Victoria's Health Department failed to verify an infected Cedar Meats worker's claim that he had not been in contact with other employees, a parliamentary inquiry into the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic has heard.
The Andrews government came under intense questioning during the first day of hearings for its handling of Victoria's largest COVID-19 outbreak, linked to the meatworks in Melbourne's west.
It came as the Victorian Liberals claimed one of their MPs had been approached by an intermediary for Cedar Meats, who asked that they not name the company as news of a coronavirus cluster emerged. The company denies the claim.
State Treasurer Tim Pallas will appear at the inquiry on Wednesday and is expected to be quizzed about the $24.5 billion loan taken out by the government to deal with coronavirus and its economic fallout.
Health Minister Jenny Mikakos and Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton were grilled at the inquiry for several hours on Tuesday.
During a heated exchange, Nationals MP Danny O'Brien asked Ms Mikakos and Professor Sutton why there had been such a delay in notifying the Melbourne meatworks company after the first worker tested positive for the virus on April 2. Two other workers tested positive on April 24 and 26.
Professor Sutton told the hearing the worker who tested positive on April 2 had told Department of Health and Human Services contact tracers on two occasions that he had not attended work at Cedar Meats in the four weeks prior to being diagnosed. However, Professor Sutton conceded the worker's claim had not been verified with Cedar Meats management.
"What I do understand is that the individual provided information that there were no close contacts to follow up in the workplace," he said. "In terms of the hypothesis of how that case might be related to later cases in the cluster, I'm meant to be agonistic. We need to be open-minded." Professor Sutton said the first infected worker in the abattoir's boning room had told the department he had no close contact with other workers. This prompted an outburst from Polwarth Liberal MP Richard Riordan. "I don't know whether you've been in a boning room. I've got the largest one in Victoria, I think, in my electorate. I'm a regular visitor," Mr Riordan said. "You cannot be in a boning room by yourself. It is a room of up to, you know, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 people at very close quarters. We know internationally, boning rooms and meat processing plants have been problematic."
Ms Mikakos was also questioned on why updated state epidemiology modelling on the pandemic was not released before restrictions were eased on Monday. Earlier, Victorian Liberals leader Michael O'Brien said an MP from his party had been approached by an intermediary for Cedar Meats, who urged them not to name the company as news emerged of a coronavirus cluster at the abattoir. Opposition Leader Michael O'Brien says one of his MPs was approached by an intermediary for Cedar Meats. CREDIT:SIMON SCHLUTERMr O’Brien declined to name the MP, but insisted the approach had taken place. "We know one of our MPs was approached by an intermediary of Cedar Meats encouraging us not to name the company," he said.
A spokeswoman for Cedar Meats rejected the claim.
"Cedar Meats management did not ask any intermediary to contact any MPs to not name it during the outbreak," she said. It took several days for authorities to contact Cedar Meats. Scroll left through recommended storiesScroll right through recommended stories Mr O’Brien’s comments came after Premier Daniel Andrews appeared before the parliamentary inquiry, where he was asked about the handling of the cluster.
Mr Riordan pressed Mr Andrews on whether his office had been advised that Cedar Meats contacted Labor MPs "to plead with them not to disclose the business name" when news of the cluster broke.
Mr Andrews said he had not received any advice that this had taken place. "I have no such advice. None whatsoever," he said. The Cedar Meats spokeswoman also denied the company’s management texted Labor MPs asking them not to name the company. "This is false information," she said.
Mr Riordan told the parliamentary inquiry that many contractors who worked in the livestock transport industry had been through the Cedar Meats site and then travelled to his electorate in south-western Victoria.
He said those people had not been notified about the risks of exposure to the virus, but Mr Andrews said the outbreak had been handled as carefully as possible.
Victoria recorded 17 new cases of coronavirus on Tuesday, bringing the state's number of cases to 1509. Eighteen people have died from coronavirus in Victoria.