A mix of good fortune and good management meant WA emerged from the recent lockdown in good shape. How likely is it to happen again?
Andrew Miller takes little comfort when events confirm his warnings on COVID-19.
It was timely, therefore, that he appeared in this magazine a fortnight ago to air his concerns with the state government’s preparedness to handle a second wave of COVID-19.
Many of those criticisms were familiar, as he argued against outsourcing security to private operators and running quarantine facilities out of hotels in Perth’s CBD.
Those comments proved prescient, as Western Australia recorded its first case of COVID-19 in the community in 315 days on January 30, the day before his comments went to publication.
When he spoke to Business News earlier this month, though, Dr Miller was circumspect.
“We’re not saying I told you so and we’re not wanting to be smart about it,” he said.
“What we want now is to take this as an opportunity to get the health care situation under control.”
While there has been plenty of discussion about the circumstances that led to WA’s five-day lockdown, which ended on February 6 after no new cases were recorded, few appear willing to argue against the logic of that course of action.
Snap lockdowns have been more broadly implemented in recent months, with South Australia, Queensland, and NSW using this blunt tool to clamp down on any possible community transmission.
This approach appears to work and is proving even more effective as research confirms the increased transmissibility of emerging variants from the UK, South Africa and Brazil.
George Milne, a professor at the University of Western Australia whose modelling of COVID-19’s infectiousness has been used by WA, SA and Queensland’s health authorities, endorsed the move earlier this month when approached by Business News.
He compared WA’s approach with that taken by Victoria during its second wave.
According to his modelling, up to 70 per cent of deaths in that state attributed to COVID-19 complications could have been avoided had it moved to lockdown before case numbers started to grow exponentially in July.
“The problem is that if you have a few cases bubbling about in the community, they can grow very rapidly,” Professor Milne said.
“It’s a bit like a brush fire with strong wind; you get an ember travelling three-and-a-half kilometres with a strong wind, dry conditions and a high temperature, and bang, there it goes.
“We know it could grow rapidly, so a hard and early lockdown is the way to go.”
Business support was instrumental to the success of WA’s lockdown, with the mining and construction sectors granted ‘essential’ status almost immediately after the state government’s announcement.
Key industry bodies, such as the Chamber of Minerals and Energy Western Australia and Master Builders Association of WA, were quick to welcome the distinction while declaring their support for the state government’s health and safety measures.
Just about every significant industry body in the state had made its intentions clear by the time the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of WA put out its own statement declaring the measures necessary and proportionate.
If support for the lockdown appeared firm, though, many businesses took issue with being given just six-hours’ warning before its implementation, as well as guidelines that did not clearly demarcate what constituted an essential business.
In the same statement in which the CCI expressed its support of the lockdown, chief executive Chris Rodwell noted a long list of businesses, including those in the accommodation, hospitality and tourism sectors, that would face difficulties as a result.
A spokesperson for the organisation reiterated the CCI’s support for short and effective lockdowns, while noting the chamber had fielded calls in the immediate aftermath concerning the clarity of the state government’s directives.
Other industry bodies, including Tourism Council WA and the Australian Hotels Association WA, noted publicly the uncertainty of the initial guidance and how that could affect small businesses’ ability to roster staff or open their doors in a timely manner.
“Gardeners, pool cleaners and physios thought they could continue to go to work because they couldn’t do their work from home,” opposition small business spokesperson Alyssa Hayden told Business News.
“The problem came when they were out in the street and police officers would stop and ask where they were going, or they would contact me saying, ‘I think I can continue; What do you think?’
“It actually took some time for us to find out whether they were allowed to or not, but it was also a matter for them to figure out what parts of their business they could or couldn’t continue with.
“Having a very broad, sweeping line like the premier gave … really caused so much confusion.”
While some took issue with the scope of the guidance, other retailers that were allowed to open were left to struggle with the structural issues associated with lockdowns.
These trends were visible in research performed by West Perth-based analytics firm The U Group & Co, which analysed the impact of short-term shocks, such as panic buying, on supply chains for smaller, franchise-owned retailers.
