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Hotel quarantine inquiry LIVE updates: Lisa Neville to front hearings; Martin Pakula not aware of departmental concerns over ‘rogue guards’

You can watch today’s hearing live, below:

Jobs Minister Martin Pakula and Police Minister Lisa Neville have both pointed the finger at the Health Department, saying it was in charge of the hotel quarantine program that led to Victoria’s second coronavirus wave.

It comes just a day after Health Department secretary Kym Peake told the hotel quarantine inquiry there was shared accountability. Ms Peake is about to return to the (virtual) stand.

Kym Peake, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Kym Peake, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

  • Ms Neville joins the rapidly growing group of people claiming ignorance about how the decision to hire private security guards over police of defence force troops was made: “I do not know who made the decision to engage private security contractors,” the minister’s witness statement reads.
  • The minister also resisted the charge that the decision to hire the guards was responsible for what later went wrong: “I do not know whether that was because of the use of private security at all, or because of issues with the management and oversight of the private security arrangements, infection control management, or both.”
  • That’s evidenced she said by two police officers contracting COVID-19 while working at locked-down public housing towers in Melbourne in July.
  • Ms Neville said Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp first mentioned private security to her in a meeting about the hotel quarantine program at about 2pm on March 27 – the day the system was being set up.
  • Ms Neville, Mr Crisp and Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton had a regular meeting scheduled for 2pm that day, just after National Cabinet decided to quarantine international arrivals, but she said it was an “information sharing” meeting, not one where decisions were made.

That concludes Lisa Neville’s evidence to the inquiry today.

At 2.15pm, the Department of Health and Human Services secretary Kym Peake will return to the stand to continue giving evidence, after fronting the inquiry yesterday.

Ms Peake’s appearance comes after Ms Neville and Jobs Minister Martin Pakula agreed the Health Department was the “control agency” in the hotel quarantine program, which should make some interesting questioning, so do stay with us.

Here is a copy of the notes former police chief Graham Ashton made during his March 27 meeting with Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp and Police Minister Lisa Neville.

Note the words “security guards” and “police back up”.

Also, “ADF” is written on the right side of the page.

Police Minister Lisa Neville said former police chief Graham Ashton should have been consulted about the use of private security guards in quarantine hotels.

Mr Ashton has in effect told the inquiry he was not consulted and it was “presented to him as a decision that had already been made”.

Victoria's former police commissioner Graham Ashton who retired earlier this year.

Victoria’s former police commissioner Graham Ashton who retired earlier this year.Credit:Justin McManus

“Does it surprise you that a decision about enforcement of this kind would have been made without reference to the Chief Commissioner, having regard to his responsibilities for law enforcement and public safety in Victoria?” counsel assisting the inquiry, Rachel Ellyard, asked Ms Neville.

Ms Neville replied: “Well, it is my expectation that he should have been consulted about it.”

The Minister said that if there had been any serious consideration about using Victoria Police as the first line of security in hotel quarantine, then she expected she also would have been told.

“I also am of the view, given my relationship and how we operated with the Chief Commissioner, that if there had been serious consideration and consultation with him, he would have also had a conversation with me,” Ms Neville said.

Two police officers contracted coronavirus while working at locked-down public housing towers, Police Minister Lisa Neville has told the inquiry.

Ms Neville was asked if any issues were raised by the police union about the safety of police working in COVID-19 hotels.

Police outside one of the locked-down public housing towers.

Police outside one of the locked-down public housing towers.Credit: Getty Images

She said no issues were raised about the COVID hotels, but two officers contracted the virus while policing the public housing towers which were placed in a hard lockdown in July.

Police were later deployed to patrol two hotels used to isolate COVID-positive guests after Victoria’s quarantine program was suspended for returned travellers in late June, but Ms Neville said the Police Association had not raised any concerns.

Lisa Neville said she didn’t find out Victoria has requested the help of the Australian Defence Force in quarantine hotels until she read the front page of a newspaper.

In late June, Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp made a formal request for 850 troops to replace private security after COVID-19 outbreaks had occurred in the hotels.

Australian Defence Force personnel are now involved in Victoria's pandemic response.

Australian Defence Force personnel are now involved in Victoria’s pandemic response.Credit:Eddie Jim

Ms Neville told the inquiry she didn’t find out about it until she read it on the front page of The Herald Sun.

