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Hasn't read one, can't access another: Minister in dark about medi-hotel reports

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Medi-hotel staff continue to work across multiple sites, Health Minister Stephen Wade has confirmed, as he revealed he is yet to read or be briefed on an independent review into the outbreak of Victoria’s second wave that specifically recommended the opposite.

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SA’s medi-hotel regime has been in the spotlight since the Parafield COVID cluster was spawned from transmission to staff working in the Peppers Hotel on Waymouth St.

Breaches at medi-hotels were also the cause of Victoria’s second coronavirus wave, during which almost 800 people died.

Facing an estimates hearing late yesterday, Wade was asked by Opposition health spokesman Chris Picton whether hotel groups participating in SA’s medi-hotel scheme shared staff across hotel quarantine sites”, replying: “I am advised that that has occurred.”

He said he would seek advice about whether that practice was approved by SA Health but, asked whether it was still occurring, said: “The answer is still relevant.”

The question of people working across sites – and holding second jobs – was highlighted last week when it emerged two medi-hotel workers also had jobs at the Woodville Pizza Bar, now a significant hotspot in the cluster.

One of those men was alleged to have sparked last week’s statewide lockdown when, according to Premier Steven Marshall, he “lied” to contact tracers about working at the pizzeria.

Wade told the hearing the “issue of people working at more than one location has been considered [and] the chief executive of my department wrote to the AHPPC [Australian Health Protection Principal Committee] and sought any advice they might have on employment arrangements”, but was yet to hear back.

However, that hasn’t stopped the Government unilaterally overhauling other aspects of the medi-hotel program this week, with people testing COVID-positive now to be relocated to a standalone facility.

A report published early this month by former Family Court judge Jennifer Coate into Victoria’s quarantine debacle specifically cited “personnel working at multiple sites” among a range of concerns, noting: “Where possible, personnel working within a facility-based model should not work across multiple quarantine sites, nor should they work in any other environment.”

“Having dedicated, salaried personnel, will help to minimise the risk of transmission between quarantine sites and onwards into the community,” the report said.

“The evidence throughout the Inquiry was replete with examples of problems associated with workers being engaged on a casual and itinerant basis.”

The report specifically recommended employing “dedicated personnel”, saying “every effort must be made to ensure that all personnel working at the facility are not working across multiple quarantine sites and not working in other forms of employment.”

Other issues raised about the use of private security personnel on hotel quarantine sites included concerns about “having personnel, in a highly complex and dangerous environment, who are engaged on a casual basis and not engaged directly by the management of the facility to enable support and instruction as to requirements in the event of a positive transmission”.

Security in SA’s healthcare facilities is contracted to private firm MSS security, which tender documents reveal has a deal worth almost $164 million for the five years to March 2024.

That’s now been broadened to incorporate hotel quarantine services – but Wade couldn’t say how much more taxpayers were paying for the contract extension.

He told estimates MSS was “subcontracting some of its [medi-hotel] activities, but of course MSS still carries the primary responsibilities of the contract”.

But asked whether he was aware of any recommendations by the Victorian inquiry into hotel quarantine regarding subcontracting of private security services, the minister said: “No – I have not read the Victorian review.”

Picton then asked if the minister had been “briefed in regard to the Victorian inquiry into hotel quarantine”.

“Not that I am aware,” he responded.

“The Victorian inquiry came out recently…

“We note that the Victorian review made recommendations that we would not support in terms of the public reports, but we continue to evolve our quarantine model…

“I expect that the Victorian Chief Health Officer would have briefed the AHPPC, and we have members on that committee.”

Wade said he was “particularly mindful” of a separate national review by former senior bureaucrat Jane Halton, which did not address the issue of workers in multiple roles across sites, and which “went to national cabinet”.

It is that review the Marshall Government frequently cites as awarding it a “gold star”.

The published report makes no mention of a “gold star”, nor any particular appraisal of SA’s performance, but Wade said yesterday “the comparative analysis is in appendices which national cabinet has not made public” – and which even he as Health Minister had not seen.

“It is a confidential national cabinet document,” he said.

“It is subject to very strict confidentiality requirements.”

However, while the SA Health Minister was forbidden to view the supplementary report, “my understanding is the Chief Public Health Officer [Professor Nicola Spurrier] has access”.

Picton said: “So the people who… were responsible for hotel quarantine – particularly the chief executive [and] the chief nursing and midwifery officer – they have not seen the appendices to the Halton report into an assessment of our hotel quarantine system?”

“I have nothing to add to my previous answer,” Wade said.

To which Picton went on: “How have you declared that SA received a ‘gold star’ in the Halton report when such a statement is not made in the report that has been released publicly, and you have not read and do not have access to the appendices that are attached to it?”

Wade said he had “been advised [by] the Premier and by the Chief Public Health Officer, and I am also advised that the secretary of the federal department has similarly confirmed that with the department”.

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