Local News - Victoria

Brett Sutton tells hotel inquiry he did not know security guards had a key role

“My team and I did not have oversight in relation to infection prevention and control personnel and processes in place at each hotel,” he said.

Professor Sutton’s deputy, Annaliese van Diemen, said in her evidence that “everybody has responsibility in some way, shape or form”, prompting a query from Arthur Moses, QC, the counsel for security guard company Unified: “Are you trying to blame others?”

Former deputy chief health officer Annaliese van Diemen.

Former deputy chief health officer Annaliese van Diemen.Credit:The Age

Dr van Diemen had earlier warned that the hotel quarantine program was being run as a “logistics or compliance exercise” rather than a health program, meaning she “lost the opportunity” to know if infection control measures, including the use of protective gear, were adhered to in the hotels.

Private security guards, many working as casual subcontractors at the Rydges on Swanston hotel in Carlton and the CBD’s Stamford Plaza, spread the virus from returned travellers into the wider community. Professor Sutton told the inquiry that, “with the benefit of hindsight”, the use of such an insecure workforce was unfortunate.

“I can see that using a highly casualised workforce, generally from a lower socio-economic background, where that means that poor leave provisions, limit how one can care for and financially support one’s family if unwell,” he said.


Many of the staff guarding the hotels combined multiple jobs “across different industries to maintain an adequate income, creating transmission risk”, Professor Sutton said. Guards also often came from relatively larger families and larger networks of friends, “which creates additional transmission risks should they become unwell”.

The evidence came as Premier Daniel Andrews, who set up the $3 million inquiry, once again declined to comment on accusations that he lied to Parliament by saying in August that soldiers working in hotel quarantine in other states had not been offered to Victoria. Mr Andrews will appear before the inquiry next week.

Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos was also quizzed in State Parliament on Wednesday about whether she was aware of the offer by Canberra to deploy the army in quarantine hotels.

“I was not aware of any offers of Australian Defence Force support when hotel quarantine was established,” she said. “I’ve not been involved in approving the structures or the operational plan of this program.”

Professor Sutton told the inquiry that there had been instances where security staff in hotels did not appear to trust the information provided to them about infection control. “In particular about how to wear PPE gear, and the use of hand sanitiser, in particular … concerns about using an alcohol-based sanitiser”.

This hand sanitiser concern was also included in notes from the manager of Your Nursing Agency, the company employed to supply nursing staff to quarantine hotels. In mid-June, the company’s manager noted that security guards had informed the agency “they were concerned about using hand sanitiser because it is against their religion”.

The same notes said the registered nurse working at one hotel “raised a complaint of a lack of infection control awareness and [the] sense that security were disinterested in use of PPE”.

The nurse reported “security staff had masks under their noses, were not removing gloves and even going to the bathroom with gloves on”. The nurse told the nursing agency that “something needs to be done with security to keep everyone safe”.

The inquiry heard that an email sent by Deputy Public Health Commander Dr Finn Romanes, a former deputy chief health officer, warned on April 9 of “a lack of a unified plan for this program”. This warning, made just two weeks after the hotel program began, said there was “considerable risk” that unless issues were addressed there would be a risk to the health and safety of detainees.

Dr Romanes requested an urgent governance review of the program and said it needed a clear leader and direct line of accountability. Professor Sutton said he backed Dr Romanes’ email. “Dr Romanes was acting on behalf of me,” he said.

It also emerged at the inquiry that the deputy state controller Chris Eagle – who was coordinating information between the agencies involved in hotel quarantine – was warned the day after the hotels program began that there needed to be a proper police presence.

The Department of Jobs Precincts and Region’s executive director of Priority Projects, Claire Febey, warned Mr Eagle after a highly agitated guest quarantining at the Crown Metropole left his room and went to the ground floor foyer for a cigarette that better security was needed.


“We strongly recommend that private security is not adequate given they have no powers to exercise. Can you please escalate our request for a permanent police presence at each hotel,” she wrote.

Chief Commissioner Shane Patton and his predecessor, Graham Ashton, will appear before the inquiry on Thursday.

Dr van Diemen said that, before the hotels program began in March, health officials considered quarantining returned travellers at home using electronic surveillance to keep them secure.

