Australia

Premier grilled on hotel quarantine

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Victoria has recorded 471 cases of coronavirus and eight deaths on Thursday.

Four of the deaths are linked to aged care facilities.

Two men in their 60s, three men and two women in their 80s, and one woman in her 90s are among the deaths.

There are 1533 active cases linked to aged care, of a total 7449 active cases.

575 Victorians are in hospital with the virus, with 42 of those in intensive care.

VIRUS HITS OUR HEALTHCARE HEROES

More than 800 healthcare workers are fighting active cases of coronavirus as the impact on our frontline heroes is revealed.

Since the pandemic began 1388 healthcare workers have been infected, with 810 cases remaining active.

Nurses are the hardest hit with 346 active cases — 274 of those from hospital settings.

Young healthcare workers make up the bulk of cases with 302 cases in those aged 20-29 and 241 in those aged 30-39.

Three workers in their 70s and one in their 80s are also among those battling the virus.

Of the total cases since the pandemic began, 494 of the workers have been from hospitals, 39 in GP clinics and 763 from other healthcare settings.

PREMIER COPS GRILLING ON HOTEL QUARANTINE INQUIRY

Mr Andrews faced multiple questions about the hotel quarantine program on Thursday, after the former judge heading the judicial inquiry, Jennifer Coate, confirmed the government would not be in contempt to speak about issues before the inquiry paving the way for members of government to provide more information to victorians.

However, Mr Andrews still declined to answer questions regarding the bungled program admitting it was not a matter of law, but he thought it prudent not to answer as he did not have all the facts.

He also dodged questions when he was first made aware there were problems.

He also refused to discuss cabinet meetings where ministers discussed the decision to use security guards instead of police to guard people in isolation.

“It’s not for the avoidance of scrutiny,” he said.

“Nothing could be further from the truth.

“The alternative would have been no inquiry, and then I think you would be rightly critical of that.

“In terms of chain of command and who’s responsible, I think I’ve made myself abundantly clear today about the way I think that operates. It stops with me. I am accountable.”

When asked whether the hotel quarantine had ruined the government’s credibility Mr Andrews replied: “That’s a matter for others to judge. I’m not going to

sit here and be a commentator on myself. I’ve got a job to do. This virus doesn’t stop. Neither do I. And I won’t be stopping.”

DEPUTY CHO DENIES 1100-CASE MODELLING CLAIMS

Deputy Chief Health Officer Allen Cheng denied any modelling that saw cases increasing to 1100.

But said he hoped to see a decrease in current numbers over the next 10 days.

He clarified data showed under a the worst case scenario Victoria could have reached 20,000 overall cases in August, but he said “we are nowhere near that now”.

However, he declined to release data saying they would be “unhelpful” to release publicly.

The modelling was revealed by the Australian newspaper on Thursday morning.

CHANGES TO MEAT INDUSTRY

It came as Premier Daniel Andrews announced guidelines on how industries can operate will be published today providing more clarity for workers and employers.

Mr Andrews attempted to give more clarity on some industries not closed but where the workforce was being reduced.

For the meat industry, red meat and pork processing facilities will be reduced to 66 per cent by midnight on Friday.

However, poultry could not be reduced that low, instead it will be reduced to 80 per cent to avoid animals being killed and wasted.

These restrictions will not apply to facilities with fewer than 40 staff.

Mr Andrews urged people not to panic buy saying “you will get what you need and all the producers that are fundamentally imprints to you”.

He warned anyone buying “enormous amounts of food” would leave the vulnerable and elderly without.

“You may not necessarily be able to get exactly the cut of meat that you want but you will get what you need and you will get all the products that are, basically, fundamentally important to you,” he said.

CHANGES TO CONSTRUCTION

Government jobs are currently operating at 50 per cent, but will be driven down to 25 per cent as soon as possible.

Work on apartment blocks above three-story buildings will go down to 25 per cent.

Residential building will remain at no more than five staff on site at one time, but there will be the ability for limited movement between sites.

CHANGES TO WAREHOUSING/LOGISTICS

Food and medical supply warehousing and logistics providers will be given an extension on reducing workforce until midnight on Sunday night.

After that the workforce must be reduced by two thirds of the current level.

CHANGES TO INNER-CITY PARKING

On-street parking has been free in the inner city while major commercial carparks have been shut by the state government due to stage four restrictions.

The City of Melbourne has not been issuing fines for vehicles parked in “green sign” areas to ensure essential workers have access to spaces.

But the free parking will end from Saturday.

