armour and authorities will need to think carefully about how to manage frustration. But we all need to prepared to be agile and flexible in how we respond to case numbers.
Severe lessons have been learned along the way, chiefly the reported breaches in infection control guidelines at the quarantine hotels. It shows that even if 99% of the system is working, a breakdown in one aspect of infection control is enough to cause a resurgence.
In a way, the high number of cases being detected is a sign that the detection and contact tracing system is working. That’s reassuring.
But flareups have been a feature of this pandemic all along. What’s important is how they’re managed, and a return to restrictions is a necessary evil.
And, as always, the key messages are about getting tested if unwell, washing hands properly, following the stay at home recommendations, not mixing with others and understanding that physical distancing is still our best defence.
Masks on their own are not enough to keep you safe, but people who live in lockdown “hot spot” suburbs in Victoria should probably consider wearing them in places where physical distancing can’t be maintained in those areas, such as supermarkets.
But for the rest of Australia outside those hotspots, public wearing of masks is not yet recommended.
The bottom line is we all have a role to play when it comes to stemming the spread of COVID-19 and reducing the chance we will need another lockdown in future.
Clearly, that hasn’t always happened in Victoria and we are now seeing the consequences.