Queensland authorities were left red-faced today after being forced to retract a claim that a man in his 20s who tested positive for coronavirus had hosted a house party with 25 people while waiting for his results.
Queensland Health made the claim – which went viral and sparked widespread outrage, amid fears Brisbane could be forced into another lockdown just before Easter – in an alert on Saturday night.
“More locations may be added after it was revealed the Strathpine man hosted a gathering of around 25 people at his home between being instructed to isolate and getting his positive test results,” the notice said.
“The attendees at the party have been placed in quarantine while the risk is assessed.”
Earlier that day, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and Health Minister Yvette D’Ath held a press conference to announce the state’s second new community transmission, linked to a 26-year-old Stafford man who was confirmed to have coronavirus on Thursday.
But this morning, Queensland Police pushed back on the claim, saying it was not correct.
“I think calling it a party is really inflammatory in some ways, and creates an impression that’s not quite right,” Queensland Police Service Deputy Commissioner Steve Gollschewski told reporters.
He asked the public to “tone down some of the language” around the man’s actions, saying there were only five other people present at the house on Friday night, and most of them were housemates.
He said police did not suspect any rules had been broken.
So what on earth happened?
News.com.au understands the mix-up occurred after Queensland Health officials went to visit the man at his home on Saturday morning to inform him of his positive result and begin the contact-tracing process.
During the conversation, the man mentioned to the officials that he recently hosted a party with 25 people – a claim that would naturally trigger alarm for contact tracers.
Perhaps due to crossed wires concerning incubation periods for the virus, the officials mistakenly believed he was referring to the previous evening.
It’s also understood the confusion was not helped by the fact the man had been placed into personal protective equipment, which can be a barrier to communication.
Wires were further crossed between Queensland Health and Queensland Police on Saturday, leading to the incorrect claim that the attendees of the “party” had all been placed in quarantine.
After the walk-back, some observers naturally questioned who these mysterious quarantined individuals were.
Had 25 unsuspecting people been snatched off the street at random by hazmat-suit wearing health officials?
It’s understood that police, who are responsible for quarantine duties, informed their health counterparts that the five people had been placed in quarantine.
In something of a game of telephone, the number “five” appears to have fallen by the wayside during the back-and-forth communications, and as the information went up the chain.
Instead, Queensland Health was left with the understanding that everyone who was present at the “party” had been quarantined.
Some time overnight, they realised their mistake.
Speaking at a press conference on Sunday, Ms D’Ath defended the government’s release of the incorrect information. She described it as “unfortunate” but did not say whether the man would receive an apology.
She said she became aware that the party story was not true earlier this morning, but could not explain how the mistake had occurred.
“It is extremely unfortunate,” she said.
“But this is the information that was received from this gentleman himself, when he was first picked up by health officials. Now whether the health officials misunderstood what he said, (I don’t know), I wasn’t there.
“We were told at the time there were 25 people that attended the residence.
“What we’ve identified through the investigation, and what police have found … thankfully, it was not 25 people. It was (his) housemates and, I believe, one other individual. They are checking whether that other individual was in any breach or whether they went in and had any contact with this individual or not.
“Whether it was a misunderstanding at the time or what it was, I cannot tell you.
“But that is what the health officials who originally spoke to this gentleman when they first picked him up, that is what they understood had been said and that had to be acted on quickly.
“It was important information that we put out, based on the facts we had at the time.”
Ms D’Ath stressed that “we have seen this happen in a number of cases around the country when health officials have had to act based on the health advice they are given at the time”.
“(When) clarification occurs after that, there can be some changes along the way,” she said.
“I am very pleased that the information shows we don’t have 25 people out there in the community potentially at risk.
“That is a good outcome – a much better outcome than what we thought was occurring yesterday.”
In a statement on Sunday evening, Queensland Police confirmed the matter was now closed.
“Police investigators have not found any evidence to warrant action being taken against a man following reports of a house party involving people in quarantine at Strathpine,” police said.
“Police conducted inquiries into the allegations but are satisfied the occupants of the house did not breach the health directions, and people from outside the residence were not involved. Inquiries into this matter are now finalised.”
Queensland Health also issued a statement on Sunday night.
“Throughout this pandemic, we have seen the importance of acting swiftly to contain and prevent transmission,” a spokesman said.
“The clock is ticking, meaning we don’t have the luxury of waiting for completion of full investigation and external validation of the facts which can often take days.
“We act on the best information we have at the time. This is in the best interests of Queenslanders and we will continue to do so.
“Yesterday we were provided with information indicating that a party had taken place at the residence of a person meant to be in isolation awaiting COVID-19 test results.
“Given this scenario presents a very serious risk, it was critical that we acted quickly and informed the community.
“However, further investigations overnight have bought to light new information showing this wasn’t the case. We were informed all contacts of the residence were in quarantine.
“We wanted to make sure the community had this information too.
“To ensure we continue keeping Queenslanders safe, it is important people isolate and get tested if they have symptoms, and provide as much information as possible.”