Council CEO Justin Hanney said: “We have taken a proactive role in raising the closure of commercial car parks with the state government and have been assured that commercial carparks will be reopened over the coming days to support permitted workers.”

“Our officers will resume enforcing all parking restrictions from Saturday to make sure there is adequate turnover of car parks, and people can access essential services where required.”

“We understand this is a challenging time and will apply a reasonable grace period.”

“We will also monitor disability parking spaces,” he said.

“Our temporary free parking passes for frontline workers still apply.”

The City of Melbourne collected about $93 million in parking fees and fines in 2018-19, but last year’s figure will be much less due to pandemic shutdown.

- John Masanauskas

BANK BRANCH OPENING HOURS TO CHANGE

Thousands of bank employees will be given shorter hours so they can spend more time with their families and can exercise during the harsher lockdown.

Westpac and Bank of Melbourne branches will close at 3.30pm from next Wednesday for 6 weeks.

Branches currently close between 4pm and 5pm depending on the brand and location.

Westpac state general manager and Bank of Melbourne chief executive Mark Melvin said the decision to close earlier was due to the challenging time for frontline employees.

“Our branch teams have been dedicated to helping customers during COVID-19, and this change will give them a bit more time back in the day to spend with family or use for things like exercise and picking-up groceries,” he said.

“We will continue to support our customers with their banking needs over the phone, or online via our website and mobile banking app.”

Mr Melvin said the banking group was also allowing Victorian staff to get two weeks special paid leave if they needed to self-isolate due to coronavirus, and couldn’t work from home. “Employees who can’t work due to carer responsibilities, like children being unable to attend school or childcare, can also access up to two weeks special paid leave,” he said.

- John Masanauskas

STAGE FOUR SHUTDOWN TO STRIP BILLIONS FROM ECONOMY

Melbourne’s stage four shutdown will strip as much as $9bn from the national economy over the three months to September.

Initial government modeling, revealed by Scott Morrison this morning, also shows the unemployment rate will now peak at almost 10 per cent.

The effective unemployment rate - including those who have been stood down - is tipped to soar above 13 per cent as between 250,000 and 400,000 Victorians are put out of work by the latest restrictions.

The Prime Minister said Treasury estimated the national economy would shrink by $7-9bn over the September quarter.

Of that, $6-7bn would be lost in Victoria, with other states also suffering due to declining confidence and supply chain issues associated with forced business closures in Melbourne.

- Tom Minear

MASK-DODGER AMONG THOSE FINED FOR BREACHING RESTRICTIONS

A mask-dodger who allegedly bashed two police officers is the third woman this week to be charged with assault police, an offence which carries a mandatory six month jail sentence.

In the past 24 hours, Victoria Police were forced to fine another 176 people who breached strict stage four stay at home orders.

Of those fined, 55 were for curfew breaches and 51 for failing to wear a mask.

Among the covidiots included:

THREE men and one woman breaching curfew sitting on a footpath eating McDonald’s;

A MAN buying snacks at 2.30am at a convenience store and

A MAN walking in Bayswater North without a face mask who was more than 5km from his home.

Operation Sentinel continues.

- Brianna Travers

PROBE INTO ST BASIL’S DEATHS

Police are considering a coronial investigation into coronavirus deaths at St Basil’s aged care facility in Fawkner.

The Herald Sun understands the investigation will initially focus on five deaths at St Basil’s nursing home.

The force confirmed the move in a statement this morning.

“Victoria Police can confirm it is assisting the Victorian State Coroner with inquiries in relation to the death of persons associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and aged care facilities,’’ it said.

- Wes Hosking

MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES GET FEDERAL FUNDING BOOST

Mental health services will receive a $12m boost to provide extra support to Victorians struggling during the stage four lockdown.

Scott Morrison this morning unveiled extra cash for Headspace, Beyond Blue, Lifeline and the Kid’s Helpline.

A particular focus of the new package will be recruiting and training outreach workers to support young people, especially VCE students now forced to return to remote learning.

The Prime Minister said Victorian families were facing “incredible pressure” and increased “stress and anxiety and strain” because of the sweeping restrictions.

After talks with Orygen chief Professor Pat McGorry, Mr Morrison said he had tasked the National Mental Health Commissioner to urgently draft a plan to support Victorians.

He indicated further support would be on the way soon.

- Tom Minear

CITY STREETS EMPTY

Melbourne’s city streets were all but bare on Thursday morning as Stage 4 restrictions came into play.

Only joggers and dog walkers could be seen on Southbank, while masked-up permitted workers moved eerily about the CBD.