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Brett Sutton to face hotel inquiry as commander says she didn’t know who was in charge

Confusion about who was in charge has emerged as one of the critical issues identified by the inquiry, with multiple departments and agencies muddying lines of command and responsibilities.

It meant there were inconsistencies among the hotels in relation to the use of protective gear, infection control and in the treatment of returned travellers and expats detained in quarantine.

Ms Bamert said she understood who was responsible and for what, but staff who were not privy to “higher level conversations” did not clearly understand their roles.

Counsel assisting the inquiry, Ben Ihle, showed Ms Bamert an email she had written on May 21 containing the line: “This operation was being managed out of a range of sites with no clear operational structure.”

Ms Bamert was replying to Safer Care Victoria, which was investigating the death of a detainee in hotel quarantine in April, and had alerted department bosses to the lack of clarity.

“In hindsight, I am quite clear what the structures were … clearly I had concerns about the escalation points,” she told the inquiry.

Merrin Bamert, who became a commander of Operation Soteria for the Health Department.

Merrin Bamert, who became a commander of Operation Soteria for the Health Department.Credit:Hotel Quarantine Inquiry.

Her offsider in the department, Pam Williams, also told the inquiry on Friday: “I think the terminology ‘in charge’ is somewhat loaded in the context of this inquiry. I think the person who was co-ordinating and our representative on site was the team leader and we were working as a team.”

It follows other evidence to the inquiry this week that the Health Department blocked Professor Sutton from taking control of the state’s coronavirus response against his wishes and in contradiction of Victoria’s pandemic plan.

Health Department deputy secretary Melissa Skilbeck said Professor Sutton would be too busy in his lead advisory role and as the public face of the pandemic response to also serve as state controller.

Emergency management experts within the department, Andrea Spiteri and Jason Helps, took the role. Both will be called to the inquiry next week.

Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp.

Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp.Credit:Luis Ascui

Mr Crisp is expected to be pressed on two vexed issues – why defence force personnel weren’t deployed in the first few months of the program and when defence force assistance was offered, as well as who decided to use private security instead of police.

The role of police is a key difference between hotel quarantine in Victoria and NSW. In Victoria, police supported private security and authorised officers, but did not have a 24/7 presence inside the hotels.


In NSW, police are responsible for overseeing the hotel quarantine operation, with assistance from the Australian Defence Force, NSW Health and a private security contractor, according to NSW Health.

Mr Ashton recommended private security be the “first line of security”, according to evidence to the inquiry, but it is not yet clear who made the decision to use the guards.

The inquiry has been told 32 guards contracted COVID-19 while working in the hotels. Victoria’s devastating second wave of the virus has been genomically linked back to seven returned travellers who were quarantined in three different rooms at two hotels, the Rydges on Swanston and the Stamford Plaza.

One per cent of more than 20,000 people who went through the program from the end of March until July tested positive to coronavirus, the inquiry heard. International flights landing in Victoria were later suspended due to the rise in COVID-19 cases.

Ms Williams confirmed during Friday’s evidence that some people who had tested positive and had reached the end of their mandatory 14-day detention were allowed to be released and told to isolate at home.

She said it could have been possible to allow people to leave quarantine earlier if they had tested negative.

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Drop in cases a ‘good sign’ Brett Sutton says

The chief medical officer says Victoria is on a “downslope” of coronavirus cases as the state recorded 216 new infections overnight, the lowest daily figure in a month.

Professor Brett Sutton said Wednesdays were typically “spike days” for Victoria, but 216 new cases was a “good sign” that trend had been bucked.

“We are trending down and that is a very good sign,” he said.

“We‘re going in the right direction. Numbers will never fall fast enough for me. Community transmission is also trending down as we expect.”

Prof Sutton said cases were also stabilising in aged care and ICU.

“To be on a downslope is a very good sign – Victoria is doing well with a very challenging situation. This is very different from the first wave – we’ve had complex outbreaks in aged care, disability and other complex workplaces.”

Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters all 12 deaths in the past 24 hours were linked to aged care.

Three men in their 70s, four women and one man in their 80s and three women and one man in their 90s died.

The state’s death toll is now at 363.

There are 2050 active cases in Victorian aged-care facilities, with 3337 infections in homes since January 1.

