Hotel Quarantine Lapses Probed in Australia’s Virus-Hit City

Australian authorities are probing alleged security lapses at Melbourne hotels used to quarantine overseas arrivals, including claims guards slept with guests, amid concerns the breaches have contributed to a resurgence of coronavirus in the nation’s second-largest city.

Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Thursday he supported the judicial review into “strong claims of inappropriate behavior” by guards employed by security companies contracted by Victoria’s state government. If the allegations proved true, authorities should “throw the book” at those responsible, he said in a Sky News interview.

Among the allegations revealed by the Herald Sun newspaper are that security firms charged for shifts never worked, which led to under-staffing. The firms also allegedly allowed misuse of personal protection equipment, didn’t provide proper training on infection protocols, and allowed quarantined families to visit others.

Read more: Australia to Open Borders for One Group: International Students

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Victoria state has experienced more than two weeks of double-digit daily increases in new Covid-19 cases after social distancing restrictions were eased, jeopardizing its economic recovery and prompting other states to delay plans to open their borders.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison in March closed international borders to non-residents, and all returning Australians have been required to quarantine for two weeks in hotels. Unlike most states and territories which enlisted their police forces to regulate the quarantine, Victoria contracted out the task to security firms.

The outbreak has caused state Premier Daniel Andrews to order 10 areas of Melbourne, comprising about 7% of its estimated 5 million people, to re-enter lockdowns for the next four weeks. Victoria on Thursday said it had 77 new infections in the previous 24 hours, while most other states and territories have recorded few, if any, community transmissions for weeks.

The new infections means that Victoria has 415 active cases that its aware of, which state Chief Heath Officer Brett Sutton said on Thursday “means there are other infections still to be found out there and they’re all at risk of transmitting to others.”

Andrews said in an Australian Broadcasting Corp. television interview late Thursday that it was important the inquiry into the alleged breaches proceed independently so mistakes aren’t repeated.

“We can’t go back, we can’t change beyond the very important reforms and the changes that have been made right across the journey,” he said. “We have got more staff in there that come from different places. We are confident today that challenges that occurred many, many weeks ago will not be repeated.”

While Australia has been one of the standout performers globally in limiting the spread of the virus to less than 8,000 cases, Victoria’s flare-up -- mainly amid Melbourne’s poorer and more multicultural suburbs -- shows just how hard it will be to eradicate without a vaccine.

Morrison has been pushing for all of Australia’s internal travel restrictions to be lifted this month in a bid to boost an economy set for its first recession in almost three decades. Instead, most states and territories are signaling they will keep their borders closed to Victorians.

New South Wales, Australia’s most-populous state, Thursday said residents of the 10 locked down areas in neighboring Victoria would face six months in jail or an A$11,000 ($7,600) fine if they attempt to cross the border.

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