United Kingdom

Premier Dan Andrews fronts hotel quarantine inquiry

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has sworn on the bible and told an inquiry into the disastrous COVID-19 hotel quarantine fiasco that he too does not know who made the decision to employ private security guards. 

His appearance will conclude the airing of weeks of evidence by a series of bumbling bureaucrats and ministers who have all failed to reveal who made the critical decision to employ private security guards to police returned travellers in March.  

'I do not know who made that decision,' he stated.

Mr Andrews will be the last to appear before the inquiry, which has turned into a complete farce. 

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has sworn on the bible

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton, police chief Graham Ashton, health minister Jenny Mikakos and Victoria Police and Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp

Police minister Lisa Neville said she had not been consulted about the plan to use private security at Melbourne hotels 

Quarantine breaches involving private security guards seeded 99 per cent of Victoria's deadly second wave of COVID infections, which in turn has led to more than 700 deaths of the elderly. 

The bungle is estimated to be costing Victoria anywhere up to $400 million a day with fears the current lockdown could run as high as $25 billion. 

Dozens of security guards ended up catching coronavirus from quarantined returned travellers while working in the hotels. 

'After National Cabinet made its decision, I expected there that there would be a mix of different personnel playing different roles in the Program, including members of Victoria Police,' Mr Andrews said in his statement to the inquiry.

'But the way in which that decision was to be implemented, including the mix of personnel that would be engaged and their respective roles, was an operational matter. 

'The decision to engage private security contractors, and many decisions like it, were of an operational nature. That is similarly so in the management of other disasters.'

The premier has told the inquiry that he maintains he was not aware of any offer of Australian Defence Force support for the inquiry at the time the program began. 

'After the National Cabinet meeting on 27 March 2020, I understood that any ADF support for any State or Territory’s implementation of the mandatory self-quarantine decision would be provided where necessary and according to need,' he stated. 

'I understood that New South Wales was seen as having the greater need at that time. I did not understand, on the basis of the meeting, that Victoria would be receiving extensive ADF support in its implementation of the decision.'

The inquiry has heard repeatedly that ADF support had been on offer before a single traveller stepped foot into a Melbourne hotel. 

The inquiry has seen text massages referring to them, emails, scribbled notes and minutes from meetings. 

An outbreak at Rydges in May was the first time Victoria's health minister Jenny Mikakos even made an effort to find out who was running security at the COVID plagued hotels 

Security at the Stamford was infected about three weeks after the Rydges, prompting the health minister to take urgent action to replace the workforce with prison guards

Private security has been accused of bungling the hotel quarantine operation and causing Victoria's deadly second wave of COVID-19

'Those comments advanced a more generous position regarding the allocation of ADF personnel than had earlier been indicated. Later, in my press conference, I acknowledged that gesture, but I did not see that it necessarily changed what had been settled in National Cabinet.

'I was not aware of any other offer of ADF personnel for the operation of the Program at its inception.'

Mr Andrews said he could not be certain why he told Victorians that he would be using private security at a press conference on March 27. 

'I'm not certain why I mentioned police, private security and our health team. Those three groups of people and not a fourth or a fifth group,' he said.

'On the specifics I can't clarify for you our outline for you or why I chose those three groups. I'm afraid I've tried to search my recall of this and I simply can't, I can't provide you detail.'

The inquiry had earlier seen text messages from former Victoria Police chief commissioner Graham Ashton declaring he had been told of the private security decision by someone within the Department of Premier and Cabinet that day. 

But Mr Andrews told the inquiry Mr Ashton did not receive the information from him.  

On Thursday, Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos fronted the inquiry where she too failed to enlighten the nation as to who made the fateful error in deciding to employ private security firms as the frontline force against COVID-19. 

The board of inquiry, headed by former Family Court judge Jennifer Coate, was established to determine what went so drastically wrong with the hotel program. 

Mr Andrews called the inquiry in June after genomic sequencing revealed a number of coronavirus cases could be linked to 'staff members in hotel quarantine breaching well known and well understood infection control protocols'. 

The inquiry has been running since August 17, but as it draws to an end, not a single person involved in the debacle has been able to pinpoint who came up with the idea to use private security. 

One after the other, police, ministers, public servants and patsies have fronted the inquiry to declare how little they know about how the crucial decision was made.

And if they ever did know, they had now forgotten. 

Even former Mr Ashton appeared to suffer from memory loss at the inquiry. 

Someone from the Premier's department had told him the decision had been made, but he can't recall who it was. 

