The Victorian Department of Health is in serious trouble over its hotel quarantine program that began in 2020.
WorkSafe has accused Victoria Health of failing to supply security guards with appropriate personal protective equipment. It also did not provide sufficient pandemic training to ensure the safety of its staff during the Covid19 outbreak.
It is alleged that security guards were put at risk by the practices of Victoria Health, in which they could have contracted a serious illness resulting in death.
In total 58 charges have been laid by WorkSafe against ‘Operation Soteria’.
Victoria Health could face fines of up to $1.64 million per charge.
WorkSafe put out the following statement listing the charges:
The Department of Health, formerly the Department of Health and Human Services, has been charged with 17 breaches of Section 21(1) of the OHS Act, in that it failed to provide and maintain, as far as reasonably practicable, a working environment that was safe and without risks to health for its employees.
The department has been charged with a further 41 breaches of section 23 (1) of the OHS Act, in that it failed to ensure, so far as was reasonably practicable, that persons other than employees were not exposed to risks to their health and safety arising from conduct of its undertaking.
Between March and July 2020, the Department of Health was responsible for the oversight and co-ordination of Operation Soteria, Victoria's first hotel quarantine program.
WorkSafe alleges that the Department of Health breached OHS laws by failing to appoint people with infection prevention and control (IPC) expertise to be stationed at hotels it was utilising for the program.
It alleges the department failed to provide security guards with face-to-face infection prevention control training by a person with expertise in IPC prior to them commencing work, and either failed, or initially failed, to provide written instruction for the use of PPE.
WorkSafe further alleges the department failed to update written instructions relating to the wearing of masks at several of the hotels.
In all charges, WorkSafe alleges that Department of Health employees, Victorian Government Authorised Officers on secondment, or security guards were put at risk of serious illness or death through contracting COVID-19 from an infected returned traveller, another person working in the hotels or from a contaminated surface.
The maximum penalty for a body corporate for each of these charges is $1.64 million (9000 penalty units).
This complex investigation took 15 months to complete and involved reviewing tens of thousands of documents and multiple witness interviews.
A review of the material from last year's COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry provided relevant context and information that informed parts of the investigation.
The decision to prosecute has been made in accordance with WorkSafe's General Prosecution Guidelines, which require WorkSafe to consider whether there is sufficient evidence to support a reasonable prospect of conviction and whether bringing a prosecution is in the public interest.
Inquiries into other entities associated with this investigation including hotels, security firms and other Government departments and agencies have concluded.
The matter is listed for a filing hearing at the Magistrates' Court on 22 October and WorkSafe will not be providing further comment, as the matter is now before the court.
A number of other investigations relating to the control of COVID-19 related risks in workplaces remain ongoing.
Hotel quarantine was set up by the state government to handle potentially infected people transiting between states and countries during the Covid pandemic in the absence of special-purpose quarantine facilities. It has been a source of repeated controversy after errors in management and questionable hiring practices.
The charges represent 15 months of work by WorkSafe which includes witness statements and tens of thousands of documents.