Second wave could’ve been ‘largely avoided’ with better contact tracing: Hunt

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt says coronavirus outbreaks in quarantine hotels only sparked a second wave because of the state’s deficient contact tracing system.

Mr Hunt said contact tracing had improved in Victoria but was not yet perfect. Had the state developed a tracing system as proficient as NSW’s, the pathway to easing restrictions could advance much quicker than is planned, he said.

"My belief is that it largely could have been avoided," he said of Victoria’s second wave.

"The evidence is NSW had the equivalent of about six hotel quarantine breaches in terms of cases that have come from Victoria [and spread into the community]… The difference is they’ve been able to recognise them, chase them down, get on top of them early."

Victoria's Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton agreed the state’s contact tracing system was not sufficient to deal with the high number of cases associated with the second wave when the virus seeped out of quarantine hotels into the community. However, he disagreed that the virus had spread from hotels undetected.

The system had since improved dramatically and was now "pretty similar" to the NSW system, he said.

Professor Sutton said he believed all infected guards and hotel staff were contacted by the Health Department as well as their close contacts.

"It’s pretty clear numbers got beyond Victoria’s capacity to deal with every case in a timely way," Professor Sutton told 3AW's Neil Mitchell.

"It was a super spreading event. Someone was super-infectious and it might have gone beyond their identified close contacts," Professor Sutton said.

"They might have been in an area with a number of people who were casual contacts … and has spread to a number of them who all went away without knowing they were close contacts and our system couldn’t trace," he said.
"I’m speculating on that. I wish the system were as robust then as I know it is now.

"I can’t say it would have been stopped with a NSW system."

Mr Hunt said the extended lockdown announced by Premier Daniel Andrews on Sunday could have been avoided if Victoria had a gold-standard tracing system.

"Lockdowns are the last thing that you do, because of the mental health consequences, the health consequences, the human consequences and the cost of jobs and livelihoods," he said on 3AW.

Mr Hunt welcomed a report in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday that the state had signed a contract with a US tech company to digitise its contact tracing system.

Mr Hunt said the Victorian government accepted recommendations made by Australia's Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel.

"The reason we wanted the ADF in and the reason we wanted the Chief Scientist of Australia in is precisely because we were concerned that there were a significant number of cases that hadn’t been contacted and hadn’t been traced," he said.

"The fact that they’re adopting this approach now is welcome."

Professor Sutton defended the department’s decision not to take up a similar offer in March.

"The system that we had, we didn’t know what would be required, we didn’t know we’d get to 700 cases a day, and we didn’t know what the particular weaknesses in terms of our particular database would be."

"It was also pretty clear that March was our busiest time during the first wave and you don’t change the entire system and retrain everyone right in the middle of it."

The inquiry into hotel quarantine resumed hearings on Tuesday morning.

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