Health Department faces court over hotel quarantine workplace charges

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Victoria’s Health Department has faced court over workplace safety charges related to mistakes in the hotel quarantine system that seeded the state’s deadly second wave of COVID-19 last year.

The department is charged with 58 breaches of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, where WorkSafe – the state’s workplace watchdog – alleges the department failed to provide a safe environment for its staff and failed to ensure people weren’t exposed to risks.

The Rydges on Swanston, used in Victoria’s hotel quarantine system.Credit:Penny Stephens

Seventeen charges allege the department failed to provide and maintain, as far as reasonably practicable, a working environment that was safe and without risks for its employees.

The other 41 charges cover alleged breaches related to people who weren’t employees – for example, contracted security guards – being exposed to risks to their health and safety.

WorkSafe alleges the department failed to keep its staff and others safe between March and July last year in the early days of the hotel quarantine scheme.

The system was aimed at preventing COVID-19 spreading into the community. However, an inquiry found it did the opposite because several private security guards and workers contracted the disease and inadvertently spread it into their home communities.

That outbreak sparked a second wave of COVID-19 in Victoria, which ultimately claimed more than 800 lives and caused months of lockdowns. An inquiry by retired judge Jennifer Coate linked 768 of those deaths to the hotel quarantine program.

WorkSafe last month charged the department following a 15-month investigation.

The maximum fine for each charge is $1.64 million, or $95 million in total for 58 charges.

Defence barrister Morgan McLay appeared for the department in Melbourne Magistrates Court on Friday, and told magistrate Donna Bakos he was waiting to receive a brief of evidence from WorkSafe lawyers.

That brief is due to be handed over by early December, and Mr McLay expected it to be “voluminous”. He forecast the department would call on experts to understand how WorkSafe put its case.

In a statement published last month, WorkSafe alleged the department breached OHS laws by failing to appoint “people with infection prevention and control expertise” at the hotels, failed to provide security guards with face-to-face training with experts, and failed – at least initially – to provide written instructions on the use of personal protective equipment.

The authority also accused the department of failing to update written instructions on the use of masks at several hotels.

The department is yet to enter a plea. A department spokesman said on Friday: “As the matter is before the courts the department will not be providing comment.”

The case is due to return to court on March 10.

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