He was proven right. Colac witnessed the failures of Victorian contact tracing. The town set up its own community leadership with the mayor, the school principal, the local health director and employers.

As a community, they did what Victorian premier Daniel Andrews could not: run a quick and efficient system to track people and their contacts.

That experience holds lessons for Andrews, and those who make excuses for him, but it is not about Victoria alone. The failure is a national problem. Right now, there is no national approach to tracing contacts. But we need one fast.

The virus found two ways to get to Colac. One was through a worker at the local lamb abattoir, starting a wave that eventually spread to 108 people and was halted within weeks. The other was through a man who returned from hospital in Melbourne, starting a second wave that has grown to 30 cases.


At one point in July, when Vicary wanted to issue a press release about an infected worker at his sawmill, DHHS tried to tell him what to write. He ignored the officialdom and went ahead with his announcement on Sunday, July 26. The department confirmed the infection five days later.

One local waited seven days to receive test results, while another waited nine. The centralised system undermined confidence in testing and tracing.

This led Colac to set its own rules, like asking people to isolate if their partners seemed sick. When one man became infected but his wife was not able to get a test, she chose to isolate anyway. She tested positive days later. If she had waited for the DHHS, she might have spread the virus for days.

The community had to trade privacy for speed. While officials in Melbourne wanted to keep details private, locals wanted the truth. As Ben Preiss explained in more detail in The Sunday Age, the approach in Colac was to reveal every case as fast as possible.

“We wanted to be honest with the community,” says Vicary. “That way, you prevent rumours, you prevent hysteria and you create trust.”

Andrews has called the state failures “unacceptable” and apologised to Victorians. He says he is fixing the mistakes. He has signed up Silicon Valley company Salesforce to supply a contact-tracing system.

The assurances sound good but Andrews is evasive on key questions. He cannot “pinpoint” who wanted the 8pm curfew in Melbourne. He is not clear about who was in charge of hotel quarantine. He denies rejecting federal help when documents show that is exactly what happened.

The problem for the premier is that NSW did better. It suffered its own quarantine breaches but acted quickly to contain them.

Some disagree on this. “NSW isn’t the gold standard, NSW is lucky,” ABC commentator and doctor Norman Swan said this week. But Victorian officials are heading to NSW to look at the state’s contact tracing. They would not do that if it was all dumb luck.

When Morrison held a phone hook-up with Victorian colleagues on Monday night, there was an air of despair about the state.

Morrison warned the MPs against going personal against Andrews. This was good advice. Any attack would only rebound on a Prime Minister more comfortable at Shark Park than the MCG.

Yet the national cabinet is crumbling like old chipboard. When Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk took a call from Morrison on Thursday about the plight of Sarah Caisip, a woman barred from attending her father’s funeral, the politics began as soon as the phones were down.

This was a case of spin or be spun. Palaszczuk’s team briefed journalists on the call while the premier marched into state Parliament to call him a bully. Taken by surprise, Morrison had to respond on radio station 4BC.

As the October 31 state election draws near, Palaszczuk will do everything to turn Morrison into a Halloween horror.

Contact tracing work under way at the Barwon Health University Hospital in Geelong. Credit:Jason South

Lost in the politics is any fix to the problems. On contact tracing, the Andrews government missed a chance to adopt the Salesforce system in March and April, when South Australia and Western Australia signed up. The system is now used by 35 states across the United States, as well as New Zealand.

A national system is the next challenge. What if there is no vaccine? Or a slow vaccine? Australia will need a very good contact-tracing structure for a long time – and the states will need to talk to each other.

There is a role for Morrison in devising a national approach to contact tracing but there is no prospect of a solution if national cabinet breaks down.

Right now, three states have adopted Salesforce while NSW uses a Notifiable Conditions Information Management System it has built itself. NSW has about 400 staff making phone calls for 14 hours every day, helped by a system called Whispir for contact management. Queensland would not tell me what it uses.

These systems will need to be expanded if a vaccine arrives. When authorities trace contacts, they will need to know who has had the vaccine.

Colac saw this trade between privacy and speed. The rest of the country will see it too. Many will not like the idea of a national system that can trace every contact and record every vaccination. But nobody will want more failure.

David Crowe is chief political correspondent

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David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.


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