A taxi driver has said he was forced into Howard Springs quarantine and missed two weeks of work after the Northern Territory Government engaged him to drive a man infected with the Delta strain of COVID-19 to the facility without telling him of the man’s infected status, and also allowed him to take regular passengers until his shift finished.
The passenger was a Palmerston man, who the NT Government said, along with others, caught COVID-19 while working at a mine in the Tanami region, and who flew into Darwin along with about 70 co-workers on an unrestricted charter flight from the mine on Friday, June 25.
The original COVID-19 carrier caught the virus in quarantine in Brisbane, and at the time chief health officer Dr Hugh Heggie said he had been isolating after being tested at the mine on the Thursday but his positive result was not returned until about midnight Friday.
That was roughly 11 hours after the two COVID-positive men including the Palmerston man, and the other passengers had entered the community unrestricted, spreading the disease, and causing a lockdown.
Speaking at a press conference on the Sunday, Chief Minister Michael Gunner said the Palmerston man was interviewed on the Saturday, and said he was developing symptoms and was tested and taken to quarantine along with his wife and adult daughter.
He did not specify when the man got his positive test back and NT Health did not answer questions from the NT Independent about this issue, with the department having a policy of not answering this paper’s questions despite being in a global pandemic.
The taxi driver said the man had already tested positive when he was in his cab.
The boss of the taxi driver – both men want to remain anonymous – said he took the booking from the government about 9.30pm on the Saturday night and was not told the man either had COVID-19 or was suspected of having COVID-19.
“Did they give me the head’s up, NT Health? No.” the driver said.
“I want to see who is going to bring justice into this. That’s all I want. I’ve been treated like a pig…(The Health Department) are a bunch of clowns.”
The driver said he picked the miner up at 12.08am on Sunday – the NT Independent has seen his log of trips – and took him to the Howard Springs quarantine facility but he was not told by the government that the man had or was suspected of having COVID-19.
The NT Independent has seen a document showing who the passenger was.
He said he continued driving for more than four hours, taking another miner to quarantine, another regular passenger home via McDonald’s, two Defence Force members to the airport, and then a husband and wife, with two kids, from the airport into the city.
The driver said he wore a mask and gloves and was driving a mini van but did not have the windows down, which he said he has since been told he should have.
Later that day, he said, NT Health called him and told him he had to self-isolate, which he said he did, after going for a COVID-19 test about 12.50pm.
The NT Independent has seen a text message with a negative test result he received on the Monday.
The driver said he was then tested at home by NT Heath on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday but on Friday was called by the government and told he had to go into Howard Springs quarantine, a text message from 10.34am informs him that he would be picked up in a minivan, but he says later he was told he would be taken in an ambulance.
The NT Independent has seen a message from 3.14pm Friday that shows he received a negative test result for COVID-19.
He has been billed $370 by St John Ambulance for the trip to quarantine, which he has since been told was a mistake. The NT Independent has seen the bill for trip identified as having taken place on Friday, July 2. The driver also has a document from July 10 when he was released, informing him of his negative test result.
The driver said he received $1,500 under a federal government program because he could not work for two weeks but his loss of income far exceeded that, and has received no compensation by the government for his loss despite having being forced into quarantine for doing work for NT Health.
He said he also expects to be billed the $2,500 by the NT Government for quarantine.
The NT Government did not answer an NT Independent question about whether the man would be charged for his quarantine.
The man said he had been following the self-isolation rules and did not know why had been forced into Howard Springs, when asked if he had done anything to breach regulations.
NT Health did not answer why the man was sent to Howard Springs.
A call for compensation for drivers
NT Health did not answer why it send a man who either had tested positive for COVID-19, or at least had COVID-19 symptoms and had been a close contact of a COVID-19 infected person, to quarantine in a taxi, especially one not set up to deal with such a case. Nor why it allowed the man to keep on taking fares after he had driven the man.
It also did say what protocols is has for drivers who take jobs driving people to quarantine. Such protocols do not appear to be online, although other states have their protocols publicly available.
The driver did say drivers have to register with the government if they want to do the work.
Under NT Government chief health officer-approved COVID-19 guidelines available online it states taxi drivers who taken passengers to quarantine are classified as quarantine workers.
It said these workers are only required to undertake a PCR test on day three, day seven and day 12 after the last date they had contact or provided the service. The guidelines state the worker must report a positive COVID-19 test result to their employer and follow the directions of the Centre
for Disease Control but it does not talk about compensation as a result of being forced into quarantine or catching COVID-19 as part of the role of being a quarantine worker.
It further states if a quarantine worker fails to comply with the COVID-19 testing regime, they will be directed into mandatory, supervised quarantine and will remain in quarantine for 14 days from the time of non-compliance. The driver only spent nine days in Howard Springs.
The taxi driver said he knew another taxi driver had driven the wife and daughter of the COVID-19-positive Palmerston man to Howard Springs as well. The women also texted positive in quarantine.
NT Health also did not say if the other driver was forced into quarantine, and how many times they have had taxi drivers taking COVID-19-positive passengers.
Other taxi industry sources the NT Independent has spoken to say larger companies have taxis set up with dividers between the driver and the passenger.
The effected driver said he does not know of any other drivers, outside the one he identified, who have taken infected people to quarantine.
His boss said he was not told by the department how he needed to clean the taxi afterwards.
Australian Taxi Industry Association chief executive officer Blair Davies said governments needed to provide compensation to drivers if they went into quarantine because they had been hired by a health department for COVID-19 transport.
“It is pretty clear in my mind when health departments are engaging taxi drivers with Covid-19 cases, they need to provide support for the taxi driver if they find themselves needing to go into quarantine themselves,” he said.
“Particularly the financial support because the taxi driver is a small businessperson trying to make a living.
“It is consistent with other people who want to go and work in their business and return home to their family and want to do the same thing the next day.
“You would like to think the Health Department would do what they can to make sure taxi drivers can do that with no risk.
“We would like to think they are alerting the cab driver to the risk associated with the transport. And of course, we would like to think there are protocols in place for the cleaning of the cab after the event, so the next customer after that cab is safe.”