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From cyclones to COVID-19: Police now have to explain where danger lies

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Queensland’s disaster coordinator Steve Gollschewski has, like many people, been forced to adapt in 2020 – and cancel a trip to meet his new granddaughter.

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Deputy Commissioner Gollschewski can get things moving quickly. That was to be expected in his previous substantive roles heading specialist operations for the Queensland Police Service, having a key role in the state’s counter-terrorism effort, and helping to secure the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

Since 2013, Gollschewski has also been the state disaster coordinator, responding to cyclones and the like, acting on information from hard-hit communities and ensure they have assistance as soon as possible. But in 2020, things have been turned on their head: Gollschewski is taking direction from the top, not so much responding to a disaster as seeking to prevent one – including by imposing restrictions on the Queensland-NSW border with just two days’ notice.

Gollschewski describes himself as the “systems guy” in a tight-knit group that includes Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young, Department of Premier and Cabinet director-general Dave Stewart and others, acting on behalf of Cabinet.

“The discussion is around ‘we think we need to do this to protect Queensland’ and then the discussion from there is ‘can you operationalise that, and how quickly can you operationalise that’,” Gollschewski told InQueensland.

The border change was the first since 1919. While it would turn out to be politically contentious, Young has credited it with keeping the novel coronavirus at bay, and Gollschewski was never going to question her. He just had to get it done, fast.

“In that instance, we said ‘well, it’s not going to be very pretty, or particularly elegant, but we can have something in place by that date and then we’ll catch up with some of the other things that need to happen’,” he said.

Part of the challenge for police has been explaining the restrictions, and rules, to Queenslanders while at the same time enforcing them. Bad news from overseas, and, more recently Victoria, may have given some prior warning.

Still, Gollschewski didn’t expect to be doing this in 2020, or that both work and home life would be disrupted by the same threat. He, like many others, has also been contained by border restrictions, both domestic and international.

“I have a little granddaughter in London, she was born in January, that I was to meet in May,” Gollschewski said.

“The way it’s going I think she’ll be walking and talking before I get to meet her in person. I mean, thank goodness for FaceTime.”

Many Queenslanders would recognise Gollschewski from the media briefings, where he starts with the cold, hard numbers of police activities, loosens up to reiterate the rules and, occasionally, to express disappointment at those people who have gone out of their way to break the rules. On those occasions, the disappointment is palpable: Gollschewski is like a parent who has been let down, a coach whose players need to be reminded not only of the objective of the game but why the rules matter.

Two young women have been charged with lying about a trip to Victoria, leading to a Logan cluster of at least five COVID-19 cases. Last week, a Caboolture man became the first Queenslander to be jailed for not complying with directions around social distancing and will spend two months socially distanced from his family and friends.

On the Queensland-NSW border alone, there have been people trying to walk across, sail across, drive the wrong way up the freeway to cross, carry drugs and guns across, cross in the boot of a car. And, yet, for the most part, the border restrictions have held.

Gollschewski is thankful, and almost surprised, that the vast majority of Queenslanders have done the right thing. He knows that Australians generally like to be “out and about,” but says their willingness to abide by the rules has helped keep everyone safe.

“In some ways, we’ve probably been as compliant as … what you’d expect of regimented Asian countries,” he said.

After hundreds of thousands of vehicle checks, quarantine audits and callouts, more than 2200 penalty infringement notices have been issued, and there have been around 20 arrests or people issued notices to appear. Gollschewski said that although Queenslanders had generally done the right thing – quarantine compliance rates are far higher than Victoria, for example – the temperament may have changed in recent weeks.

“What we’re concerned about is … everyone is kind of expecting it to finish at some stage,” Gollschewski said, as the detention centre outbreak was just starting.

“I’ll be really honest, there’s elements of fatigue in our own agency and across government. We’ve got to keep that going long term so it’s got to be the same for the community.”

At the start of 2020, Young was keeping Gollschewski and others updated on the unfolding health crisis in Wuhan, China. It started just as an awareness exercise.

“But I recall explicitly a briefing in January where Jeannette was saying that the pandemic was expected, the timing was difficult to say, and the extrapolation that she put forward … realistically it has played out,” Gollschewski said.

“It was very early on we knew we had a problem.”

Today, Young emphasised that Queensland had been strengthened by the police response, more so than other states.

“Our police service in this state are absolutely brilliant,” Young said.

As InQueensland has chronicled, the state’s disaster management arrangements, normally used to respond to cyclones, floods and bushfires, enabled authorities to take control of the pandemic response. That happened faster – backed by Queensland being the first to declare a health emergency – and, in comparison to some other states, more effectively. Gollschewski has played a crucial role in this unprecedented “command and control” effort.

Last week, Commissioner Katarina Carroll stood up a new command structure, just for the pandemic, giving it a greater sense of permanency and allowing police to act more decisively in both an operational and resourcing sense.

Gollschewski is quick to praise everyone involved in the response, from the 1200-plus police and service staff to the Australian Defence Force members who have been helping out, including at 24 quarantine hotels, and Queenslanders generally.

“In some ways, working as part of this thing is as much a privilege as it is a responsibility because you get to work with Jeannette Young and Dave Stewart and Katarina Carroll and so on,” Gollschewski said.

Gollschewski knows the work will have to go on. Now in the sixth phase of operations, each accompanied by a different border structure, he wants Queensland to be prepared for a “roller coaster of restrictions being increased and released” until the health experts can better contain the virus.

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