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Where did Victoria go so wrong with contact tracing and have they fixed it?

Victoria’s contact tracing system has faced criticism in the past for being inefficient, with officials flying to New South Wales in September to learn from that state.



a person in a car: Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images


© Provided by The Guardian
Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Comparisons are difficult in a pandemic because each outbreak has its own unique characteristics. That said, there are some key features that underpin the differing responses of NSW and Victoria when it comes to contact tracing.

Fundamentally, NSW’s system of decentralised local area health districts meant when the second wave hit, that state was able to draw on teams embedded in their local communities to manage contact tracing. These teams worked independently but also in concert under the mothership of NSW Health.



a person in a car: ‘NSW’s system of decentralised local area health districts meant when the second wave hit, that state was able to draw on teams embedded in their local communities to manage contact tracing.’


© Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images
‘NSW’s system of decentralised local area health districts meant when the second wave hit, that state was able to draw on teams embedded in their local communities to manage contact tracing.’

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In Victoria, a legacy of cuts left the Department of Health and Human Services under-resourced and highly centralised, meaning there was a smaller base upon which to build the surge contact tracing capacity (with some contact tracers coming from interstate).

This was further challenged with the rapid rise in daily new cases, from 65 to 288 in one week alone in July. Systems had to be developed quickly to manage large quantities of data and feed it back to a central hub. The state had to “build the aeroplane while flying”.

Much has changed since then, and for the better. Some hard lessons have been learned along the way but the contact tracing system in Victoria is now very comprehensive and increasingly robust.

Community engagement, local knowledge

Community engagement and local knowledge might seem like buzzwords but in a pandemic, they’re vital to ring-fencing a cluster.

NSW’s system of devolved public health units and teams meant when local outbreaks occurred, locally embedded health workers were at an advantage. They’re already linked with local area health providers for testing, they already have relationships with community members and community leaders, and they know the physical layout of the area.

If you’re doing a contact tracing interview with someone and they’re talking about a key landmark at a certain time of day, you can visualise it and understand what it means in terms of risk.

What’s crucial is a nuanced understanding of local, social, and cultural factors that may facilitate spread or affect how people understand self-isolation and what’s being asked of them. It can also make a critical difference in encouraging people to come forward for testing.

It’s not just about making sure you have materials