There are 675 Victorians in hospital and 45 in intensive care, while 1065 active cases have been detected in healthcare workers.

There has been an increase of 82 mystery cases overnight, taking that total to 3751.

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Brett Sutton says COVID-19 case numbers ‘not good enough’

Victoria’s chief medical officer Brett Sutton has delivered a blunt assessment of Victoria’s numbers, saying 400 to 500 new daily cases is “not good enough”.

The state today recorded 466 COVID-19 cases and 12 deaths, with a man in his 30s among the dead.

Speaking to reporters Mr Sutton said that while there was “some stabilisation” in the numbers but Victoria is still recording similar cases to last week.

“We are at 400 to 500 cases each day, more or less the average over the last week,” he said.

“That is not good enough, but it’s a positive that we have averted an exponential increase through the last couple of weeks.”

However Mr Sutton estimated lockdown measures had stopped new case numbers from being thousands higher.

RELATED: Follow the latest coronavirus updates

“If we hadn’t stabilised these numbers, we would have seen thousands of cases per day and there are estimates that we’ve averted 20,000 or more cases by virtue of the stage three restrictions,” he said.
“But that hasn’t been enough, it’s been able to stabilise the numbers, but we can’t have 500 cases every single day and the associated morbidity, hospitalisation, intensive care requirements and debts that are associated with that number every day.”

It would take at least another week to see if stage four restrictions in Melbourne had reduced transmission.

“Stage four restrictions will make a difference but we won’t see them for another week or more,” Mr Sutton said.

“We can drive numbers down and we will drive numbers down.”

Mr Sutton also said it was “tricky” to predict how Victoria’s mandatory mask rules would impact case numbers.

RELATED: Victoria’s new lockdown rules explained

“It can reduce the reproduction number anecdotally by 15 per cent,” he said.

“If that happens in Victoria, that is a good thing, there are many more thousands of cases that have been averted then.”

While it seemed most people had embraced face coverings “really well” it was crucial that social distancing was being followed in high transmission areas.

“You can see lots of people wearing masks in lots of settings but (are) people in the workplace, in high-risk transmission areas, at all times wearing those masks, are they taking masks off at tea time, at a break, and then sitting very close to workmates?” he said.

“The numbers will let us make some estimates about how well masks have been used but it’s a critical thing.”

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Brett Sutton says next week is crucial in

Victoria’s chief health officer has said the sacrifices the state’s residents have made will be reflected in the number of new coronavirus cases in the next week and that new restrictions introduced on Sunday will have an even greater impact.

Professor Brett Sutton made the comments at a daily press conference updating the state’s coronavirus situation alongside Premier Dan Andrews.

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He said: “We will see the effect of universal mask wearing in the numbers in the week ahead” and that if people follow the directions that have been laid out, “we will see the effect of these restrictions in the following week.

“But they will be ongoing and they will continue right through the six week period where we will see a reduction in numbers week on week”.

“We should reflect on the fact that stage three restrictions did make a difference,” Prof Sutton said.

“They genuinely flattened the curve, but they flattened the curve to a point where we got to a plateau.”

He said case numbers had stabilised but if nothing changed “that would have continued indefinitely”.

“If you are really only driving transmission down to a level where one person infects one other individual, then you have 400, 500 cases every day ongoing.

“That means you have hundreds of cases going into next month and the month after and the month after.”

The state previously mandated masks for people leaving the house, beginning on July 23 and with $200 fines for those who didn’t comply.

Victoria introduced new stage four restrictions on Sunday night as part of a state of disaster declaration.

Among the new restrictions are limits on movement for the residents of 31 council areas in Melbourne who can now only leave the house to buy groceries or exercise, and must do it within a five kilometre radius of their home, in groups of less than two.

Residents are no longer allowed visitors in their home, with exceptions for couples who live apart.

Most restrictive has been the introduction of an 8pm to 5am curfew.

Regional Victoria will enter stage three restrictions on Wednesday.

Prof Sutton said the restrictions have been “very substantial” but that he “absolutely expect that we will see transmission driven down and cases to decrease over time”.

He said the new restrictions “will make a huge difference” by limiting the virus’ opportunity to spread in workplaces, indoors, and in homes.

