Victoria’s pandemic response has been put under additional strain and the health of hundreds of frontline workers has been put in jeopardy after a company conducting contact tracing calls allegedly breached COVID-safe protocols.
More than 700 frontline workers responsible for notifying Victorians when they have visited an exposure site have been forced into 14 days’ isolation after an outbreak in their building.
The outbreak at the Acquire BPO call centre on St Kilda Road has been linked to 25 cases and is being investigated by the Victorian Department of Health.
And now a whistleblower at the company has told The New Daily it oversaw poor health and safety practices that may have contributed to the spread of the virus – allegations that the company strongly denies.
“The cases are spread across four different buildings – all of them at full capacity in terms of the number of staff,” the whistleblower said.
“Every desk was filled. There was no social distancing.”
He claims the offices were crowded, they used hot-desking with no cleaning in between, and that masks were rarely worn properly.
He said staff used shared headsets and only one bottle of hand sanitiser in the lift.
The only time working from home was allowed was when the four sites were at full capacity, he said.
He said parts of the system were already stretched before the workforce was sent into isolation.
“We were responsible for calling people up and letting them know they needed to go into isolation,’’ he said.
“Most of the time it would be five to six days late. I still haven’t been called to be told when my isolation is going to be until.”
Most of the staff, including management, were on casual contracts, he said.
“It is the company’s fault for not having proper regulation, but what do you expect when you subcontract out a job like this? Where they’re just trying to make money,” he said.
“It’s the same as hotel quarantine.”
In an email sent to staff after the outbreak was declared – and seen by The New Daily – the company told employees not to talk to media and offered to arrange equipment for those wanting to work from home during their isolation.
“If you are in isolation and wish to continue working, please contact your manager so that we can make arrangements for you,” the letter said.
In an email to The New Daily, the company denied the allegations, claiming the call centre had large hand sanitiser dispensers and “regular intraday cleaning was professionally undertaken”.
Calls for greater protection of casuals
On Monday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said they were investigating the outbreak.
“I think we’re having a close look at that – they’re not direct employees of the government – they’re a firm that’s been subcontracted. I’m not certain about the exact facts there yet,” Mr Andrews said.
The Department of Health would not answer questions about the conditions at the call centre or how its closure would affect the state’s COVID response.
“We have and continue to follow the advice and guidelines of the Department of Health and other authorities,” a spokesperson said.
Greens leader and Workplace Relations spokesperson Adam Bandt said it was another clear example of “casualisation of the workforce [continuing] to bring our pandemic response undone”.
“If workers can’t raise problems with management and know their job is safe, companies will continue to break rules,” Mr Bandt said.
“Our way out of this crisis is clear: Economic security for everyone, in and out of work.”
Victoria’s tracing system buckling
On Monday, Victoria’s COVID response commander Jeroen Weimar dismissed suggestions that the virus had gotten away from the state’s contact tracers – arguing they were still hitting their set time frames for contacting positive cases and close contacts.
Professor Mark Stoove from the Burnet Institute said the “system was clearly stretched”.
“When you look at the number of cases that remain unlinked, that are under investigation, it’s been building for the last week.”
He said both New South Wales and Victoria had good contract tracing systems, but struggled to keep on top of outbreaks after more than 100 cases.
“It is essential businesses take COVID seriously, and make sure their staff are following the right protocol to help keep case numbers down,” Professor Stoove said.
“Having staff separated, only situated at one worksite, and following COVID-safe guidelines would help keep the numbers low.
“They are universal precautions workplaces need to adopt. And the most important thing at the moment is people do need to get vaccinated and get vaccinated yesterday.”