How security firms used fake guard rort at quarantine hotels
Illegal cash payments to guards and billing rorts have been exposed in Victoria's COVID-19 hotel quarantine debacle.
Unscrupulous security firms, being probed over their part in triggering Melbourne's second coronavirus wave, exploited the pandemic by charging taxpayers for shifts never worked.
The rort - known as "ghosting" - led to hazardous understaffing in hotels, with those who questioned operators even being threatened.
Cash payments agreed between providers and workers, long a scourge in the security industry, were also widely used.
Other alarming claims detailed by security industry figures and quarantine-hotel insiders include:
HOTEL guards slept with guests;
SECURITY personnel wore personal protective equipment for up to eight hours without changing it;
GUARDS shook hands and shared lifts in a major breach of regulations;
SOME of them had just six hours of infection control training and were caught sleeping on the job; and
QUARANTINED families were allowed to go between rooms to play cards and games with others.
Under the ghosting rort, operators would charge authorities for providing a certain number of staff for a shift, say 30, but hired several fewer, for example 20. Fake names would be given for the non-existent workers.
A source within the hotel quarantine program told the Herald Sun ghosting was rife, and the Andrews Government had been warned about the dangerous racket months ago.
"Hotel staff often found that processes were incomplete. When this was raised with the people running various security, they were threatened … it's a common practice," the source said.
"Operators are cowboys."
In the quarantine setting, the practice of ghosting raises the risk of spreading coronavirus because it means there are not as many guards overseeing guests as health officials are led to believe, while increasing the guests each working guard has to interact with.
Regarding the cash payments, one worker said a contractor deposited his wages without paperwork or any evidence of them carrying out employer obligations. "They just put the money into the account," the worker said.
Cash wages allow rogue operators to win contracts with much lower quotes than their rivals because it is saving on tax and other expenses.
It can also be revealed that security staff at the Stamford Plaza in the CBD, where all positive cases are relocated, did shifts at at least two other quarantine hotels.
And there have been issues with staff going from jobs at the quarantine hotels to private industry shifts. Such practices greatly increase the risk of cross-contamination.
An Andrews Government spokeswoman refused to address claims of ghosting and cash payments directly, saying an inquiry into the entire program had been ordered.
Claims security staff slept with some guests in coronavirus isolation will be examined as part of the inquiry. The allegations are sweeping police, hotel industry and even government circles.
So far, verified breaches of infection control include car pooling, sharing of cigarettes and lighters, and hugging between staff at hotels.
But the accusations of more serious breaches - including sexual dalliances and fights - will also be investigated.
Premier Daniel Andrews said coronavirus was so contagious that something as innocuous as sharing a cigarette lighter could cause a spread in cases - and that this had happened in Victoria.
Questions have been raised about the quality of security agencies contracted for some of the high-level health protection, with one source predicting that a "clusterf--- of issues" would emerge.
Following the National Cabinet's decision to establish the hotel quarantine program security contracts were signed within 24 hours and exempted from a tender process.
Victorian contracts were awarded to MSS, Unified and Wilson, which in turn employed subcontractors.
More than 20,000 travellers arriving in Victoria have undergone 14 days of isolation since the program started.
LEGAL VETERAN HEADS QUARANTINE PROBE
Calls are growing for the inquiry into the state's botched hotel quarantine system to include public hearings.
Premier Daniel Andrews said on Wednesday those who had done the wrong thing by breaching infection control standards would be held to account, as he revealed experienced retired judge Jennifer Coate would probe the hotel quarantines.
But it's unclear whether the inquiry - or indeed the report likely in two months - will be made public.
Ms Coate was last month appointed to the Victorian Law Reform Commission after serving as a commissioner to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
In a career spanning four decades, she has served as a magistrate, a County Court judge and as the state coroner.
The decision to announce an inquiry comes after weeks of pressure over problems with security that was run by private firms. Now, Corrections Victoria staff will be involved in monitoring hotels.
The government has refused to release a genomic report the Premier relied on to call the inquiry. He said it provided evidence of quarantine staff spreading the virus.
"That left me in no doubt that if not right now, but certainly back weeks and weeks ago, there was a significant infection control problem," Mr Andrews said. Genomic tracking shows the markings of COVID-19 - like a fingerprint of each strain of virus - were common among multiple hotel contacts who spread it through family members.
The report won't be released because it contains private health details.
Opposition health spokeswoman Georgie Crozier said the inquiry should be public and extended to probe the Cedar Meats cluster linked to more than 100 cases.
"We trust the inquiry will investigate a number of problems and have access to key documents, which have been previously refused by the Andrews Labor Government under Freedom of Information," she said.
The NSW government called a public investigation into the Ruby Princess debacle early in the coronavirus crisis, with key staff taking the stand to explain how infected travellers from the cruise ship were released into the community.
Other states have a different quarantine system. NSW Police Chief Commissioner Mick Fuller has overseen operations there. Queensland has used health staff, defence force personnel and police.
South Australia on Wednesday flew 29 nurses and paramedics to help Victoria, while Queensland has sent dozens of nurses.
Acting federal Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said Victoria was proof of "how easily it can spread when infection control is not adequate".
Originally published as How security firms used fake guard rort at quarantine hotels