“They are all downward pressure on transmission of this virus very broadly across society, and so we can expect the numbers will improve week on week, but they will improve to the extent that we follow the advice, because it is not just the opportunities for transmission, it is also what a potentially infected individual does.”

Prof Sutton reiterated that people should isolate the second they start having symptoms, and that getting tested and having close contacts quarantine themselves were also “really critical”.

“We need to keep on right through this period, but there is an absolute expectation that this will do the right thing, and will drive numbers down as people follow the directions,” Prof Sutton said.

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Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton warned of hotel quarantine risks a month before first outbreak

Security guards and health workers at the Rydges on Swanston and the Stamford Plaza cited the same problems raised with Professor Sutton as the cause of coronavirus transmission at both hotels.

The Department of Health and Human Services on Friday moved to shake up the health bureaucracy amid the fallout from the hotels debacle, with deputy secretary Melissa Skilbeck stripped of responsibility for emergency management but maintaining her seniority.

Victoria recorded 66 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday as outbreaks that began in the state’s hotel quarantine system spread in the northern and western suburbs, where more than 300,000 residents are subject to renewed stage three lockdown rules.

Speaking at a media conference on Friday, Premier Daniel Andrews and Health Minister Jenny Mikakos both said the first they knew of problems in hotel quarantine system was when the first infection at Rydges on Swanston was diagnosed on May 26.

Mr Andrews told reporters: “Infection control is an issue that has been brought to my attention, and I think it’s fair to say that … the first infection-control breach that led to a positive case [was the first he had heard].”

The offices of Professor Sutton and Mr Andrews refused to answer questions about the April briefing. Both cited a judicial inquiry as the reason they could not discuss whether their offices were told of emerging problems. Ms Mikakos’ office asked that questions be directed to the Premier’s office.

Mr Andrews this week announced the inquiry into the running of the state’s hotel quarantine system. The government has appointed former family court judge Jennifer Coate to run the $3 million probe.

The Department of Health and Human Services on Friday confirmed to The Age there had been a restructure in the department’s senior ranks.

Health Department deputy secretary Melissa Skilbeck.

Health Department deputy secretary Melissa Skilbeck.

Those changes resulted in deputy secretary Melissa Skilbeck being moved out of the emergency management field. She retains her role as deputy secretary.

Professor Sutton, the public face of the state’s pandemic response, sits directly below Ms Skilbeck in the department’s organisational structure. Unlike his counterpart in NSW, Professor Sutton is not a deputy secretary, meaning he sits three operational tiers below Health Minister Mikakos.

Opposition health spokeswoman Georgie Crozier said Ms Mikakos should resign over the handling of the hotel clusters and an earlier Cedar Meats outbreak.

“If these reports are correct, it looks like a senior bureaucrat has been forced to take the fall for the health minister’s incompetence and continued pressure for her own resignation following the hotel quarantine bungle which has contributed to the continued increase of COVID-19 cases in Victoria,” Ms Crozier said.

More than 20,000 people have spent a mandatory two weeks in the hotels since the quarantine system began in late March.

Lax hygiene at Rydges on Swanston in Carlton has been blamed for infections among security staff and their contacts.

Lax hygiene at Rydges on Swanston in Carlton has been blamed for infections among security staff and their contacts.Credit:Getty Images

The Health Department instituted a review of hotel protocols in early June after poor hygiene practices, first reported by The Age, were blamed for the Rydges Hotel outbreak.

More than 20 Rydges on Swanston staff and their close contacts have been infected in the outbreak since it was identified on May 27. The Stamford outbreak started on June 17 and has grown to 35 cases.

Rydges on Swanston was initially a “hot” hotel to where people infected with COVID-19 were directed. In June, Rydges on Swanston stopped taking confirmed COVID-19 patients. The hotel’s first returned travellers were those who disembarked from the Greg Mortimer cruise ship from Uruguay.

Andrew Buntine, a supervising guard contracted to work at Rydges through security firm Elite Protection Services, said guards repeatedly raised concerns with Health Department officials in April and early May about substandard infection-control.

Guards, who Mr Buntine said received 10-minute inductions on hygiene protocols and worked 12-hour shifts, were asked to share elevators with infected returned travellers, some of whom were let out to communal areas including the swimming pool.

