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Hotel quarantine inquiry LIVE updates: Victorian MP Jenny Mikakos disputes Health Department’s responsibility for guard quarantine procedures

You can watch today’s hearing live right here from 10am:

Ms Mikakos finished her evidence with an exchange with the head of the inquiry, Justice Jennifer Coate, about the role of the Australian Defence Force.

The minister said her department were considering bringing in troops on June 24, after the Stamford Hotel outbreak. But she didn’t know about any other offers before that and she wasn’t “personally involved” in the June request.

Defence force personnel have helped to bolster testing sites and door-to-door checks in Victoria.

Defence force personnel have helped to bolster testing sites and door-to-door checks in Victoria.Credit:Justin McManus

“I wasn’t aware of specific offers of support for the ADF other than for offers that we didn’t take up, and that was for contact tracing,” Ms Mikakos said.

“We have utilised the ADF for supervision and training for our contact tracing team. We’re in the process of significantly expanding that.”

She said: “We did from the month of March to the middle of the year go from, I think it was 57 to about 2,600 people.”

ADF personnel have also been used for testing sites, Ms Mikakos said.

“So, just to be clear on the ADF offers of support, I was aware and gratefully accepted assistance from the ADF in relation to these types of roles. I wasn’t aware of any offer of assistance in relation to providing an alternative workforce for the hotel quarantine program until I read about this in a media report, I believe on 25 June.”

Ms Mikakos said a formal request for ADF help was usually made by Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp or the chief of police.

The inquiry has heard Mr Crisp requested 850 ADF troops on June 25 to replace security guards, but the request was rescinded.

Ms Mikakos said she wasn’t “sure exactly what request” was made by Mr Crisp.

“All I can say is that my department understood very clearly from me that I… had a very strong view that we needed to replace the security guard workforce with an alternative workforce, and they were working assiduously to bring that about,” she said.

“But I was not personally involved in any request…”

Arthur Moses SC, the lawyer for Unified Security, has now taken his turn to question the Health Minister.

Mr Moses issued some stinging accusations against Health Department head Kym Peake yesterday, including that she was ducking responsibility and shifting blame to the Jobs Department.

And he’s not holding back today.

Arthur Moses SC is acting for Unified Security.

Arthur Moses SC is acting for Unified Security.

“Do you accept that is a dereliction of duty as a minister not to have read the operational plan?” Mr Moses asked, referring to the plan for Operation Soteria, the taskforce that oversaw hotel quarantine that put the Health Department in charge of oversight and coordination.

“Not at all,” Ms Mikakos replied.

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

Mr Moses said Ms Peake did not provide the Health Minister with a copy of the Operation Soteria plan until after the outbreaks in hotel quarantine.

“I have been provided with copies at my request. I did not receive a formal written brief providing me with those plans,” Ms Mikakos said.

Mr Moses then put to Ms Mikakos that she would have expected Ms Peake, as the head of the department, to have provided her with the document so the minister could have assessed the risk factors involved with the program.

Ms Mikakos said she did not have any particular expectation that operational documents should be brought to her attention.

She said she took an interest in the plan because outbreaks had occurred.

“You’re answerable to the parliament and the people of Victoria… for what your department does,” Mr Moses said.

“Do you accept as a minister of the Crown you would have no way of knowing whether the Department of Health and Human Services was actually executing its role pursuant to the Operation Soteria plan unless you actually had access to the plan, do you accept that?”

Ms Mikakos repeated it was not her role to oversee operational documents and said Mr Moses may be misconstruing her job as a minister.

Mr Moses then asked her about the Rydges on Swanston, a Melbourne city hotel set up for COVID-positive returned travellers that became the centre of outbreaks in May. The inquiry has heard that 90 per cent of the state’s current cases can be traced back to cases in the hotel.

Mr Moses asked the minister why she didn’t ask her department secretary why The Alfred was not brought in from the beginning to oversee the hotel.

The Alfred was brought in to oversee another COVID hotel in June and has since taken over all the hotels.

Ms Mikakos said the risks at the hotel became apparent only after the outbreaks and The Alfred was then brought in.

Mr Moses asked Ms Mikakos if she accepted the outbreak occurred at the Rydges because her department didn’t conduct a risk assessment of setting up a hotel for only COVID-positive patients in the beginning.

Ms Mikakos said that was a matter for the inquiry to establish.

Ms Mikakos has told the inquiry she doesn’t believe there was time for Victoria to consider how other states and jurisdictions were setting up their hotel quarantine programs.

She said national cabinet made a decision on March 27 that a program to quarantine international arrivals was established within 36 hours.

A decision to quarantine international arrivals was made in National Cabinet.

A decision to quarantine international arrivals was made in National Cabinet.Credit:

“That probably meant there wasn’t those opportunities to collaborate and share ideas and approaches across jurisdictions,” Ms Mikakos said.

She said at that point the number of COVID-19 cases in Victoria had grown to 574, with 16 mystery cases and the first three deaths.

