A number of officers speaking on the condition of anonymity, said members were also in the dark about how they should conduct operations – they wanted force command to issue protocols about how to safely take people into custody or for questioning.
“We are only one positive test away from an entire station being shut down. Then what happens?” said one experienced officer.
The officers were equally worried by the possibility police had been inadvertently spreading COVID-19 throughout the community because of what they see as a lack of personal protective equipment and social distancing protocols. One source said few stations had the alcohol wipes required to wipe down breath testing equipment.
Victoria police confirmed in a statement that 200 members of its “staff” were in quarantine, but did not elaborate further. It’s understood they are referring to sworn and unsworn personnel in self-isolation.
Police Association secretary Wayne Gatt said he had met with chief commissioner Graham Ashton and other senior officers to raise his members’ frustrations about personal protective equipment. Senior sergeant Gatt acknowledged force command was dealing with an unprecedented situation and that he had been assured moves were underway to quickly secure more resources for frontline officers.
In calling on Mr Andrews to declare a state of disaster, Mr Gatt said such a move would enable police to better enforce 14-day quarantine periods for returned overseas travellers and bans on mass gatherings.
Under the present state of emergency declaration, the 500 police allocated to Operation Sentinel require direction from senior health officials before being able to take action. Sergeant Gatt said this process was “clunky” and that a state of disaster declaration would free up police and other state agencies to act with greater efficiency.
He said the rapidly evolving situation in Victoria, with rising numbers of positive coronavirus tests required beefed up police powers.
Sergeant Gatt praised Mr Andrews for showing strong leadership during the crisis and for telling Victorians “the honest truth about what needs to be done to save lives”. By declaring a state of disaster, Mr Andrews would be allowing police to “walk the Premier’s talk”.
Victoria Police said in a statement that specialised cleaners could immediately be called in to clean any station with a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 interaction. Officers were also able to request a clean of the station or vehicles if they have been in contact with someone presenting flu-like symptoms.
“We also take the supply of personal protection equipment very seriously, with officers able to order items such as face masks, hand sanitiser and other PPE depending on their needs, as per standard practice,” the police statement said.
“Victoria Police has sufficient PPE supplies to meet current demand and will continue to distribute appropriately. We are currently working with multiple suppliers to ensure we have a resilient supply chain of PPE going forward.
“All Victoria Police stations have received an adequate number of antibacterial wipes to clean [breath testing] machines each time a breath test is conducted, with 126,000 wipes disseminated across the state alone last week. A process will be introduced in coming days where stations will order their own anti-bacterial wipes for [random breath testing] purposes as needed based on local demand.”
The police statement said officers were not given quotas for preliminary breath tests and it was up to their discretion whether to conduct such tests.
When Mr Andrews declared a state of emergency nine days ago, Victoria had 71 confirmed COVID-19 cases. At 2pm on Wednesday, the state had 466 confirmed cases.
Richard Baker is a multi-award winning investigative reporter for The Age.