Complaints about cleanliness at the Travelodge quarantine hotels in Sydney are a symptom of wider issues within an unregulated cleaning industry, according to a cleaning insider.
Darryl Soekoe runs a commercial cleaning company in Melbourne that since March has been cleaning sites with COVID-positive cases.
“You could say cleaners are the new shock troops of the COVID war because we are the ones that are taking the fight to COVID,” he told 7.30.
“But the cleaning industry is similar to other sorts of low-entry industries.
“There’s not much training out there. There’s not much guidance out there.
“In a way, it’s a race to the bottom.”
NSW Police removed The Travelodge from Sydney’s hotel quarantine program last week, following an increase in complaints from guests.
The hotel insisted its rooms were “deep cleaned” before and after every guest had departed.
Mr Soekoe challenged the assertion.
“The photos I’m seeing are showing poor cleaning, that those rooms definitely weren’t disinfected,” he said.
“The indications are that the showers have not been cleaned, you know, even to a basic level, never mind a deep clean.”
He said the Travelodge incident highlighted a growing concern in the cleaning industry that while there was both state and federal government guidance on how quarantine hotels and public places should be cleaned and kept free of COVID-19, there was little to no regulation.
“It’s easy for any cleaning company to come out today and say, ‘I will come and clean your premises,’ because there’s no checks,” Mr Soekoe said.
“Does anybody check on us? No. Does anybody vouch for what we’ve done? No.
“It’s all reliant on us, as the cleaning company, to act ethically and do the right thing — and only a few of us are doing the right thing.”
‘Covered in thick grime’
Lauren Farmer said from the moment she arrived in her quarantine hotel room at the Travelodge in Sydney in mid-August, she became distressed and immediately started documenting her concerns.
“Immediately I saw several things which made me think that it hadn’t been cleaned properly,” she told 7.30.
“The bathroom was the worst.
“It was covered in this thick grime and dirt that you could see very obviously.
“I didn’t even really feel comfortable walking into it.”
Ms Farmer said the state of the room was so bad she did not feel safe.
“I didn’t want to walk around in the room because I know that it hadn’t really been disinfected,” she said.
“My mental health was declining really, really quickly.
“I didn’t sleep at all and about 4:00am that next morning I started making calls to nurses to see if there was any way that I could be moved.”
The hotel agreed to send a staff member to reclean the room.
In a statement, Travelodge told 7.30: “The safety, health and wellbeing of our guests and team has remained our number one priority.”
“At all times we have abided by the strict infection-control and bio-security measures as mandated by the various agencies of the state and federal governments,” it said.
Nurses knew how bad Travelodge was
Three days later, Ms Farmer was successful in her request to change hotels.
“I fought really, really, really hard — I probably haven’t fought that hard for anything in my life,” she said.
Once she was in a new hotel she immediately started campaigning on behalf of other Travelodge guests who were posting their concerns on Facebook.
“Two of the nurses were very upfront with me that they knew just how bad the Travelodge was; that many, many other people have been complaining, not just in those days, but in the weeks and months before,” she said.
“A couple of them really urged me to keep fighting and to reach out to MPs and to see what can be done because they agreed that it was not a suitable place, both physically and mentally for us.”
On the night of August 25, NSW Police, which runs Sydney’s hotel quarantine program, decided to move all 366 remaining Travelodge guests into other hotels.
Bathrooms ‘high risk’
Epidemiologist Raina MacIntyre said poor cleaning in quarantine had the potential to undermine the whole process.
“It is a concern if rooms that are being used for hotel quarantine are not clean,” she told 7.30.
“That’s because the people coming for quarantine are at high risk for being infected.
“You want to come into quarantine feeling that if you’re not infected, you’re going to be safe.
According to Professor MacIntyre, the bathroom is one of the highest-risk areas.
“That’s because the virus is shed in the faeces,” she said.
“Studies show that just flushing the toilet can cause massive aerosolisation of the virus, so it can be all over the bathroom surfaces.”
Travelodge described as ‘worst for dust and dirt’
In a statement, the Travelodge told 7.30 it had hosted 3,340 hotel quarantine rooms since March and its rooms were cleaned in line with government standards.
But Chelsea Thomas is one of several guests to have told 7.30 they raised concerns weeks and, in some cases, months ago.
She said NSW Health staff seemed aware of cleanliness issues at least four weeks ago when she was quarantined in the Travelodge.
“I peeled back the sheets on the bed and noticed a few stains,” Ms Thomas said.
“There was a little sign saying that it had been ‘COVID-approved’ cleaned and things like that.
“Then you think, well, how much risk management has gone in when the room clearly hasn’t got a higher level of cleaning than you would expect of a normal hotel?”
Ms Thomas was eventually moved to a so-called health hotel after dust in her room at the Travelodge brought on an asthma attack she said made her cough “so much she vomited”.
A doctor helped arrange her transfer.
“He said, ‘The Travelodge is just the worst for the dust and the dirt and I’m trying to move three other people because of their health as well,'” Ms Thomas said.
“It’s making people sick.”
Pandemic’s ‘unseen problem’
Commercial cleaning company owner Mr Soekoe said the pandemic had exposed ongoing issues with the cleaning industry.
“The truth of matter is it is an unseen problem going on at the moment,” he said.
He said he believed the cleaning industry was worse than the private-security industry in that regard.
“The industry is totally unregulated,” Mr Soekoe said.
“What you have in the security industry is you have some form of control and the fact that, obviously, security officers need to get licences but you don’t have them in the cleaning industry.
“Anybody can become a cleaning company tomorrow.
“Literally you need a mop and a bucket and you’re a cleaning company.
“Maybe a year ago the requirements weren’t that important because of the fact that people were more interested in the appearance of the property than what they couldn’t see.
“But now, in COVID times, we’re not only cleaning what we can see, we’re trying to disinfect against something that you can’t see.”
There have been no cases of community transmission at Travelodge hotels.