Victorian health authorities have clarified their messaging on coronavirus rules, after people who arrived in the state from New South Wales were told to self isolate when they didn’t need to.
Strict border measures came into effect on Sunday night, banning anyone travelling from a NSW “hot zone” or “red zone” from entering Victoria without an exemption.
The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) travel restrictions state that people who had been in Sydney or Central Coast “red zones” since December 11, but arrived in Victoria before 11:59pm on Sunday, just needed to get tested and stay home until they got a negative result.
But some arrivals faced days of confusion after being given conflicting messages by health officials.
One of those was Luke Roberts from Tootgarook on the Mornington Peninsula, who was visiting family in NSW last week and briefly went to Sydney and the Central Coast areas.
When Sydney’s coronavirus cases started climbing, he cut his trip short and moved his flight to Victoria two days earlier, from Sunday to Friday, to be cautious.
He got tested for coronavirus in Victoria on Sunday, got a negative result on Monday, then went to work on Tuesday, following the health guidance.
But after a press conference on Tuesday, in which Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley said “anyone who has returned from the Northern Beaches Area, Greater Sydney, or the Central Coast, needs to get tested and quarantine for 14 days”, Mr Roberts decided to call DHHS to double check.
He was told he did need to self isolate for 14 days, and was sent home from work immediately.
“The escalated messaging created some stress not only for myself but in my workplace, because I work in a retail environment where I’m face to face with customers and other employees,” he said.
After Victoria’s coronavirus testing commander Jeroen Weimar reiterated the official advice yesterday, Mr Roberts decided, yet again, to call DHHS to double check.
This time, he was correctly told he did not need to self isolate.
“I continue to limit my movements and monitor for COVID symptoms, but I’m glad I can join some family for a late Christmas lunch,” he said.
Conflicting text messages sent out to Sydney arrivals
A Melbourne hospital also texted a number of people who had been in Sydney and incorrectly told them to self isolate for 14 days.
Text messages sent by the Royal Melbourne Hospital (RMH), seen by the ABC, told people who tested negative to self isolate for 14 days, because they arrived from Sydney.
These messages went out to several people who entered Victoria before 11:59pm on Sunday.
When contacted for comment, the RMH said DHHS coordinated the text message response and wording.
DHHS said it apologised for any inconvenience caused by the messages.
“We have received reports that a number of people with a negative COVID-19 test result may have received a text message from a metro Melbourne hospital informing them that they need to isolate for 14 days,” DHHS said in a statement.
“Only those who travelled back from the red zone (Greater Sydney/Central Coast) [after 11:59pm on Sunday] need to self isolate at home for 14 days. Others only need to isolate until they receive negative test results.
“We have followed up with this hospital to correct the messaging error, and they have confirmed they will send a follow-up SMS with the right instructions.”
‘No-one wants to be a superspreader’
Other people have also contacted the ABC with concerns about reading one thing on the DHHS website, then hearing another during press conferences or on the hotline.
Mr Roberts said he understood health officials were busy and the coronavirus pandemic was challenging.
“Everyone’s just learning in this process, no-one knew the answers at the start,” he said.
But he hopes more effort will go into ensuring messaging is correct across all channels — the website, the hotline, and press conferences — to avoid undue stress in the community.
“No-one wants to be the superspreader, I think people actually really want to do the right thing,” he said.
“If I’d been told [I needed to self isolate], I’d actually sort of resigned myself to it.”