Elite’s contract was terminated on May 11. In the weeks before the termination, guards had also expressed concern about infected Cedar Meats workers who were allowed to leave their rooms because they were not subject to strict detention rules.

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Sutton says ‘shop around’ for tests as drive-through delays continue

“There were at least 150 cars ahead of us”.

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said the site had to close because of the sheer volume of backed-up traffic that was causing congestion on nearby roads.

“Chadstone … needed to divert traffic and really not have people flow through that testing site until the police can manage the traffic appropriately,” he said.

“So we do apologise and we ask for people to be patient.”

Drive-through testing resumed at Bunnings in Footscray on Wednesday morning, and began at a new, seven-day-a-week pop-up site at the Craigieburn Centre.

From Wednesday, hours will be extended at the Highpoint, Pacific Werribee Shopping Centre and Pacific Epping Shopping Centre drive-through testing sites from 8am to 7pm. Northland Shopping Centre will also operate from 8am to 7pm until Sunday night.

Ahead of the school holidays, which begin on Friday, the health department has opened new testing sites on the Great Ocean Road at Lorne and Apollo Bay.

There are now 94 fixed testing sites and 37 drive and walk-through sites open across the state.

Professor Sutton urged the public to “shop around” for a testing site that isn’t overwhelmed.

“There’ll be some other sites and GP practices and other pop-up clinics that people need to look out for,” he said.

“People should go to their GPs in the first instance to see if they can get testing there,”

“That’s obviously going to be much more straightforward for them if they got a booking but also to look around the website and see what alternative testing sites they might be able to go to where the pressure on numbers aren’t quite so great.”

Roving testing squads started targeting vulnerable communities in hotspot locations on Wednesday and will be testing people who might not be able to get to an official site easily.

Professor Sutton said everyone, not just people in the Hume, Casey, Brimbank, Moreland, Cardinia and Darebin areas, should come forward for testing even with the mildest symptoms.

“Victoria really does have the highest testing capacity in Australia at the moment but human behaviour is a strange thing,” Professor Sutton said.

“The message hasn’t changed. We always said get tested with mild symptoms but there’s concern around the increase in cases and there’s been a huge demand on testing.”


He said testing turnaround times may increase because of the surge in demand this week.

“Some of those results might take longer,” he said.

“But again the message hasn’t changed.

“It’s just unfortunate that people are only really prompted to testing by an increase in cases.

“We want people to test all of the time, not just when there’s some anxiety about where case numbers are going.”

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Schools still safe despite Keilor Downs College closure: Sutton

Those students, and other students and teachers from Keilor Downs, are now isolating at home.

An Education Department spokesman said the Health Department had advised that neither Taylors Lakes Secondary College nor St Albans Secondary College needed to close, and staff and students did not need to take any further action beyond existing precautions.

A teacher from Keilor Downs College tested positive to COVID-19 a week ago, but authorities believe the student’s case is the result of a “family cluster” and there is no link to the previous case. The Health Department said the teacher was not infectious when they last attended the school.

Professor Sutton said there had been “very few” cases associated with schools across Australia.

“The understanding of transmission in schools is it’s really pretty rare,” he said.

“We haven’t seen transmission from students to teachers. If we’ve seen some cases it’s usually been introduced by adults.

“The risk of transmission from that student to others is there, but I wouldn’t expect significant numbers.”

Keilor Downs College will close temporarily while cleaning and contact tracing is carried out.

Keilor Downs College will close temporarily while cleaning and contact tracing is carried out. Credit:Google Maps

Professor Sutton told radio station 3AW that children and staff who came into contact with the student who tested positive have been quarantined for 14 days. They will only be tested if they show symptoms.

The number of students self isolating could rise as contact tracing continues, he said.

“That’s our precautionary approach; that’s how we manage it not being transmitted to others.”

Nathaniel Peacock, who is in year 12 at Keilor Downs College, said students had been told about the closure on Thursday night.

“I’m worried a little bit but we’ve been told by teachers to be assured that student-to-student contact is very rare so we’re not too fussed,” he told Channel Nine.

“In every classroom there’s some hand sanitiser, some wipes. After every period we wipe down the tables and use hand sanitiser.”

