Victoria’s COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry, led by former judge Jennifer Coate, has released its final report.
The probe was set up after more than 90 per cent of the coronavirus infections in the state’s deadly second wave were linked to infection control breaches in hotel quarantine.
The inquiry held public hearings over 27 days, took evidence from 96 witnesses and received more than 350,000 pages of documents.
Here are its key findings.
Who was in charge?
Ms Coate found a meeting at the State Control Centre (SCC) on March 28 made clear that the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) was in charge as the control agency of the program, and that the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions (DJPR) was a support agency.
But she found there was a dispute between the two departments about which was responsible for the program, with DJPR being clear that DHHS was in charge, while DHHS was adamant that it was only responsible for parts of the program, and that DJPR was jointly responsible and accountable for its delivery.
Ms Coate found this dispute caused “considerable and significant problems with the way in which the program operated” and also “occupied an inordinate amount of time during the inquiry”.
Both Jenny Mikakos, who was health minister at the time, and Kym Peake, who was DHHS secretary, resigned before the final report was released.
Premier Daniel Andrews said if either woman had remained in their roles, he would have expected them to resign with the release of the inquiry’s report.LIVE UPDATES: Read our blog for the latest news on the COVID-19 pandemic.
And what about the decision to use private security?
The inquiry spent a lot of time trying to determine who made the decision to use private security in the quarantine hotels, but it was ultimately unable to pin the decision on anyone.
The decision remained, Ms Coate wrote, “an orphan, with no person or department claiming responsibility”.
Ms Coate noted the chief commissioner of Victoria Police at the time, Graham Ashton, had been consulted about police providing security in the quarantine program, and expressed a preference that private security perform that role and police provide “back up”.
When that viewpoint was expressed by the senior police representative at a meeting at the State Control Centre on March 27, this was “clearly persuasive to those at the meeting”, Ms Coate found.
With little discussion, no dissent and apparently no formal decision being taken, this set in motion DJPR starting contractual engagement with three security firms.
Ms Coate found there was “no actual consideration” of whether it would have been better to use ADF personnel or police to provide security.
“Instead, an early mention of private security rather than police grew into a settled position, adopted by acquiescence at the SCC meeting,” she found.
The procurement process for security guards lacked rigour
Ms Coate found the process DJPR used to select security firms was “not appropriate or sufficiently rigorous”.
“It was made in haste and without any risk assessment, led by staff that did not have the requisite experience and knowledge, and without any public health oversight or input.”
Among the failures noted by Ms Coate was the department’s decision to use Unified Security Group, despite it not being on a panel of approved providers.
Ms Coate said while the speed in which the security firms had to be contracted was some explanation, it did not completely explain why the contracts were made the way they were.
Security guards should have received more training and supervision
Ms Coate said it was not appropriate for security guards to work in the quarantine program without close monitoring and “extensive and continued training”.
She found not enough consideration was given to the implications of using a largely casualised workforce in an environment in which they had a high likelihood of being exposed to an infectious virus, with flow-on impacts for the spread of COVID-19 in the community.
She said casual security guards were especially vulnerable due to their lack of job security, lack of training and knowledge in safety and workplace rights.
Ms Coate said using a salaried workforce with a strong industrial focus on workplace safety, such as Victoria Police, would have minimised the risk of outbreaks and would have made contact tracing easier in the wake of any outbreaks.Want more local news?We offer tailored front pages for local audiences in each state and territory. Find out how to opt in for more Victorian news.Read more
Before this year, hotel quarantine was not a part of pandemic plans
Ms Coate found that while both State and Federal governments were aware before this year of the possibility of a pandemic, mandatory mass quarantine was not a feature of any of their plans, and in fact the concept of hotel quarantine was considered “problematic”.
This meant the program had to be conceived and implemented “from scratch” in just 36 hours, which the inquiry found placed “extraordinary strain” on the departments and people given the job of setting it up.
“This lack of planning was a most unsatisfactory situation from which to develop such a complex and high-risk program,” Ms Coate wrote in her report.
Ms Coate said while her inquiry had no remit to examine the actions of the Commonwealth, it would be “unfair” to judge Victoria’s lack of planning for a mandatory quarantine program, given the Commonwealth had not planned for one either.
What did the inquiry recommend?
Some of them related to improving planning and preparedness, including by clarifying the roles and responsibilities of different levels of government and different government agencies, and engaging more with the medical profession.
Ms Coate also recommended seeking legal advice about introducing mandatory testing for those who refuse testing after their quarantine period, ensuring that infection prevention measures are applied as rigorously in transport to quarantine facilities as at hotels, and that when buses are used to transport returned travellers, they are not also used to provide non-quarantine transport to members of the public.
The Premier said it was the Government’s intention to implement all of the recommendations.
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