Inquiry finds virus tracking hampered by privacy laws


Changes to Victorian laws covering the privacy of medical information should be considered after authorities struggled to stamp out an coronavirus infection outbreak at the Cedar Meats abbatoir due to confidentiality concerns.

The recommendation that changes be considered was contained in a Victorian parliamentary inquiry’s interim report released on Tuesday afternoon.

Cedar Meats meat processing plant in Brooklyn, in Melbourne's west.

Cedar Meats meat processing plant in Brooklyn, in Melbourne’s west.Credit:Jason South

The Public Accounts and Estimates Committee’s (PAEC) majority report makes 23 recommendations including the consideration of improvements to communications, warnings, contact tracing and data provision. It also finds that demand for homelessness services spiked, that there were issues with training health staff on the use of protective gear and that most fines were handed out in disadvantaged areas.

“The committee’s majority report finds that the Health Records Act’s prohibition on disclosing health information about an individual without their specific authorisation “limited the department’s ability to notify staff of the potential exposure to the COVID-19 virus,” it says.

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In response it recommends the government look at ways to amend the Act to “more effectively facilitate the provision of warnings and contact tracing during pandemics and other public health emergencies”.

The report also finds there were delays in providing crucial information from the company to the government as it emerged that a “cluster was commencing” at Cedar Meats.

“The Department of Health and Human Services did not have access to data on
the total number of individuals that may have been exposed to COVID‑19 at the Cedar Meats facility until nine days after the first case had been identified on 24 April 2020,” it says.

The report also notes that a number of GPs were aware of the Cedar Meats outbreak before it was public because workers had presented to them seeking testing.

“Better communication between the Department of Health and Human Services and General Practitioners could have mitigated the impact of the outbreak,” it says, recommending that better rules for communication in a pandemic be established.

The report finds there were varying experiences for health professionals accessing personal protective equipment (PPE).

Broadly it found state-run organisations could access the PPE they needed whilst those relying on the commonwealth government’s stockpile – particularly GPs and aged care providers – sometimes experienced difficulties.

However it also found that hospital staff felt there had been insufficient or inconsistent training on how to properly use PPE.

The committee recommended that the department “work with the health sector to develop a comprehensive pandemic preparedness training program for healthcare workers including proper use of personal protective equipment”.

Homelessness support

The report also found an increasing number of people from “middle Australia” accessed homelessness services for the first time as the coronavirus pandemic took hold and governments announced strict lockdown measures to suppress the spread of COVID-19.

The federal government’s income support packages, JobKeeper and JobSeeker, and the state’s moratorium on rental eviction prevented a “deluge” of middle-class Victorians from plunging into homelessness, it found.

The committee heard from a range of people and providers, including homelessness, tenant and domestic violence services, all reporting an increase in demand.

Tenants Victoria recorded a 400 per cent increase to their services after the Victorian government started introducing restrictions, including shutting down some businesses, designed to suppress the spread of coronavirus.

Consumer Affairs Victoria reported almost 18,000 reduced rent agreements had been lodged through its website by July 5 – this equates to about 3 per cent of the total number of Victorian households renting. The average weekly reduction in rent was $155, or 27 per cent.

“National and state legislation such as JobKeeper, JobSeeker and Victoria’s eviction moratorium have protected some Victorians who may have been at risk of homelessness,” the committee found in its interim report.

“Evidence from the homelessness sector suggests that during the period March to May, the sector experienced an increase in demand for its services in general, and from segments of the Victorian community that had not accessed these services in the past.

“There are concerns from the sector that the economic effects of the COVID‑19 restrictions could lead to further demands on services and more homelessness.”

The committee also recommended the state government develop a strategy to improve access to mental health support in regional and rural Victoria, following evidence the pandemic disproportionately affected people outside of Melbourne.

Disadvantaged communities cop fines

The report also found Victoria’s three most disadvantaged communities accounted for 10 per cent of police fines for failures to comply with COVID-19 restrictions.

Residents in the Central Goldfields Shire and the cities of Greater Dandenong and Brimbank were issued a combined 529 fines by police over the first two months of restrictions, to May 19.

In contrast, Victoria’s three most advantaged communities based on a socio-economic index of the 80 local government areas – Nillumbik Shire in Melbourne’s outer north-east and the inner-city councils of Bayside and Boroondara – accounted for 1.9 per cent of fines issued by May 19.

Residents in those three areas were issued a combined 85 fines for non-compliance over that period. Victoria Police issued 5600 fines from more than 47,000 compliance checks by May 19, although some fines were later cancelled or are under review.

The committee that prepared the interim report, which was released on Tuesday, was told the Department of Justice and Community Safety was working with police to ensure there was no disproportionate impact on disadvantaged communities.

However, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service raised concerns to the committee that fines can compound existing disadvantage.

The service highlighted the example of a homeless Indigenous man who was fined for sleeping on a park bench.

Opposition MPs issued a minority report blasting the main report as politically biased.

The full PAEC report can be located here.

More to come.

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