A mother speaking outside Taylors Lakes Secondary College said she didn’t have safety concerns for her child.

“I think the school will do everything that has to be done and that’s not a problem,” she told Nine.

Professor Stephen Duckett, head of health economics at the Grattan Institute, said until coronavirus was eliminated there would be a small risk of cases in schools.

“The response is what is really important here; that it be identified quickly and the school closed down for a period of time to stop the spread further,” he said.

“This is something that doesn’t call for you to shut the whole school system down again, you manage it as isolated outbreaks.

“Only if you have a large number of schools affected might you have to say we’re changing our minds and closing the system down again.”

Australian Principals Federation president Julie Podbury said schools were completely prepared for COVID 19-related closures.

“I have never seen such an enormous amount of documentation coming out of schools to make sure they are covering absolutely everything,” she said.

“These processes were in place well before school went back.”

Students in prep, grades 1 and 2, years 11 and 12 and specialist schools returned to Victorian schools on Tuesday, in the first step of a staged return to face-to-face classes.

Keilor Downs College is expected to reopen on Monday after a thorough clean on Friday and across the weekend.

The state government has invested up to $45 million for enhanced, daily cleaning in every school during terms two and three. All Victorian school staff were prioritised for voluntary coronavirus testing before classes resumed.

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As it happened: Nearly 600,000 Australians lose their job; Sutton concedes Cedar Meats outbreak could have been handled differently

If you suspect you or a family member has coronavirus you should call (not visit) your GP or ring the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

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McDonald’s, Cedar Meats outbreaks grow as Brett Sutton admits shortcomings

The restaurant only closed for deep cleaning after a second employee tested positive on May 8. It reopened on Wednesday, staffed by workers from nearby stores.

Thursday’s two new cases are close contacts of McDonald’s workers, meaning four employees and four close contacts have now been infected.

Amid criticism over the government’s handling of the Cedar Meats cluster, Health Minister Jenny Mikakos last week said health authorities had managed the abattoir outbreak “perfectly”.

Dr Sutton said the first Cedar Meats case, detected on April 2, told health authorities he had not been at work for four weeks before becoming unwell.

A second worker tested positive on April 24. Once a third worker tested positive on April 26, the health department shut down the abattoir and sent all 350 staff into quarantine.

On Thursday, Dr Sutton said if he could go back in time, he would shut the abattoir down after the second case.

Chief Health Officer Dr Brett Sutton said he had learned from the Cedar Meats outbreak.

Chief Health Officer Dr Brett Sutton said he had learned from the Cedar Meats outbreak.Credit:Eddie Jim

“It was the first meatworks outbreak in Australia. I think even two linked cases is probably enough to shut a place down and probably regardless of size,” he told 3AW radio.

“We were proportionate in as much as we said, ‘Everyone should be tested, consider everyone a close contact’.

“But maybe we shouldn’t have waited for a third linked case. Maybe for these settings we should shut an entire place down – not just the boning room where it all started – but an entire facility.”


Dr Sutton said shutting down a workplace was a “big call when some of them have 1000-plus employees,” but said he would apply that level of cautiousness in future.

“I think the very first linked cases that suggest transmission has occurred at the workplace, I think that could be a prompt to shut it all down.”

Dr Sutton said it was his decision to close workplaces and he instructed Fawkner McDonald’s to shut after a second employee tested positive.

After the first employee said he was not at work while infectious, Dr Sutton said the McDonald’s and Cedar Meats outbreaks may have started because the first cases mixed with colleagues or contacts of colleagues outside of work, rather than spreading the virus directly at the workplaces.

McDonald’s Australia chief executive Andrew Gregory on Thursday said the Fawkner McDonald’s staff were on paid leave while self-isolating.

However, one parent of a casual worker at the restaurant said his child was not being paid.

“Most of the workers there are casual and not getting paid,” he said. “The kids get nothing.”

Meanwhile, Cedar Meats will reopen part of its facility on Monday, and says it is doing so with the advice and support of the health department.

A statement from the company says its cold storage facility would reopen on Monday, but it was not restarting “production”.

“The cold storage facility requires a minimum of staff,” the company said in a statement. It did not confirm how many workers that involved.

Staff have been notified of the move, along with some contractors and clients.

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