NSW and Victoria, she said, were bearing the brunt of international arrivals and there was an urgent need for a quarantine program.

MSS Security lawyer Anna Robertson said it was incumbent on Ms Mikakos to review the foundation structures of hotel quarantine and to find out what other states and territories were doing.

“As the minister for health in our state, you have accountability to the public for their health and safety,” Ms Robertson said.

“I am responsible for my department, absolutely the buck stops with me for my department,” Ms Mikakos said.

She said her department “inherited” Victoria’s program from the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, which set up the program on the first day.

“On the first instance, on the day the decision was made, that program sat entirely with the DJPR and it has then involved a number of agencies for many months,” Ms Mikakos said.

Next up, Ms Mikakos has faced cross-examination by the lawyer acting for MSS Security, Anna Robertson.

MSS Security was one of three security firms contracted by the Jobs Department to supply guards to hotel quarantine in Victoria.

Anna Robertson, representing MSS Security.

Anna Robertson, representing MSS Security.Credit:

Ms Robertson compared the Victorian hotel quarantine model with South Australia and Western Australia, where MSS Security has provided guards.

The lawyer put to the Health Minister that in the other states there are department infection control officials on site 24/7 in the hotels to provide advice.

“That’s not the model we had in place in Victoria,” Ms Robertson said.

Ms Mikakos said she was not “really in a position to provide a definitive answer to that”.

Ms Robertson said that in Western Australia, security guards are inducted by the Health Department on their first day of work.

“In Victoria, there was no formal induction provided to security by the Department of Health and Human Services,” she said.

Ms Mikakos said again she was not in a position to have that knowledge and the contracts in Victoria were with the Jobs Department.

In South Australia and Western Australia, Ms Robertson said quarantine detainees were not allowed to leave the rooms, unlike Victoria where quarantined travellers were given fresh air breaks.

Ms Mikakos has been in the (virtual) stand for 2½ hours now.

Ben Ihle, the counsel assisting the inquiry, said the structural weaknesses Ms Mikakos saw with hotel quarantine in June were identified early in the program.

Mr Ihle asked Ms Mikakos if those issues, particularly the April 9 email from Dr Finn Romanes mentioned earlier, had been brought to the Health Minister’s attention earlier, would she have responded as she did in June?

Ms Mikakos paused.

“I think that’s a difficult question to answer fairly because, of course, everyone’s judgments are coloured with the benefit of hindsight,” she responded.

“Whilst things are very crystal clear to me by June what needed to happen, I can’t say with any degree of certainty I would have had those insights in late March.”

Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said the “collaborative” approach between departments and agencies didn’t work for hotel quarantine.

Ms Mikakos said that after the outbreaks, she was increasingly concerned the governance model “didn’t have the capacity” to address problems “as we would have liked and in a manner that was appropriate”.

The Health Department was entirely reliant on another department to enforce contracts, she said.

“I didn’t think that was a satisfactory arrangement,” Ms Mikakos said. “This collaborative approach was not serving us well in terms of addressing the risk that I saw…”

She said a centralisation of roles and responsibilities needed to occur.

The risk materialised, counsel assisting the inquiry Ben Ihle said, leading to a second wave that caused 18,374 new COVID-19 cases and 752 deaths.

Ms Mikakos said the hotel outbreaks “sadly sparked a second wave, something that I’m profoundly saddened about and I was working to ensure we could mitigate the risks as quickly as possible in the month of June”.

“Tragically we’ve had many more deaths during this second wave,” she said.

Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos says she was in favour of the Australian Defence Force stepping into the state’s quarantine hotels in June, but her proposal to enlist their help was rejected “by other parts of the government”.

In her statement to the hotels inquiry, Ms Mikakos said that by mid-June – once outbreaks had occurred at a second hotel, the Stamford Plaza – it had become clear to her that private security guards were not up to the job of overseeing the hotels.

The Stamford Hotel in Melbourne was the second quarantine hotel to see an outbreak of COVID-19 cases.

The Stamford Hotel in Melbourne was the second quarantine hotel to see an outbreak of COVID-19 cases.Credit:Getty Images

“This was just a workforce that was too high-risk in nature,” she told the inquiry.

Realising this in mid-June, Ms Mikakos then asked her health department deputy secretary, Melissa Skilbeck, to prepare a new model for overseeing hotels that would exclude private security.

Ms Mikakos wanted Victoria Police, Alfred Health and other health services staff, Protective Services officers, Sheriffs and a “small number” of Australian Defence Force members to take control of the hotels.

However, the Health Minister wrote in her statement to the inquiry that this was rejected by the Victorian government.

“I understand that Ms Skilbeck’s proposed options were not supported by other parts of the government,” she said.

Ms Mikakos said she only became aware of Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp’s request for 850 ADF personnel on June 25, which was cancelled hours later, via the media.

“Personally, I did not have any concerns about use of the ADF in the HQP,” she wrote in her statement.

