The Spanish national at the centre of a police investigation into his failure to disclose to contact tracers he worked shifts at the Woodville Pizza Bar is unaware of the growing public focus on him as he remains in hotel quarantine, Guardian Australia has learned.
The 36-year-old man, currently on a temporary graduate visa in Australia, had his devices seized by South Australian police over the weekend after they issued a search warrant to obtain them from his quarantine hotel room.
The man, who also worked in the kitchen at the Stamford medi-hotel, initially told contact tracers he had just picked up a pizza from the Woodville Pizza Bar when he contracted Covid-19. This information led South Australian authorities to believe there could be much more widespread community transmission in the state and sent South Australia into a six-day lockdown.
The lockdown came to an end three days early when investigators determined the man had worked shifts in the bar alongside another man who also worked as a security guard at the Peppers Hotel where the Parafield outbreak originated.
Investigation Task Force Protect was established by South Australian police last week to look into any alleged criminal actions in the lead-up to and after the contact tracing interview.
Normally the personal information of those who contract Covid-19 and speak to contact tracers is withheld for their privacy, but the South Australian authorities disclosed the man’s name, gender, nationality and visa status in press conferences.
The man’s lawyer, Scott Jelbert, principal at Camena, said his client was unaware of the extent of the public focus on his case due to having his devices taken from him by police as part of the investigation.
It is unclear whether he still has access to TV or radio in his room.
Jelbert said the man might release a statement on Tuesday.
South Australian police assistant commissioner Peter Harvey told reporters on Monday the man has been helping police with the investigation.
“I am pleased at this stage to say that from what I have seen, he has been cooperative and has been helpful,” he said.
Two people associated with the Woodville Pizza Bar, who are also in quarantine, have also been drawn into the investigation. Harvey would not say if they were the owners of the bar, but said they were related to the bar and were seeking legal advice before speaking to police.
“They are certainly working with solicitors. They are seeking legal advice and legal representation before we speak any further, which is their right, and that is appropriate,” he said.
Some of the 40-odd police involved in the investigation are poring over 400 hours of CCTV footage from the Peppers hotel from the time the returned traveller from the UK was put in hotel quarantine to determine how the outbreak might have started, and who might have been at the hotel. Harvey said he could not say whether anything would come of it.
“It may be nothing – that’s why we’re looking, that’s the whole purpose of an investigation.”
Harvey would not say what potential crimes, if any, SA police believe might have occurred.
“There’s a lot of emotion and a lot of desire for something to be done, but it will be done carefully, it will be done clinically,” he said. “And we’ll put our case forward – there may not be a case. Just the same, there may well be. That’s the point of the investigation.”
All the focus on the one man is causing concern among contact tracing experts, who argue it might hinder people coming forward for testing. They say the best way to get the most accurate information from people during contact tracing interviews is to ensure their privacy and protect them from punishment.
“Would the next person then come along and tell you everything because they don’t want to get fined? Or the next person not even get tested?” Prof Catherine Bennett, head of epidemiology at Deakin University, told Guardian Australia. “That’s the concern now.
“There’s got to be some middle ground where you spend more time with people, particularly if the story they tell doesn’t fit the standard sort of epidemiological picture of risk, like in Adelaide.
“Just to spend more time with them, not to catch them out but to really explore the story, and to help them understand why what they’re saying could have really serious implications.”
Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services secretary, Prof Euan Wallace, told a parliamentary committee hearing on Monday that Victorian health officials had numerous examples of people telling contact tracers they had broken the rules but did not receive fines, in order to keep the community onboard with contact tracing efforts.
“There is a tension,” he said. “We look to South Australia over the last couple of days about where things might have been done differently … We can’t do this without the community coming onboard – they have to be open to us.”
Harvey said the investigation might be a “competing interest” with the interests of contact tracing.
“The very basis of successful contact tracing is that the community has confidence that they can make an approach, have conversations and not face any penalty or anything of that type, so it’s a delicate balance.”
Bennett said contact tracers in the state might have already had a view about the spread of the virus that made them not follow up more closely on how the man could have acquired Covid-19 just from a pizza box.
“They already had this suspicion that this virus was a bit behaving differently and then you had all this rapid transmission,” she said. “And it was almost like this was another piece of a puzzle that was taking them down a particular way of thinking.
“If it’s a thing presenting as a very normal outbreak with normal incubation periods and everyone was a close contact of another case, this would have stood out as being unusual.
“I think they were caught out in South Australia because they’d already had some things that were not beyond the realms of possibility or a bit unusual.”
South Australia reported one new case of Covid-19 overnight – a close contact associated with the Parafield cluster who had been isolating since early last week.