Tyler Spooner, the firm’s co-founder and chief executive, explained that, for the likes of Coles, which recorded a 7 per cent increase in revenue this past financial year owing to panic buying at the height of the pandemic, access to data and complex modelling would allow any shortages that resulted from that the snap Sunday lockdown to be met.
Smaller businesses, on the other hand, may have been left short on stock as consumers turned away from large shopping complexes to independent grocers.
“Everyone has the same empty shelves, [but] as soon as this outbreak happened, the police coordinated with the major shopping centres to limit buying and keep the crowds maintained,” Mr Spooner said.
“All those smaller retailers … it’s lucky for them that it happened on a Sunday, because it’s quite a busy day; your retailers would be ready for that traffic on a weekend.
“As for, say, a Wednesday? They wouldn’t have been as prepared.
“The infrastructure isn’t there; there’s not enough baskets, counters or stock.”
That the impact was isolated to just WA may have been a blessing.
Unlike the first lockdown, which extended beyond six weeks and disrupted national supply chains, WA’s recent lockdown did not affect other states, meaning excess stock could be diverted west to help struggling retailers.
“At the time [of the first wave], we did not have clarity as to who could work doing what and who couldn’t,” said Flavio Romero Macau, senior lecturer in supply chain management and global logistics at Edith Cowan University.
“It took some time to get clarity about what could carry on as an essential business.
“Now, eight months in the future, when we have lockdowns they’re localised.
“They’re not happening at the same time; it’s an asynchronous event.
“That makes a very big difference for supply chains.”
The localised and relatively short impact of WA’s lockdown, which is scheduled to finish after just two weeks, is a likely reason for why Mr McGowan has lowered expectations for what businesses can expect in direct support.
At least $43 million of support in the form of $500 electricity rebates has already landed to mixed reception, with the opposition calling for targeted (if not generous) loans of up to $10,000 for businesses affected by the shutdowns.
Health Minister Roger Cook may have provided some confidence to the business community, though, when he went on record to confirm lockdowns wouldn’t always follow a new case of COVID-19.
With the recent lockdown widely viewed as having been manageable, criticism was reserved for the circumstances that led to the need for one in the first place.
Mr McGowan has already fronted the media to apologise for the incident and flagged a number of improvements to hotel quarantine to address any future infections reaching the community.
No fewer than 24 hours after the case was reported, two separate inquiries were announced, with former chief health officer Tarun Weeramanthri leading an investigation into the state’s hotel quarantine system and the WA Police Force leading another into the incident.
Police commissioner Chris Dawson has been eager to avoid associating the man in question with any criminal behaviour, insisting the police investigation will merely trace the man’s movements in an effort to better understand the virus’s spread.
Dr Miller, however, isn’t convinced this will be of much value.
“We don’t send police to the meatworks when someone catches salmonella, we send physicians,” Dr Miller said.
“That’s who needs to go to determine how this spread.
“What I’m worried about is that they’ll look for some technical issue in the way the workers carried out their work and blame it all on that, when in fact he was set up to fail by the system he was working in.”
Dr Miller’s criticisms of the system have been numerous over the past 12 months, and his grievances with housing infected travellers in hotels has boiled over in the past fortnight.
Few details have been published about the department’s hotel quarantine facilities, nine of which are currently in operation.
A review of state government contracts awarded since March offers some idea of the extent of the operation.
Per contracts issued by the Department of Finance, all hotel quarantine facilities are listed as providing accommodation, meals and services for the State Health Incident Coordination Centre as part of the state government’s quarantine activities.
Records show that more than $25 million of contracts were awarded to 13 hotels in metropolitan Perth for this purpose.
Of those, nine had their cost revised – in line with the number of facilities the Department of Health has confirmed it is still operating – bringing the total value of all contracts to $110 million over the past 11 months.
While the names of these facilities have not been disclosed, Four Points by Sheraton, which is located on Wellington Street opposite RAC Arena, was the facility at which the security guard contracted the virus.
A representative from the Department of Health told Business News that the nine hotels operating as quarantine facilities are: Hyatt Regency Perth; InterContinental Perth City Centre; Novotel Perth Murray Street; Novotel Perth Langley; The Westin Perth; Mercure Hotel Perth; Holiday Inn Perth City Centre; Sheraton Perth; and Pan Pacific Perth.
