SMH: ‘Going digital’: Stretched police resort to closing stations across Melbourne

Victoria Police resources became so stretched during the coronavirus pandemic that 25 stations were temporarily closed to the public at one point due to a lack of personnel.

Chief Commissioner Shane Patton told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday that hotel quarantine commitments, border closures and enforcement of coronavirus restrictions meant the front counters of between 20 and 25 stations were closed at the peak of the burden on police since June. Victoria has 331 police stations in total.

The Age can reveal that police last week introduced a QR code system in response to the temporarily shortened opening hours of front counters at a number of stations across Melbourne’s eastern and south-eastern suburbs, allowing visitors to scan the codes and identify the nearest open station.

The codes have been implemented at all 27 stations in the southern metropolitan area, stretching from South Melbourne to Sorrento, in a move police sold as “going digital”.

Superintendent David Cowan said the “six-month trial” would be “an important tool to help police stay connected to the wider community”.

“The QR system will allow people to scan and check for their closest open reception counter, as well as access services such as the Police Assistance Line and justice of the peace websites,” he said.

Sites that will implement the QR codes include Cranbourne, Frankston, Dandenong, Narre Warren, Chelsea, Bayside, Prahran and St Kilda.

Prominent stations such as Richmond, Collingwood, Fitzroy and Cheltenham were also temporarily closed last month.

The news comes as more than 60 per cent of coronavirus fines handed down in Victoria remain unpaid, with police battling a backlog of 25,000 infringements totalling tens of millions of dollars. Mr Patton told the Parliament accounts and estimates committee that of 40,299 fines distributed, just 3140 have been paid and a further 5509 have been put on payment plans.

With 6003 infringements withdrawn, Victorians have not paid a total of 25,647 fines for between $200 and almost $5000 each.

Stretched by a heavy workload including protests spouting COVID-19 conspiracies, last week’s snap five-day lockdown and ongoing restrictions such as gathering limits, police were last month forced to publicly deny they would be letting tens of thousands of fines go unpaid.

Police resources were put under further pressure over the new year period as checkpoints were established on the New South Wales border.

About 1600 officers were split between the border and hotel quarantine in late January.

Mr Patton said on Tuesday the number of closed stations “will fluctuate subject to our resourcing demands and requirements”. Victoria Police has been contacted for further comment.

On fines, the Chief Commissioner reiterated that the internal police direction in December to pursue only repeat, deliberate offenders or those infected with COVID-19 who refused to isolate was “clumsily worded”.

“And when it was represented in the media we’ve corrected it internally, because it is our absolute intention that these will all go through the appropriate enforcement chain and be dealt with in the appropriate manner,” he said.

Under the Chief Health Officer’s directions, fines imposed last year included $200 for not wearing a face mask in public and up to $1652 for most stay-at-home order beaches. Fines of $4957 applied for unlawful gatherings and COVID-positive people who failed to self-isolate.

A similar revenue backlog could be brewing for Victoria’s hotel quarantine system after The Agerevealed on Saturday that the Andrews government was yet to invoice any of the 16,000 returned Australians who had quarantined in Melbourne. At least $20 million is owed to the state.

Asked by Nationals MP Danny O’Brien whether resourcing shortages affected the decision not to impose a “ring of steel” separating metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria during the state’s five-day lockdown last week, Mr Patton said “no”.

“We will always, if requested to do something like that, we would assess resource demand … but a five-day lockdown, it takes a couple of days at least to stand up infrastructure, recall and set if you like people in place and change rosters and everything,” Mr Patton said.

“So you’re talking two or three days in before you have capacity to then start in effect locking down. So you have to weigh up the benefits and the pros and cons of doing so, versus what was anticipated to be a five-day lockdown.”

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