Asked whether the comparison to Ruby Princess – the cruise ship linked to 21 deaths in Australia – was excessive, Mr O’Brien said both were due to “government incompetence”.
“Ruby Princess should never have happened. Frankly coronavirus at Cedar Meats should never have happened,” he said.
The first case
A cluster at the abattoir was first suspected by the health department on April 24, but the government has since revealed an initial case was diagnosed more than a month ago, on April 2.
At the time, the health department did not consider the Brooklyn meatworks to be an exposure site because the infected person said he was not at work for “weeks” beforehand.
The federal government is now investigating whether Commonwealth inspectors may have unknowingly spread the virus to other facilities after inspecting the abattoir in April.
“We can only go on what we’re told,” Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton told radio station 3AW on Wednesday morning, adding that he wasn’t aware if the abattoir was asked about the worker’s attendance.
“If you or I get diagnosed with COVID and say we normally go to Flinders Street Station on Friday but haven’t been there for the last month, we wouldn’t put that down as a site of exposure.”
Dr Sutton said he did not believe the worker diagnosed in early April was the source of the second and third cases. He said Cedar Meats may never have been informed about the initial infection because the worker said he had not been to work.
“I have been told that that early case wasn’t part of the cluster – wasn’t on site,” he said. “We’ll really struggle to understand who introduced it and when.”
Dr Sutton said the department would be reviewing its policy not to name affected businesses in order to protect public confidence in the department, given they would likely be named anyway.
He said the claim the worker infected in early April attended the abattoir was a “rumour” that required further investigation.
How the cluster emerged
The Victorian government is facing criticism over a lack of transparency, after initially declining to name the abattoir and waiting until late on Tuesday evening, May 5, to release a timeline of the cluster.
A second and third person linked to the cluster were diagnosed on April 24 and 25, but the health department did not advise the company to test all 350 workers until April 30 – when even more cases were discovered.
The 49 cases of coronavirus linked to the Brooklyn abattoir now include at least three close contacts of workers.
Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas has defended the government’s handling of the outbreak.
“There is an enormous amount of checking and tracking that needs to be done in this process,” Mr Pallas said.
“What is going on here is outstanding, world-leading tracking and checking strategies and I think the chief health officer and his staff deserve commendation for it.”
The federal government is investigating whether Commonwealth officials who inspected Cedar Meats may have unknowingly spread the virus to abattoirs they subsequently inspected.
Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said he wanted to find out when Victorian officials informed his department about the outbreak.
None of the inspectors have tested positive, but Mr Littleproud said the situation was fluid.
“Potentially the Commonwealth personnel who were in the abattoir and then moved to another one potentially could have spread the virus,” he said.
“Before we start pointing fingers I think we need to understand what’s happened and learn from it.”
Sally McManus, secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, said the western suburbs meatworks cluster “clearly” wasn’t handled appropriately and also made comparisons to the Ruby Princess debacle.
Ms McManus said the entire workforce should have been tested once the first worker was diagnosed in early April.
“This is a bad situation,” she told radio station 3AW. “Let’s learn from it and never do it again.”
She said the meat industry, where many workplace areas are refrigerated, was susceptible to an outbreak.
Ms McManus claimed the first staff member to test positive worked for a labour-hire company, which knew about the worker’s infection but believed they were not infectious at the time they attended work.
Aisha Dow reports on health for The Age and is a former city reporter.
Paul is a reporter for The Age.