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Health experts slams DHHS amid virus contact tracing system inquiry

Australia Medical Association Victoria president Julian Rait has slammed the Department of Health and Human Services as “culturally flawed”, an inquiry has heard. When giving evidence to a panel as part of a parliamentary inquiry into Victoria’s contact tracing system, professor Rait said within DHHS there was a culture of “keep(ing) imperfection to themselves”.His scathing…

Australia Medical Association Victoria president Julian Rait has slammed the Department of Health and Human Services as “culturally flawed”, an inquiry has heard.

When giving evidence to a panel as part of a parliamentary inquiry into Victoria’s contact tracing system, professor Rait said within DHHS there was a culture of “keep(ing) imperfection to themselves”.

His scathing comments followed a question about why the DHHS was supportive of its contact tracing methods despite botched management of a COVID-19 outbreak at the Cedar Meats Abattoir in late April.

“DHHS has to be less defensive and learn to benchmark its performance against other states. The community has a right to know as much as possible about its contact tracing system, including its resourcing, staffing, benchmarks and its performance,” professor Rait said.

“The culture in medicine is perfectionism but always seeking to continuously improve even if that means some loss of face, some humility and that this is what’s very frustrating. There isn’t that sense of humility and that willingness to learn or to admit that perhaps things could be done better.”

Professor Rait said the impact of the Cedar Meats outbreak – the site of the largest virus cluster in Victoria’s first wave – could have been lessened had the DHHS engaged with local general practitioners to assist with contact tracing.

He said there was a respiratory clinic just “4km down the road” from the Brooklyn abattoir.

“Expert local knowledge can benefit the state’s contact tracing efforts, particularly in multicultural communities,” professor Rait said.

“It can speed up the process of informing of possible new cases, but unfortunately we still have a way to go before general practice is meaningfully included in contact tracing and case management.

“The state government is obviously working with community health centres and primary health networks, but it doesn’t really recognise that these centres represent only a small part of the general practice universe.”

FIVE MONTHS TO ROLL OUT SALESFORCE SYSTEM

A tech giant that had the capacity to bring Victoria’s contact tracing methods into the digital age was forced to wait five months before being officially engaged by the government, the inquiry heard.

Salesforce Australia and New Zealand chief executive officer Pip Marlow told the inquiry that her company had reached out to the Department of Health, and Western and South Australian jurisdictions, in March.

“We did reach out to Victoria and other jurisdictions around the 30th of March – we then continued through a period of time to continue to share our capabilities and learnings,” she said.

Ms Marlow then confirmed DHHS next engaged with Salesforce in mid-July before the Silicon Valley tech giant was asked to sign a contract on July 28.

When questioned what the government’s reasoning was for not engaging with Salesforce in March, months before Victoria’s deadly second wave of coronavirus, Ms Marlow said she could not speak on behalf of DHHS.

“I wouldn’t want to speak on behalf of the department on why they chose to engage or not engage or presume to know what they were doing at a time that was pretty critical for Victorians and Australians in general,” she said.

Ms Marlow was also asked to provide emails – which demonstrated proof Salesforce had reached out to DHHS in March – to the committee, to which Ms Marlow said she would “have to take that on notice”.

Ms Marlow was also questioned about when South Australia and Western Australia officially brought on Salesforce to bolster their contact tracing capabilities.

But she could not provide details due to privacy.

The Salesforce contact tracing system is used by regional and suburban contact tracing teams and reduces the reliance on pen and paper by offering a centralised digital data management system.

STATE’S TOP OFFICIALS FACE VIRUS GRILLING

The state’s top health officials, leading epidemiologists and tech personnel will give evidence on Victoria’s COVID-19 contact tracing system at a parliamentary inquiry on Monday.

Australian Medical Association’s Julian Rait, Deakin University chair in epidemiology Catherine Bennett and Barwon Health infectious disease experts will appear at the public hearing at 9am.

Business leaders from tech agencies Salesforce, Hello World Travel and Whispir – which provided contact tracing support to the government – will also be among Monday’s witnesses.

The state‘s contact tracing effort during the deadly second wave of coronavirus attracted widespread criticism, forcing the Andrews government and its top health officials to defend the system.

A parliamentary inquiry was then established last month after upper house crossbenchers supported the opposition’s motion for the probe into the government’s contact tracing performance during the second wave.

The Parliament‘s legal and social issues committee, chaired by crossbench MP Fiona Patten, will consider the “capacity and fitness for purpose” of the state’s contact tracing system.

Victoria chief health officer Professor Brett Sutton and Department of Health and Human Services testing commander Jeroen Weimar are expected to be called up to give evidence at a later date.

The government’s chief of contact and outbreak management, Euan Wallace, Department of Jobs, Precincts and the Regions secretary Simon Phemister, and Australia’s chief scientist Alan Finkel are also expected to be added to the witness list.

On Wednesday the parliamentary panel will hear from management at Cedar Meats Abattoir, and the owners of two Islamic schools in Melbourne’s north and west, where major coronavirus outbreaks took place.

The inquiry will provide an initial report to the Legislative Council by November 30, while a final report is due by December 14.

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