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Australia Inside the fateful journey that brought COVID back to Victoria in a removalists' truck

23:03  16 july  2021
23:03  16 july  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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When Cherryll Scott set off from her unit to stock up on bottled water last Thursday, she had to contend with a familiar challenge at the Ariele apartment complex in Melbourne’s west.

"There's only one elevator in the building, how ridiculous is that," she said of the complex with its 70-80 apartments.

The elevator was "jam-packed" with furniture collected by three removalists from Sydney — a coronavirus hotspot in lockdown — whose trip across three states has triggered the same number of police investigations.

"[The furniture] was all wrapped up," she said.

"When people are moving in or out, they just fill up the elevator with furniture and there was no one to unload it so I got a bit angry and grabbed a few things out."

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She said the movers — two of whom have tested positive for COVID-19 — were not wearing face masks.

"I'm not going to blame the states," said Ms Scott, who was later ordered to complete 14 days' quarantine after her encounter with the trio.

"If anything, it's the removalists' fault and they have to take some of the blame for this."

The journey

The trio made an early start on July 8. There was a stop at the Shell Coles Express South Gundagai between 1:00am and 1.30am. About eight hours later, the truck pulled into the Kalkallo Caltex service station and Hungry Jack's north of Melbourne.

The removalists' first job was to deliver furniture to a home in Craigieburn where they had contact with a family of four.

Just after midday, the trio had contact with a second family of four at the Ariele apartments, where they made a collection.

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By 5:00pm to 7:00pm, the removalists had stopped at the Mobil Ballan Westbound and McDonalds Ballan Westbound, both at 6511 Western Freeway.

At the time, the crew had arrived in Melbourne on a special workers' permit for freight drivers.

Victoria's COVID-19 commander Jeroen Weimar said the moving business was covered under a national code for freight movement but the removalists had withheld crucial information which came to light more than 36 hours after they were interviewed.

Under the permit conditions, the workers were required to wear a face mask while in Victoria and undergo "effective self-isolation" where practicable during work and stops.

The pit stops

The men's visit to the state was bookended with two breaks at separate service stations. The latter, a visit to Mobil and McDonald's in Ballan, involved the crew taking a shower, staying for more than two hours and not wearing masks, as revealed by CCTV footage.

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Victorian authorities believed they slept in their truck cabins before marking their way to Adelaide on July 9.

There was a stop for petrol and coffee between 7.20am and 8.15am at Tailem Bend (OTR Motorsport Park service station, Dukes Highway) and a furniture drop-off in McLaren Vale before the movers pulled into the Coolabah Tree cafe and Shell service station on the Princes Highway.

At some point, NSW Health alerted one of the removalists that they were a close contact of a person with coronavirus.

On their way back to Sydney on July 10, the men made a series of 30-minute pit stops at a Shell service station in Hay, Shell service station in Jindera and BP Express and Hungry Jacks in Marulan.

Hay Shire Council Mayor Jenny Dwyer pointed out the town was at the junction of three major highways.

"It's shaken up the community," she said.

"All it takes is just one person coming through and as we all know it can then be an exponential increase."

The 3,000-strong town relied on transport and tourism and this exposure was the latest blow in a series of setbacks for locals.

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"Of course, it's an impact, no one's coming through and travelling and tourism, I define it as drought-proof. It's becoming more and more important because it's not affected by the climate so visitors will come whether it's raining or drought," she said.

The positive test

On July 11, the man returned a positive test result and NSW Health officials alerted their Victorian counterparts. Victoria shut its borders to NSW.

A day later, the Victorian health department advised a second member of the crew had tested position for COVID-19.

Australian Furniture Removers Association executive director Simone Hill believed the men were doing the best they could.

"Removalists work under conditions that make social distancing impossible: multiple staff in cabs, close contact with each other and customers and travel across closed borders," Ms Hill said.

"The nature of removals work means it is not always possible for removalists to social distance.

"When removalists are actively engaged in heavy lifting it may not be safe for their breathing to be restricted through the use of masks."

AFRA has not been informed of the identities of the workers or whether they were members of the association.

There has been a growing chorus amongst Melburnians to "name and shame" the men.

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Victoria's Premier Daniel Andrews declined to name the company involved, leaving the matter with police.

"What I would say to you is that police in three states are looking into those matters so I will leave that work to them," he said at a press conference on Friday.

"They are not here now, and they are not coming back in so there is no purpose served and we have no purpose to prevent the community from using that company."

The fallout

Mr Andrews has since banned interstate furniture removalists coming from COVID-19 hot spots to Victoria for the next two weeks.

"It is just a change we can make, particularly as things become more unstable and more challenging in terms of more case numbers coming out of Sydney," he said.

Mr Andrews announced a five-day lockdown on Thursday.

Interstate transport workers coming into Victoria from red zones would now be required to be tested every three days, instead of seven, and carry evidence of a current negative test result.

Victorian Transport Association chief executive Peter Anderson has praised these changes and insisted the episode should not be a reflection on the industry.

"In introducing these new restrictions, the government has made an important distinction between freight drivers … and the rogue activities of these removalists," he said.

"It is most unfortunate the irresponsible actions of these individuals have brought the transport industry into some disrepute."

While authorities are trying to map the removalists' exact route, other states are taking no chances.

South Australia has shut its border to much of Victoria, despite a family of four and service station staff who came into contact with the crew testing negative.

Western Australia will reintroduce a hard border from midnight on Saturday and Queensland will follow suit at 1:00am.

New Zealand has also announced it would halt the Trans-Tasman bubble with Victoria, with travel from the state no longer permitted unless you are an exempt traveller.

With two separate chains of transmission and a growing list of close contacts in Victoria, Ms Scott remains stranded in her unit.

"It's a struggle. I like to walk and that's my thing. It's frustrating I can't do that but if that's the price we have to pay, then so be it," Ms Scott said.

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