Covid-19 conspiracy theories not among reasons given for test refusal in Victoria

Melissa Davey and Matilda Boseley
Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

No one in Victoria is known to have cited a conspiracy theory for declining to take a Covid-19 test, the state’s health department has said, despite the health minister, Jenny Mikakos, blaming such beliefs for some of the 10,000 refusals as mass testing is carried out across Melbourne’s hotspot suburbs.

A spokeswoman from the health department told Guardian Australia on Friday: “People have declined a test for reasons such as not wanting to do nasal swabs and showing a preference for saliva testing, and language barriers – which our massive team of door-knockers try to overcome.”

Guardian Australia had specifically asked the department if conspiracy theories were a reason people had declined the non-compulsory tests.

Related: Coronavirus Victoria: experts warn against blaming migrant communities for spreading misinformation

“Door-knockers have been doing either testing, community education or both,” the department spokeswoman said.

The response contradicted comments from Mikakos on Friday that belief in conspiracy theories was among the range of reasons for test refusal.

“We are analysing that data to see exactly why people are refusing, but it is concerning that some people believe that coronavirus is a conspiracy or that it won’t impact on them, so what I want to stress here is that coronavirus is a very contagious virus,” she said. “It can go through your family very quickly, it can affect your neighbours, your loved ones, and your entire community. So for those individuals in those communities who have not yet been tested, we are urging them to get tested as quickly as possible.”

Guardian Australia has contacted Mikakos for comment.

The comments followed 65 new cases being announced in Victoria on Friday and 108 on Saturday after 17 days of double-digit growth, with a continuing and concerning number of new cases associated with transmission in households and families. Public health workers and legal experts have expressed concern that members of the community in hotspot suburbs may be unfairly criticised by people in non-lockdown suburbs, or overly targeted by police who are patrolling areas under lockdown to ensure people only leave for legitimate reasons.

Adding to confusion for residents in hotspot suburbs are mixed messages about who requires a test. While the government has said anyone in a hotspot suburb under lockdown can receive a free test even if they have no symptoms, a video seen by Guardian Australia shows two door-to-door workers who appear to be from the department of health tell a family they do not need to be tested as they are not symptomatic.

The video, taken on 29 June during the blitz, shows the two men, dressed in orange department of health vests and purple lanyards visiting a home in the hotspot suburb of Keilor Downs.

“The tests are going on in the [nearby] avenue if you have any symptoms or anything?” the workers told a resident of the home. When the resident replied that no one in his home had symptoms, the public health worker replied: “Oh, that’s all right.” The other public health worker mentioned a kit that would allow the resident and their family to be tested at home, but the first worker cut him off and said, “No, it’s all right. If you don’t have any symptoms, it’s fine.”

The resident replied: “We don’t have any symptoms but we can get tested,” but was still not given a test kit. The first worker told him: “Please make sure you maintain inside please,” before the pair left. The interaction lasted about 30 seconds. The resident, Dave, who asked Guardian Australia not to include his last name, said he was concerned this interaction would be counted in the test refusal figures.

“There’s no clarity right now so we don’t know,” Dave said. “We don’t know what’s being counted in refusal, what’s being miscounted ... There is no detail behind what anybody’s saying so I can’t tell.” He said that after the interaction he took his family to be tested despite being told it wasn’t necessary.

“[The workers] were fairly confused, they didn’t understand what I needed to do, what I didn’t need to do ... I mean I can see why it might be inconsistent for people who don’t speak English, as well as elderly folk.”

The department of health and the premier’s office declined to comment on the video or if the interaction would be counted as a refusal, but a spokeswoman for the premier confirmed that every household visited during the blitz should have been told to get tested.

“Anyone living in the restricted postcodes is encouraged to get tested for coronavirus regardless of whether they have symptoms,” she said.

Related: Victoria police enforcement of Covid-19 lockdown risks harming vulnerable communities

“All staff working on our suburban testing blitz are briefed ahead of their shift to ensure they can provide advice to residents about symptoms, hygiene and current restrictions, as well as how they can get tested.”

Team members are a combination of department of health personnel, trained public health staff, and newly recruited staff. Since the blitz started last Thursday, more than 150,000 samples have been collected across the state and more than 94,900 doors have been knocked on.

While there has been misinformation spread via text messages and on social media, the department of health and premier’s office have provided no detail about whether locked-down communities have been more likely to believe these conspiracy theories. This is despite Victoria’s chief health officer, Prof Brett Sutton, saying on 24 June that conspiracy theories may be partially responsible for the Victorian spike.

A woman named Ann contacted Guardian Australia to say she had received a text message that purported to be a police bulletin. The text warned against answering the door to door-knockers. It read: “People are going door to door handing out masks, they say it’s a new initiative from local government. They will always ask you to please put it on to see if it fits you.

“It has been doused with chemicals which knocks you out cold and once you’re knocked out they proceed to rob you. Please do not accept masks from strangers. Remember, we are living in critical times and people are desperate to take advantage with the aim of making money. Crime rate has skyrocketed, so please be cautious and play safe!

“Please send to all your friends, colleagues and loved ones so as to help them stay vigilant in this adverse situation.” A spokesman for Victoria police said the message had also been widely circulating on social media for some months, long before the lockdown.

Meanwhile, Sarah Carter, the mayor of Maribyrnong city council, which contains suburbs among the hotspots, blamed entitlement on people declining to be tested.

“It makes me feel incredibly angry,” she told Channel Nine on Wednesday. “I just think it’s the height of entitlement, to be honest, not to take the test, and I would urge everyone in our community, when asked, to take that test.”