Details for security contracts are more readily available, with four having been awarded for this purpose since March.
Those contracts were worth close to $13 million, having gone to Site Services Holdings, Wilson Parking, Dynamiq and MSS Security.
While the department does not disclose the names of the hotels at which these companies were employed, they do note that MSS was employed at three facilities, and Dynamiq and Wilson Parking were employed at one each.
Site Services Holdings, meanwhile, is listed simply as providing services to a number of hotels; its contract was worth the most of the four, at $6.6 million.
That company, in turn, lists the Department of Health among its clients, but does not publish any information to indicate how many or which facilities its security personnel work in.
Site Services Holdings declined to provide any further information when approached by Business News.
Some reporting earlier this month indicated that Ace Security and Event Services employed the security guard who caught COVID-19 at Four Points by Sheraton.
No contract appears to have been awarded to the company, though, and a spokesperson directed questions about the matter to the Department of Health.
The delegation of quarantining returned international travellers to the states and territories has come under scrutiny in recent weeks, as Victoria suffered its own incident of airborne transmission between guests and a security guard just days after the WA case.
While the federal opposition has pointed out that international borders are the responsibility of the federal government, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has made known that, although he is open to alternatives, it was not clear to him what those options would be.
Dr Miller’s rationale for opposing hotel quarantining is straightforward: he argues hotels were never built for the purpose, and therefore lack the proper infrastructure to constrain the spread of a virulent, airborne pathogen.
When he spoke to Business News in January, Dr Miller floated the idea of re-engineering air-conditioning to prevent the virus from recirculating through stagnant air.
Paul Armstrong, director of the health department’s communicable disease control arm, rejected that notion on February 3, saying the security guard’s infection was a chance event and ruling out the possibility the virus spread through the hotel’s ventilation system.
Another suggestion that has gained momentum in recent days has been to shift quarantine sites to remote locations, mirroring the Northern Territory’s decision to house returned international travellers in a facility located 30 kilometres south-east of Darwin.
While that idea has won the endorsement of the Australian Medical Association and Queensland Premier Anastasia Palaszczuk, others, including the NSW health minister, have pushed back on moving patients further away from the well-resourced hospitals found in metropolitan areas.
Mr Morrison, too, has questioned the practicality of that move, noting the federal government had spent about $244 million on Darwin’s facility.
That’s more than twice the total cost of WA’s entire hotel quarantining system.
That the federal government is even considering the construction of a federal facility in Toowoomba, located about 130 kilometres west of Brisbane, may yet signal a willingness to do so in WA, where Mr McGowan has on several occasions asked for returned travellers to be housed on Christmas Island.
Major figures, including the director general of the state’s health department, do not support this idea, however, and national cabinet reaffirmed its commitment to state government-run hotel quarantining on February 5.
Other suggestions, such as the embrace of permanent working conditions for security guards, are more workable if not logistically challenging.
The state government has reportedly begun considering lifting salaries for security guards by up to 40 per cent in exchange for them working just one job at a time, mirroring an approach adopted by Victoria in the aftermath of its disastrous second wave.
Tasmania enforces similar requirements for its security personnel.
Mr McGowan said in early January that the department had investigated altering employment arrangements for security personnel.
He did, however, caution that enforcing that contractual obligation would be complex in practice.
These questions are likely to linger as the threat of further outbreaks remains, given the global caseload continues to increase, more virulent strains are becoming dominant, and major cities are continuing to house infected patients in their metropolitan limits.
Still, with more than 20 million Australians to be vaccinated by October, many will be relieved the end of a pandemic that roiled the globe less than a year ago is within reach.
Many others will be relieved to know that this lockdown has now ended, two weeks after shoppers stripped shelves bare and a second outbreak appeared eminently possible.
“The last lockdown was a bit of a blank cheque,” Dr Miller said.
“We had no real idea and thought for periods that it would be years of lockdowns.
“This time around, at least, we know that lockdowns work.
“We’ve seen other states bring it under control and we know that we can do the same thing.”