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Victorian hotel debacle has put nation at risk

In fact some hotels, as we now know, were not the last line of defence against coronavirus we had hoped for and actually became places of incubation.

Premier Daniel Andrews has called for a $3 million judicial inquiry into the COVID-19 hotel quarantine program to be headed by retired Family Court judge Jennifer Coate.

The inquiry will scrutinise the decisions and actions of government agencies, hotel operators and private contractors among a range of factors including hotel staff training.

The NSW government confronted its own failures in a similar commission of inquiry that heard it had relied on outdated assessments of passengers before allowing them to disembark from the Ruby Princess in Sydney. Tough lessons were learned. The cruise ship experience and surge in infections in Victoria show that no state can afford to let its guard down.

There also is a lesson from history on the importance of having a uniform national response to the pandemic. When the Spanish flu threatened Australia in late 1918 and early 1919, Prime Minister Billy Hughes quickly imposed a strict maritime quarantine. This helped slow the spread of the virus and lower infection rates.

Victorian Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville has admitted the risk posed by returned travellers had not been taken seriously enough and Victorians – not to mention other states including NSW that are now affected – had been let down.

NSW put police officers in charge of ensuring hotel isolation was strictly enforced. Victoria’s decision to hastily outsource its top line of defence to private operators has been an obvious failure. Two men who spent a fortnight in quarantine in Melbourne have tested positive for the virus after returning home to NSW and the Northern Territory.

Reports of contractors who not only allowed family members to visit each other in separate rooms, but who had sex with guests in isolation, make a mockery of the decision to outsource this vital service.

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At least five state government departments were involved in the decision to use private security guards, rather than police or soldiers, to keep watch over returned travellers locked in hotel rooms.

Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton and police chief commissioner Shane Patton distanced themselves from the hotel quarantine debacle on Thursday as the state reported 77 new cases of COVID-19.

The Opposition has blamed the state’s rising infection rate on the incompetent management of the quarantine system saying Victorians should not have to wait months for answers about how Mr Andrews made such a mess of the system. The Premier has now taken responsibility for the debacle.

That the hotel quarantine system needs to be water tight is a no-brainer. With COVID-19 likely to be with us for months or potentially years, the effective quarantine of international travellers is absolutely essential. We need the judicial inquiry to swiftly tell us what went wrong and how the system can be fixed. Our health and livelihoods depend on it.

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