A Spotless worker has described how contractors in COVID-19 ‘hot hotels’ were also working shifts at Melbourne’s Alfred Health hospitals, and cast doubt on the Government’s assertion the contractors were not working as security guards.
The employee, who spoke to the ABC on the condition of anonymity, said security staff were working at Alfred hospitals within days of shifts at the Novotel Hotel at South Wharf, which is housing people with coronavirus who cannot safely self-isolate.
He also said former bouncers with little experience were given jobs leading “security” teams in the quarantine facilities.
Spotless has been sub-contracted by Alfred Health to undertake “non-clinical” work at the hot hotels as an extension of its arrangement at the hospitals.
Both Spotless and Alfred Health insist the staff performing “floor monitoring roles” were not acting as security. The Government has said police officers, and not private security contractors, have been managing security at the hotels under the revamped program.
But the Spotless employee said: “Security was definitely working there — Spotless even recruited former pub and club bouncers who were out of work and didn’t have the required skill set to work in a hospital.
“One [staff member] at quarantine … didn’t know his way around a hospital let alone how it operates, in regard to infection control”.
Email, roster indicate workers moved between sites in August
Spotless has told the ABC it introduced a rule in late July requiring its staff to declare that they had not been working at any other facility within 14 days.
But in August, an email sent by a Spotless security supervisor — seen by the ABC — described two workers as coming back from the hotel program into “regular rostering”.
The Spotless employee told the ABC the two team members had been working in the hotel program the day the email was sent.
The ABC has also seen a Spotless roster for August which indicates one of the team members addressed in the email began work at Alfred Health the next day, while the other worker returned just two days after working shifts at the quarantine facility.
Spotless said staff were “screened” for COVID-19 before returning to work at the Alfred hospitals, and Alfred Health has told the ABC it ensured staff “complied with Alfred Health’s Infection Prevention Protocols prior to returning to their Hospital role”.
Infection control expert warns working across sites ‘very risky’
The Spotless employee has told the ABC it was common for “guards” to work at the hot hotel and then return to work at Alfred hospitals a day later.
“What I can tell you is that security guards had gone straight back to work from the hotels without self-quarantining first,” he said.
“The risk of passing on the virus to these patients is much greater than if the same guards only worked at the hotels.”
Although the workers were not legally obliged to self-isolate, cross-contamination between hotels and other workplaces was identified as a key cause of infection in the COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry.
The inquiry also heard evidence from Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton, who said the use of staff from the security industry posed a risk to infection control.
“The demographics of that workforce cohort provide for significant risks of transmission within the community,” he said.
The Spotless employee has told the ABC that he believes his bosses did not fully consider the risks of using the company’s security staff.
Infection control expert and World Health Organization member Mary-Louise McLaws said workers immediately commencing work at the hospital after stints at the hot hotels was not good practice.
“Working across a healthcare facility or between hot spots is very risky and the better scenario is that they don’t,” she said.
“[We] don’t need anymore examples to learn, surely,” she said, adding that the best option for the Government to staff hot hotels was Australian Defence Force personnel.
“It takes many years to embed behaviour and even nurses and doctors are constantly updating their [infection control knowledge], so for these staff this is probably their first time being educated on infection control,” she said.
Chief Health Officer says working across sites ‘the reality’ for some industries
Last week, Professor Sutton said while precautions were being taken, cleaners needed to work across multiple workplaces as it was “the nature of that industry”.
“The reality is that people who are contracted to work across multiple sites for the full work that they are entitled to are a risk,” he said.
“We’d love people to be tied to a single site but if that site is only offering three or four hours of work per week, that’s not a sustainable income for anyone and so there are individuals across different industries, and cleaning is one of them, who work across different sites.”[embed: 14-day average]
At the height of the second wave, nine people working in hotel quarantine became infected with COVID-19, including five Spotless cleaning contractors.
Health authorities believe they did not contract the virus on the job, but confirmed one of those workers was working in aged care while also working in a hot hotel.
Last Friday, The Age newspaper reported that Spotless staff were replaced mid-shift after infection control concerns were raised.
Attorney-General Jill Hennessy later told a media briefing that she was confident the new program was working well.
“[We are] making sure that we have got proper oversight … and really making sure that we continue to keep very, very focused on our infection controls,” Ms Hennessy said.
She said having contractors working across multiple sites “”would not and could not occur” under the current arrangements.
A spokesperson from her department told the ABC, “Spotless staff were carrying out customer service roles, including floor monitors who wore full PPE and were trained in PPE use and infection control”.
“All Spotless customer service roles have been phased out under the Department of Justice and Community Safety’s program,” the spokesperson said.