“ADF personnel had already been used successfully by the DHHS at testing sites, to train and supervise contact tracers as we were significantly growing the contact tracing team at that time, and in logistics roles at the SCC [State Control Centre].”

Police Minister Lisa Neville told the inquiry yesterday that she too only found out about Mr Crisp’s overturned request for ADF members via the media, which made her “pretty cranky”.

Ms Mikakos said she was “exasperated” and determined to replace the security guards after the outbreaks in hotel quarantine.

She said that once the first security guard caught COVID-19 while working in the Stamford Plaza – 21 days after the case in the Rydges on Swanston in late May – she formed a “very strong view that we should work to replace the security guard workforce”.

Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos.

Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos.

“It was not a workforce that my department had contracted,” Ms Mikakos said.

“We didn’t have any contractual levers … it was critical to secure the support of other agencies … to fix this problem.”

Ms Mikakos said she was “exasperated and determined to replace the security guards”, and reiterated comments she made in her written statement to the inquiry.

“This was just a workforce that was too high-risk in nature. I apologise if I offend anyone who works in this profession,” she said.

“From the public health team’s report through contact tracing, they reported, I guess, a workforce that in some instances were not forthcoming about second jobs and other jobs they might have.

“It made it very hard for them to do the contact tracing.”

Ms Mikakos said she was “very disappointed” she was not told about the concerns her three most senior public health advisors had about hotel quarantine.

The Health Minister said she was also surprised to find out through the inquiry about reports completed by a lead agency overseeing healthcare safety into two serious incidents that occurred in the program.

On April 9, Public Health Commander Finn Romanes, backed by Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton, sent an email to department secretary Kym Peake about a “risk to the health and safety of detainees” because of governance problems.

Ms Peake said she didn’t brief Ms Mikakos on the email because “I was satisfied that the issues [that] had been raised had been addressed”.

“I’m actually very disappointed that they were not raised with me,” Ms Mikakos told the inquiry.

“They should have been raised with you, to be frank,” counsel assisting the inquiry, Ben Ihle, said.

“I would have hoped they would have,” Ms Mikakos said.

She said she became aware of the email through media coverage of the inquiry.

Ms Mikakos said the public health team could have also raised the issue with her in the daily briefings they gave her about outbreaks.

Safer Care Victoria, the lead agency overseeing healthcare safety, was called in by Ms Peake in April after a suspected suicide of a detainee and a delay in transferring another detainee, who had to be intubated in intensive care, to hospital.

Ms Mikakos said she was told about the death, but not about the delay in treatment for the sick detainee.

She said after the suicide, she sought reassurance that more mental health support would be given to returned travellers.

But she didn’t know about the case of the man whose hospital treatment was delayed.

Ms Mikakos said she also didn’t know that Ms Peake had called in Safer Care to conduct an investigation into both incidents.

She wasn’t shown interim reports in late April, Ms Mikakos said.

The reports, finalised on June 10 and 17, found staff who were selected to work in quarantine were assigned roles that they didn’t have the skills or experience for. It also found there was limited or no formal training, little continuity of staff rostered at hotels and underdeveloped or no procedures to tell staff about the use of personal protective equipment or how to escalate problems.

Ms Peake told the inquiry she didn’t brief Ms Mikakos as the issues identified had been addressed and by that time, control of the program was transitioning to the Justice Department.

Ms Mikakos said she was not aware of the final reports until the inquiry was told about them.

“In fact, it surprised me,” she said.

If you or anyone you know needs support call Lifeline on 131 114, or Beyond Blue’s coronavirus mental wellbeing support service on 1800 512 348.

Health Minister Jenny Mikakos is now more than 90 minutes into her appearance at the COVID-19 hotel quarantine inquiry.

Legal affairs reporter Tammy Mills and state political reporter Michael Fowler are bringing you minute-by-minute coverage. Here is their take on the Health Minister’s appearance so far:

Health Minister Jenny Mikakos at the hotel quarantine inquiry today.

Health Minister Jenny Mikakos at the hotel quarantine inquiry today.

Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos has admitted that the first time she knew that private security was being used to guard the state’s hotel quarantine detainees was when outbreaks occurred in mid-May in the Rydges on Swanston hotel almost two months after the program began.

In a testy exchange at Victoria’s hotel quarantine inquiry, Ms Mikakos said it was not until those cases among staff and security guards at the Rydges on Swanston that she turned her mind to the role security guards were playing in hotels.

The Health Minister also admitted that, even though the Department of Health and Human Services was the lead government agency on the hotels program, she was never consulted on how it was set up and was not involved in or consulted about the initial decisions that were made.

“As the Minister for Health … do you consider you should have been consulted on these things?” asked counsel assisting the inquiry, Ben Ihle.

“With the benefit of hindsight, it would have been desirable if I had been,” Ms Mikakos replied.

She becomes the third Andrews government minister after Police Minister Lisa Neville and Jobs Minister Martin Pakula who has admitted to being ignorant about key decisions made in their portfolios during this pandemic.

Read more here.

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