Victoria's poor contact tracing during second Covid wave 'cost lives', report finds

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Parliamentary inquiry says state health department should have moved faster to communicate with multicultural communities

Man with face masks walks past alley
Victoria’s inquiry report suggests the state’s contact tracing system was completely overwhelmed at the peak of its second Covid wave when daily case numbers topped 700. Photograph: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images
Victoria’s inquiry report suggests the state’s contact tracing system was completely overwhelmed at the peak of its second Covid wave when daily case numbers topped 700. Photograph: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

Last modified on Mon 14 Dec 2020 00.11 EST

Victoria’s “world-class” contact tracing systems now in place could have been established before the state’s second wave of coronavirus if the health department had been less defensive and listened to advice earlier, a parliamentary committee has found.

The state’s upper house inquiry report, released on Monday, also found that the department should have moved faster to communicate effectively with culturally and linguistically diverse communities, and the lack of preparedness “cost lives”.

Much of the focus during Victoria’s second wave was on problems with hotel quarantine, but the state’s contact tracing was also unable to cope with the increasing number of cases from late May. The system was completely overwhelmed at the peak of the second wave when daily case numbers topped 700.

A subsequent overhaul saw a digitised system introduced, decentralised hubs established for contact tracing teams, and a surge workforce brought in taking the number of staff to over 2,600. The system can now cope with up to 500 new cases per day.

But the parliamentary inquiry into Victoria’s contact tracing system, chaired by Reason leader Fiona Patten, found the changes should have been made earlier.

“We were offered systems that were being in use in other jurisdictions and we did not take up that offer when we should have,” Patten said on Monday. “Our system was completely overwhelmed.”

The committee found the system in place now was world-class but the health department had ignored warnings from the then acting manager in the communicable disease prevention and control unit, Tom Voigt, in May 2019 that recommended increasing the number of public health officers in contact tracing from 14 to 24 to prepare for future outbreaks. But, Voigt said, the response before the pandemic was a firm “no”. He was told at the time it was a low priority.

The committee said it was “very troubled” by the government’s failure to address shortcomings and it indicated “there may have been a complacency about public health and emerging threats”.

The committee also criticised the state government for not taking up an offer from software company Salesforce, in late March 2020, to adopt the contact tracing system Victoria subsequently did use. It has now automated large parts of the process, including notifying people of their test results via text message.

The department defended the decision, however, stating it would have been a major undertaking at the time given there was an existing Microsoft system in place. Reports at the time suggested much of the contact tracing was being done with pen and paper. The committee said inaction cost lives.

“The committee views the reluctance by the Victorian government to concede or acknowledge errors as a contributing factor in the substantial delays in the implementation of a suitable contact tracing management system,” the report stated.

“However capable the current contact tracing solution is, it was not available when the Victorian public needed it. This failure cost lives and was unable to be rectified without strict lockdown measures throughout the state. This lack of humility has the capacity to hinder progress by limiting opportunities for collaboration or building off developments made in other jurisdictions.”

The Victorian government told the inquiry 50% of Covid-19 cases in the state were among people who were born outside of Australia – despite that cohort making up just 30% of the total population.

A total of 29% of cases spoke a language other than English at home which the initial contact tracing system failed to adequately address. The committee reported there were problems with information being translated and a lack of engagement with affected communities.

“It is vitally important that Victoria’s culturally and linguistically diverse communities have easy access to detailed and up-to-date information about testing and contact tracing delivered in a suitable language or format,” the report stated.

“By better engaging with trusted representatives throughout the community, the government may have been able to prevent widespread transmission through vulnerable communities.”

The committee said the government failed to coordinate a system that was “effective for all Victorians”. “Greater work needs to be done to ensure the testing regime and contact tracing system is fit for purpose,” it concluded.

In August, Victoria established a culturally and linguistically diverse communities taskforce to deliver community specific programs for addressing Covid-19, including $25m in funding for support services.

Victoria’s health minister, Martin Foley, said on Monday that lessons had been learned.

“The Victorian government and community have learned a lot over the course of 2020,” he said. “We now have in place a public health and tracing system that has enabled us 45 days continuously of zero community transmission.”

The committee’s report found no evidence the federal government’s Covidsafe contact tracing app had been effective or supported the public health response in Victoria. At last report, the state had downloaded data from the app over 1,800 times but had not identified close contacts not already identified through manual contact tracing.

A separate hotel quarantine inquiry is due to release its final report on 21 December.