Health authorities have defended their decision to put 1.6 million South Australians under stay at home orders after a key piece of information proved false, saying they would not have got a second chance to contain a potential outbreak.
Lockdown orders are set to ease at midnight on Saturday, three days earlier than originally planned, after a person who initially said they had contracted the virus while picking up a pizza at an Adelaide pizza bar later admitted to working in the kitchen.
The 36-year-old man is on a temporary student visa, which expires next month. A taskforce of 20 police detectives are investigating the false report.
“Whether [the public] choose to see it as a stuff-up is their prerogative but I remain firm that the decision we took to go into a lockdown was the right decision based on the information we were provided,” the state’s police commissioner, Grant Stevens, told reporters in Adelaide. “I am hopeful that we don’t need to go anywhere near this sort of scenario again but if we are confronted with a set of circumstances that require these decisions we will reassess them and make the right decisions in the best interests of the wider community.”
Asked if he thought the police response might discourage people from being honest in contact tracing interviews, Steven said they were confidential and information would not be referred to police. But the SA premier, Steven Marshall, took a more punitive line, saying “there has to be consequences as not we do not want this behaviour”. On Friday, he said he was “fuming” at the man’s “selfish actions”.
One new case was reported in SA on Saturday, bringing the total number of cases in the Parafield cluster to 26. About 5,400 people identified as close contacts are in quarantine, and everyone else is in orders to stay at home apart from exercise, essential food shopping, and seeking medical care.
From midnight, SA residents will be allowed out under a new set of restrictions that will be in place for eight days, including a requirement to wear masks outside the home.
More than 19,000 tests were conducted in SA on Friday. That amounts to 674 tests per 100,000 population – the highest rate of testing in Australia. At the peak of Melbourne’s second wave, Victoria reached 642 tests per 100,000 people.
The SA chief public health officer, Prof Nicola Spurrier, said the decision to impose a six-day lockdown was not made on the basis of the pizza bar infection alone, but it was “the tip of the iceberg for me, finding out actually, we have a really serious situation here if we can’t get on top of it”.
And she said the state’s public health team had used the lockdown to “supercharge” the contact tracing system. “We haven’t wasted any time,” she said. “Thank you, South Australia. While you were resting, we were working hard. I am very delighted to be able to feel quite confident about lifting those restrictions tomorrow”.
Spurrier said SA authorities had acted faster than those in other states which had experienced second wave outbreaks.
“This was so early … way earlier than people clicked to things in Victoria, earlier than the Crossroads Hotel cluster and subsequent seeding into New South Wales,” she said. “I knew that we had an opportunity in South Australia [to] have no further community transmission popping up.”
The first case in the Parafield cluster was identified by an emergency department doctor on Sunday 15 November, and by the next day it was traced back to a cleaner at a hotel quarantine facility, Peppers hotel, who is believed to have contracted the virus from touching an infected surface some time after 7 November.
In Victoria, the first breach of hotel quarantine was detected on 27 May, a month before the breach was identified as the source of a growing cluster in the northern suburbs, and those 10 suburbs were placed into lockdown.
“Both Prof Spurrier and I are satisfied that we made the right call at the time based on the information available,” Stevens said. “Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but we don’t have the benefit of hindsight at the time we had these decisions, and it is not a black-and-white situation to begin with. These are difficult decisions that have to be made in the best interest of the wider community.”
Spurrier said public health officials were guided by the precautionary principle.
“We didn’t have a second chance to beat this wave but we are getting on top of it now, as you can see in terms of the numbers of people in quarantine,” she said.
Marshall dismissed criticism of the state’s hotel quarantine program, but said it would be subject to an investigation. Asked if the government would provide compensation to businesses that suffered significant financial losses from the sudden shutdown, Marshall said the best thing for business was to get the state reopened as soon as possible.
“Compensation is not something that we’re contemplating at this point in time,” he said.