On Bourke and Swanston streets a handful of staff could be an inside stores as retailers move to online and click and collect orders only.

At 9.30am, not a single person could be seen in the usually-busy mall.

Popular pub Young and Jackson, on the corner of Flinders St and Swanston St installed a sign in their front window which reads: “We’re sad to say we’re closed.”

Police and PSOs were also out in force, stopping pedestrians to check they had a permitted reason for being out of their homes.

- Alanah Frost

VICTORIA MAY HAVE NOT REACHED THE PEAK

Victorians face weeks of higher coronavirus infections, with average daily cases to peak at 1100 by the end of next week and staying above 1000 for eight days.

The Victorian government’s own estimates, obtained by The Australian, show the average number of new cases is not ­expected to decline until the last week of August.

It will remain above 300 a day even as the restrictive stage-four lockdown is scheduled to end in mid-September.

The leaked Victorian government estimates suggest the peak health impact will be in the last weeks of August, with significant numbers of new cases continuing to be recorded well into September and October. Average daily new case numbers in the state will not return to levels seen before the catastrophic second outbreak in Melbourne until October.

It comes the day after Victoria recorded its darkest day yet in the pandemic, with 725 new infections and 15 deaths, ­including a man in his 30s.

Read the full story here.

DENTISTS PANICKED BY CONFLICTING ADVICE

The dental industry has been left panicked and confused this morning after conflicting advice about whether they can operate under Stage 4 restrictions.

The permitted worker list, released by the government in the early hours of Thursday morning, states that from today dentists can only operate for “urgent care.”

But Associate Professor Matthew Hopcraft, CEO of the Australian Dental Association Victorian Branch, says this directly contradicts discussions earlier in the week during which the industry was told there would be no changes.

“We sought urgent advice from the government on Monday and Tuesday...

and we were told that dentistry would be permitted and there wouldn’t be any restrictions,” Prof Hopcraft said.

“We’ve been voluntarily recommending that dentists restrict activities anyway because we think that’s the right thing to do.

“But being informed on Thursday morning that new rules have come into effect doesn’t really provide our members or patients time to comply.”

Prof Hopcraft said while he was on board with restricting parts of the workforce to help fight COVID-19, the uncertainty and mixed messages were causing a lot of stress.

“I have a lot of sympathy for the difficult job that the department has at the moment,” he said.

“But the uncertainty is obviously very difficult and the changing messages, conflicting advice and constant changes... . It’s been very stressful and there’s no doubt this will have a huge impact again.

“I guess timely advice would be the most important thing.

“Being advised after a deadline that it’s changed is not ideal for anyone.”

Prof Hopcraft said dentists would still be operating and anyone needing urgent care or concerned about their oral health should call their dentists.

He urged Victorians to look after their oral health in lockdown.

- Alanah Frost

PARENTS RUSH TO GET CHILDCARE PERMITS

Melbourne parents had just six hours to scramble for a childcare permit overnight, which came after workers were left waiting when a government website for vital employment passes crashed.

Premier Daniel Andrews announced about noon that eligible parents requiring childcare would need a specific permit but applications were not accessible until after 5pm.

It was just hours before new restrictions that allow only children of those permitted workers to go to childcare or kinder kicked in at 11.59pm.

It came after workers were left unable to fill in travel exemption permits on Wednesday morning after the government’s website crashed.

The Department of Justice web page could not be reached for about an hour as Melburnians scrambled to secure a pass before stage four work restrictions came into effect.

The department site and form page both read “Not Found” with employees unsuccessfully trying to gain access, before the mishap was rectified about 9am.

Unveiling the childcare permit scheme on Wednesday, Mr Andrews said permitted workers could only send their child to care if there was nobody else in their home who could look after them. He called for parents to be honest.

“If a permitted worker could not do their work because they have no-one else to care for their child, and if childcare was denied to them, they would not be able to do their work, then they can use childcare,” he said.

“I will leave it to individual parents to make that rather difficult judgment.”

Some centres confused over the arrangement told parents there would be a grace period before forms were demanded.

But Mr Andrews said he was “not announcing any grace periods” for parents battling the permit system, saying he knew it would be “challenging” but was “essential to limit movement and drive down the number of cases”.

EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CHILDCARE CHANGES

Quizzed about why permitted workers needed both a working and childcare permit, he said it was “a simple second document”.

“It will simply be the person indicating that they are doing permitted work and attesting that there is no one in their home that can look after the kids,” he said.

This also applies for parents considered permitted workers wanting to send their children to kinder and school.

From Thursday, anyone who leaves home for work in Melbourne without a permit can be fined up to $1652.

