Judgment day looms for Victoria’s hotel quarantine debacle

Victoria's health department has been charged over the leaks of COVID-19 from hotel quarantine.

Victoria's health department has been charged over the leaks of COVID-19 from hotel quarantine. Photo: AAP

Who is to blame for Victoria’s bungled hotel quarantine program which cost hundreds of lives?

The deadly COVID-19 scheme has already seen political heads roll, but no one has accepted responsibility.

A report due to be handed down on Monday might provide some answers. But the mystery could continue.

Victoria’s second wave of coronavirus, which resulted in more than 18,000 new infections and 800 deaths, can be traced back to outbreaks among security guards working at Melbourne’s Rydges and Stamford Plaza hotels.

After months of hearings featuring 63 witnesses, it is still not known who made the decision to use private security guards in the program rather than the police.

“No, I don’t (know)… that’s why I set up this board of inquiry or recommended to the governor to set up this board of inquiry, to get exactly that answer and quite a few others,” Premier Daniel Andrews told the inquiry in September.

Victoria’s hotel quarantine program was established within 36 hours of a national cabinet meeting on March 27.

Graham Ashton, retired VicPol Chief Commissioner, is back in the spotlight. Photo: AAP

The meeting wrapped up about 1pm and at 1.16pm, the then-Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton texted Victoria’s top public servant Chris Eccles to ask what role police would play.

Mr Ashton told the inquiry he couldn’t remember if Mr Eccles, or some other person, then phoned him, but six minutes later he texted his Australian Federal Police counterpart.

“Mate, my advice is that ADF (Australian Defence Force) will do passenger transfer and private security will be used,” he wrote.

“That’s the deal set up by our DPC (Department of Premier and Cabinet).”

Phone records later provided to the inquiry established Mr Eccles spoke to Mr Ashton at 1.17pm.

Mr Eccles resigned after the revelation, though he emphatically denied he spoke to Mr Ashton about security.

Tale of the tape

The inquiry also heard recordings of a meeting at the state control centre later at 4.30pm, during which Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Mick Grainger expressed a clear opinion on the use of private security.

“I understand that the preference of Victoria Police or the chief commissioner is that private security be the first line of security and police to respond as required. Is that your understanding, Mick?” Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp says in the recording.

“Absolutely, that’s our preference,” Mr Grainger replied.

Lawyers assisting the inquiry argue there was no clear decision to engage private security guards in the program, but there was a “starting assumption” they would be used.

“It was a starting assumption which, enforced by Victoria Police’s preference and in the absence of opposition, ultimately became the position,” they said.

The inquiry said there were a number of people in a position to “disagree with the decision and to be aware of potential suitability issues”, including Mr Ashton, Mr Crisp and Mr Grainger, as well as Police Minister Lisa Neville.

“(They) were each aware of the potential for private security to be used and all acquiesced in it by either not objecting or by expressing a preference for the proposal,” the lawyers said.

Victorian Minister for Health Jenny Mikakos told the inquiry she became one of the scandal’s first casualties. Photo: AAP

The inquiry also laid bare the disharmony within the ranks of the Department of Health and Human Services, leading to the resignation of the department secretary Kym Peake and Health Minister Jenny Mikakos.

Lawyers assisting the inquiry criticised Ms Peake speaking of “harmonious co-operation and collaboration” within the DHHS, when senior members of the public health team, including Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton, were being excluded from planning of the program.

They described the relationship between the public health team and the initial hotel quarantine program as “at best poorly conceived and understood, and at worst dysfunctional and undermined by confusion and dissatisfaction”.

The inquiry also heard insufficient regard was given to the safety of people working in hotel quarantine, including security guards, with the DHHS’ focus largely on “logistics and compliance at the expense of public health”.

Retired judge Jennifer Coate will hand down the inquiry’s final report on Monday. She might not accept the findings of counsel assisting the inquiry.

Private security guards are not involved in the state’s new-look hotel quarantine program, which started on December 7.



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