On Thursday, the health minister said she would not even try to offer an opinion on who might be to blame. 

Ms Mikakos had copped a battering from barristers acting on behalf of the security companies that actually worked at the hotels. 

At the beginning of the day, the health minister had bragged how it had been her who cooked up the idea to place COVID-19 infected into hotels after being inspired by a social media post.

'Yes, it is, and my very firm recollection about this matter was that I conceived of the idea of Hotels for Heroes,' she said. 

'It was one that I put to the premier's chief of staff I believe on approximately 27 March. I had had read about a program in the United Kingdom through social media that was accommodated healthcare workers in caravans, and I thought that that would be a good idea for us to have a look at providing some accommodation to healthcare workers who were either infected or exposed to COVID-19.'

The plan was quickly turned into the doomed hotel quarantine program which saw the government's jobs department contract the private security guards. 

ADF personnel were used successfully to police returning travellers at hotels in NSW, but were rejected in Victoria amid fears they had no real authority to detain people 

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews faced the hotel inquiry on Friday. His colleagues have failed to remember crucial details about how the plan came together

Ms Mikakos told the inquiry she did not burden herself with who was running security until two months later when she was told an outbreak at Rydges on Swanston in Melbourne had been spread by a security guard. 

Until then, Ms Mikakos had not even bothered to read the plan established to protect Victorians from the threat of COVID-19 infection from returning travellers. 

'I explained at the outset of my evidence, that ministers play a high-level policy and decision-making role,' she said.  

'I wouldn't expect to be provided a huge amount of detail around specific operational matters. They were matters that sit appropriately with my officials.'

Ms Mikakos was asked if she believed it was a dereliction of her duty as a minister  not to have read the operational plan for the response of her department to the pandemic.

'Not at all,' she said.

'In fact, my department did not formally provide me with a brief on it. It's something that I have sourced because I wanted to familiarise myself with it.'

Ms Mikakos said that once the first security guard caught COVID-19 while working in the Stamford Plaza – three weeks after the case in the Rydges on Swanston in late May – she formed a view to replace the security guard workforce. 

The inquiry has heard from the heath department secretary Kym Peake, the secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet Chris Eccles and of course the Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton. 

Former police chief Graham Ashton swears on the bible to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

Jobs minister Martin Pakula's department had contracted the private security companies to perform the job, but claims he did not make the decision to use them 

The quarantine disaster in Victoria allowed COVID-19 enter aged care facilities resulting in hundreds of deaths. Many Victorians fear no-one will ever be held accountable 

None were able to shed any light on who made the decision to employ the private security guards. 

They all agreed it was probably a bad idea in hindsight. 

For one, they were the 'wrong cohorts' for the job, Dr Sutton noted. 

Documents tendered to the inquiry revealed some of the security guards had expressed concerns about something as simple as using hand sanitiser because it was against their religion.  

Dr Sutton told the inquiry he had no input into the hotel quarantine program despite being an expert in the field of infectious diseases. 

'With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that using a highly casualised workforce, generally from a lower socio-economic background, where that means that poor leave provisions limit how one can care for and financially support one's family if unwell,' Dr Sutton wrote in his submission to the inquiry.

In August, the premier told a Public Accounts and Estimates Committee hearing that claims Australia Defence Force personnel had been offered to man Victoria's hotels was wrong.

'[It's] fundamentally incorrect to assert that there were hundreds of ADF staff on offer and somehow, someone said no,' he said.

'Wrong cohorts': Security guards working at hotels have been blamed for Victoria's deadly second COVID-19 wave 

The use of ADF personnel was noted by the police minister before the program even kicked off

This week, police minister Lisa Neville said she had not been consulted either and was surprised when during a March 27 meeting with Victoria Police and Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp the decision to employ private security appeared to have been set.  

While Mr Ashton claimed he did not make the decision, he had no issue with private security being used at the hotels. 

'It made sense at the time,' Mr Ashton told the inquiry.

While a decision of the board cannot be predicted, that crucial March 27 meeting held on the day the premier announced the use of private security guards provides frustrated Victorians with the best chance of working out what exactly happened.

At the State Control Centre, Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Mick Grainger told Mr Crisp it was the preference of Victoria Police that private security get the hotel gig. 

Victoria Police has argued since that they were simply expressing a preference, not a direction.  

Whatever the case, after that meeting the decision appeared to be set in stone. 

'I take that as a clear direction we should go off and do it,' Jobs department secretary Simon Phemister told the inquiry.  

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