Anyone found flouting the permitted worker permits scheme and childcare scheme will face a fine of $19,826 while businesses can be fined $99,132 for breaching the conditions.

Vulnerable children will still be permitted at childcare, kinder and school regardless of whether their parents are considered a permitted worker.

Mr Andrews predicted that if the measures worked in driving down numbers, more children could be allowed back at childcare.

He warned there would be penalties for anyone caught fudging the declaration.

HOTEL INQUIRY NO REASON FOR MPS TO STAY SILENT

Health Minister Jenny Mikakos has continued to refuse to answer questions over the state’s bungled hotel quarantine program despite being given the all-clear to reveal the truth to Victorians.

Former judge Jennifer Coate, who is heading the $3m probe into the failed program, said the ongoing inquiry didn’t stop any politician from answering questions.

For months Premier Daniel Andrews and his ministers have claimed they cannot answers questions about the hotel scandal, which triggered the state’s catastrophic coronavirus second wave, because it was subject to an inquiry.

But Ms Coate said on Wednesday: “This board of inquiry is not a court. Under law, unlike a court, there is no general restriction or prohibition which would prevent a person from commenting publicly or answering questions to which they know the answers on matters which are the subject of examination by this board of inquiry.”

Her declaration clears the way for Mr Andrews, ministers and bureaucrats to speak frankly when quizzed about the bungled quarantine program in press conferences.

Mr Andrews will also have no justification for avoiding scrutiny when he is called before a separate parliamentary committee probing the quarantine program next week.

Ms Coate also put all government ministers on notice for the first time that they would be hauled before her judicial ­inquiry if she deemed it necessary.

“It is anticipated that witnesses from private entities through to the most senior levels of government will be examined publicly in this inquiry,” she said.

“If relevant ministers are the source of information needed by the inquiry, then they will be requested to ­appear.”

The Premier, Ms Mikakos, Police and Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville, and Jobs Minister Martin Pakula are all tipped to be central figures to the inquiry.

Since it was established they have each refused to answer questions about their involvement in establishing and running the quarantine program.

On Tuesday, Ms Mikakos sparked controversy and calls for her resignation by attending parliament, contrary to the advice of Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton.

She then refused to answer any questions about the government’s coronavirus response, including the bungled hotel quarantine program.

In particular she was asked to release a genomic report that is understood to show the program caused Victoria’s second wave.

She was also asked when she first learned there were ­serious issues with the program, amid claims senior bureaucrats raised concerns within 24 hours of its March launch.

In written responses Ms Mikakos doubled down on her refusal to answer questions about the program, using the inquiry for justification.

Ms Mikakos defended her decision to attend parliament, blaming the opposition for forcing the upper house to sit.

The hotel quarantine inquiry was due to hear from its first witnesses on Thursday but has been postponed because of delays caused by stage 4 restrictions.

Ms Coate said many documents provided to the inquiry had been submitted late, with claims for confidentiality that would take time to ­assess.

It is understood serious concerns have been raised about documents filed by the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, which was central to establishing the quarantine program.

Opposition spokesman Ed O’Donohue said further comments from Ms Coate about the wide claims of privilege “beg the obvious question, what is Daniel Andrews hiding and why is he seeking to conceal the truth?”

“The hotel quarantine fiasco and the spread of COVID-19 it facilitated is costing lives, billions in lost economic activity and causing immeasurable angst and stress in the community. Daniel Andrews needs to recognise the loss his mismanagement has caused and come clean with the facts,” he said.

The Premier has approved a six-week extension for the inquiry’s reporting deadline, from September 25 to November 6.

“I have one aim in this inquiry: to conduct it with the forensic rigour and completeness that is expected of me and that is rightly deserved by the people of Victoria,” Ms Coate said.

VACCINE MAY BE A LONG SHOT: HEALTH CHIEF

Australians have been warned not to expect a vaccine for COVID-19 soon.

Deputy chief medical officer Michael Kidd said it would be hard to open borders until one was found and widely administered across the globe.

“We are aware that we may all be living with COVID-19 for many more months,” Prof Kidd said. “This may even be years, until an effective and safe vaccine has been developed.”

He said Australia was working “closely” with other nations to ensure any vaccine developed would be made available locally.

World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus this week warned a vaccine might never be found, saying there was “no silver bullet … and there might never be”.

MORE NEWS

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HOW VICTORIA IS IN A STATE OF REAL ANXIETY

BUILDING INDUSTRY WARNS TRAVEL KEY TO STOP SHUTDOWN

alex.white@news.com.au

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