As South Australian police investigate a pizza worker accused of lying to contact tracers

Davies

A person in bioprotective gear including mask, stands at a passenger side window holding a swab test.

As South Australian police investigate a pizza worker accused of lying to contact tracers, leading disease experts are at odds over whether penalties should be imposed for deceiving health authorities.

Key points:

  • A positive COVID-19 case lied to South Australian authorities about his work, leading to a six-day lockdown
  • There are currently no penalties for lying to contact tracers
  • One leading epidemiologist says introducing fines could cause people to avoid testing altogether

The discovery of the man’s lie prompted South Australian authorities to cut short the state’s lockdown by three days and Premier Steven Marshall vowed to “throw the book” at him.

But there is no specific penalty in South Australia, or anywhere else in the country, for lying to contact tracers.

Epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws says that should change immediately.

She said emergency public health orders should be imposed as soon as possible to penalise people for wasting contact tracers’ precious time.

“I do think that there is — particularly for a pandemic — a reasonable expectation that people tell the truth,” she said.

Professor McLaws, an advisor to the World Health Organisation (WHO) on the response to COVID-19, said it was “nothing new” for people to lie to health authorities during infectious diseases outbreaks.

The frontage of Woodville Pizza Bar.

The man told authorities he ordered a pizza from the pizza shop when he in fact worked there.(ABC Radio Adelaide: Spence Denny)

It was common in Australia during the HIV epidemic for men to lie about their drug use or sexual activity for fear of ruining their marriages.

She also cited a well-known case during the SARS outbreak, when a man set contact tracers on a wild goose chase because he was too embarrassed to tell them he’d been with a sex worker.

Professor McLaws said any new penalties should come with an undertaking by health authorities that the information provided “remains only between them and their contact tracer … as much as it possibly can”.

But University of Queensland epidemiologist and public health physician Linda Selvey said penalising people was “not the best approach”.

Associate Professor Selvey said good public health practice was to focus less on penalties and more on building relationships and trust with people.

“It means that people are less likely to go to ground.”

The South Australian case sparked a six-day lockdown after the man told contact tracers he had ordered a takeaway from an Adelaide pizza bar.

The information led to quick action with authorities believing the state was dealing with a more contagious version of coronavirus than initially thought.

But when it emerged the man had actually been working at the pizza bar for several shifts, the lockdown was just as quickly cut short.

A Victorian contact tracer, who wished to be known only as Maggie, told the ABC’s The Drum program positive COVID-19 cases mostly lied because they feared getting into trouble.

“If they’re working illegally they might be scared of losing their job, they might be scared of putting the spotlight on their employer,” she said.

“A lot of them are not from Australia [and] we don’t know what their experiences with past governments have been like, so they might be suspicious of governments and not willing to tell the truth out of fear.”

While there are currently no penalties for lying to contact tracers, the public health orders in various states include fines for providing false or misleading documentation during border crossings.

In NSW, for example, an on-the-spot fine of $4,000 can be issued for failing to provide or falsifying information to an enforcement officer.

And several people have faced court in Queensland for crossing the border without disclosing their time in a COVID hot-spot.

South Australian authorities are now searching for laws under which the Adelaide man might be charged.

“The investigation will give us exactly what the infringement was and we will throw the book at this person.”

Mr Marshall acknowledged the need for caution before penalising people for lying to contact tracers.

“The first thing we’ve got to do is determine that an increased penalty won’t actually drive information underground and then not provide public health [authorities] with people coming forward to try to stop the spread of the disease.”

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard did not respond to questions about whether NSW would consider introducing penalties, but referred the ABC to NSW Health.

In a statement, NSW Health said the “overwhelming majority” of people had “fully cooperated” with its 400 contact tracers.

“Our contact tracers appreciate that recalling activities and movements for two weeks prior to testing positive is not an exact science,” the statement said.

It said NSW Health treated all personal information it received from contact tracing confidentially.

“Maintaining this confidentiality is essential to ensure people will continue to present for testing an cooperate with contact tracing, to limit the spread of COVID-19.”

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