She said she “didn’t have a particular view about it”, but “I would have liked to have known about the request”.

Mr Crisp rescinded his request that same day, with a decision later made to bring in Corrections Victoria officers.

The news sparked a series of text messages between Ms Neville and Mr Crisp that morning.

“The use of army in hotels? That was not agreed to at CCs yesterday but is that we doing? And what will they be doing?” Ms Neville texted.

Ms Neville told the inquiry: “The texts indicate I was a bit surprised and I was trying to receive clarity about what I had read in the paper.”

She said finding out about an expanded ADF role from the media left her “pretty cranky”.

She texted Mr Crisp: “Not sure what they do at hotels given no one leaves!! And they have no powers.”

Ms Neville told the inquiry that at the time she sent the text message to Mr Crisp she was “still slightly cranky that I had discovered the whole thing by The Herald Sun article just after midnight”.

“I was still relatively annoyed about it,” she said.

“I think that probably more reflects I was pretty cranky at that point.”

She said she was concerned Australian Defence Force personnel had no powers to enforce hotel quarantine.

Police and Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville says she cannot be sure that all the problems with Victoria’s hotel quarantine program can be chalked-up to the original decision to hire private security guards. It might be more complicated than that, her witness statement to the inquiry indicates.

“Reflecting on the question now, there are clearly things that went wrong with the Hotels Quarantine Program,” the minister’s statement reads.

“I do not know whether that was because of the use of private security at all, or because of issues with the management and oversight of the private security arrangements, infection control management, or both.”

Minister Lisa Neville said she believes then-Chief Police Commissioner Graham Ashton talked about a potential role for the Australian Defence Force in hotel quarantine at that March 27 key meeting.

Ms Neville, Mr Ashton and Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp met about 2pm, two days before the first international arrivals were quarantined in Victoria.

The Minister said she remembers Mr Ashton talking about the ADF. She said they talked mainly about the potential role for the ADF in escorting passengers from the airport when they arrived.

Former police chief Graham Ashton.

Former police chief Graham Ashton.Credit:Jamie Brown

She was then shown a text from the Premier department’s Deputy Secretary Kate Houghton to Mr Crisp that day.

The text response from Mr Crisp said: “My minister has some idea of ADF role and that’s what we’re discussing with Graham Ashton at the moment.”

Ms Neville said: “It was not me providing the idea of ADF role because I’m very clear that there had been no conversation around the ADF role until that meeting.”

She said no decisions were made at the meeting, rather it was an “information sharing” exercise.

Ms Neville said she didn’t have a particular view about the use of the ADF, only that the “reality is” troops do not share the powers of Australian Federal Police and Victoria Police officers.

Mr Crisp told another meeting later that day he was satisfied Victoria had the capacity to deal with all aspects of the operation and didn’t see the need for “ADF boots on the ground”.

Ms Neville said the only conversation she had with Mr Crisp was at the 2pm meeting. She did not speak to him about hotel quarantine over the course of the weekend.

Back to that March 27 meeting between Police Minister Lisa Neville, then-Chief Police Commissioner Graham Ashton and Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp.

Nobody present was very worried about hiring private security, according to the Minister’s account.

“Neither of them raised any concerns about the use of private security guards,” Ms Neville’s witness statement reads.

Now retired Chief Police Commissioner Graham Ashton.

Now retired Chief Police Commissioner Graham Ashton.Credit:Joe Armao

Not that there was anything out-of-the-ordinary in the state government hiring security companies, Ms Neville’s statement notes.

“From a security perspective, the fact that a decision had been made to use private security guards was not inconsistent with past practices.

“Private security contractors are used for security purposes widely throughout Victoria, including at Parliament House, hospitals and police headquarters. They are also used for security at major events such as the Australian Open.”

Police and Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville joins the rapidly growing group of people who say they don’t know who decided to hire private security contractors to guard Melbourne’s quarantine hotels.

“I do not know who made the decision to engage private security contractors,” the Minister’s witness statement to the inquiry reads.

Ms Neville’s witness statement also says that if there was ever “serious contemplation” of Victoria Police playing a hands-on role in guarding the hotels, she would have been consulted and she wasn’t.

Police Minister Lisa Neville giving evidence to the inquiry on Wednesday.

Police Minister Lisa Neville giving evidence to the inquiry on Wednesday.

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