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Multitude of bad decisions led to hotel quarantine failure, inquiry told

“This decision ended up employing thousands of people and costing tens of millions of dollars and as a matter of proper governance we ought to be able to say who is accountable for that decision. It ought to be able to be identified,” she said.

Ms Ellyard also said it was clear the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions did not have adequate oversight of security contractors in the quarantine program.

The Jobs Department placed more than half of the 20 hotels used in the program with a company that used almost entirely subcontracted guards.

Unified Security, she said, was the only one of the three contracted companies which were not on the government’s preferred panel of suppliers and the Jobs Department did not have active oversight of the company, though it was selected to oversee security at the Rydges on Swanston, a designated ‘hot hotel’ housing only COVID-19 positive returned travellers.

Ms Ellyard said it was open to the inquiry to find that: “DJPR didn’t have adequate oversight of subcontractors in the program.”

More than 30 security guards, including those subcontracted by Unified, caught COVID-19 while working in the Rydges on Swanston and the Stamford Plaza hotels before the virus spread into the community.

Ms Ellyard said it was also not appropriate that the state, through the Jobs Department, outsourced the responsibility of infection control and training in personal protective equipment to the security contractors themselves.

The Jobs Department had the expectation or intention, Ms Ellyard said, that the Health Department would provide on-the-ground training.

“DJPR did seek or raise questions about sufficiency or infection control, but they regarded themselves as the passive recipients of advice,” she said.

“Responsibility for managing the risk of infection and providing for the safety of those involved in the program should have remained with the state. No contract should have purported to outsource those matters.”

Ms Ellyard said Jobs Minister Martin Pakula told the inquiry it wasn’t common practice that he would be aware of contracts the government was entering into.

Ms Ellyard said the outsourcing of key aspects of the quarantine program “shouldn’t have happened without appropriate ministerial consultation or knowledge.”

Earlier, in his closing submission, counsel assisting the inquiry Tony Neal, QC, said authorities had a mere 36 hours to set up the program from scratch.

“The circumstances facing Victoria were anything but ordinary and an extraordinary ask was made of those who were tasked to develop the program,” he said.

“An enormous immediate, unenviable burden was placed on those in public service to establish not one but a succession of infection control facilities in buildings clearly not designed for quarantine purposes.”

Mr Neal said those who set up the program had done so with the best of intent and to the best of their ability. “Bad faith or corruption is not what the evidence shows,” he said.

Tony Neal, QC, speaking at the Victorian hotel quarantine inquiry.

Tony Neal, QC, speaking at the Victorian hotel quarantine inquiry.

“Yet it is true that the hastily assembled program failed at two locations within approximately 2½ months and with disastrous consequences.”

“A multitude of decisions, actions and inaction, many of which compounded the effect of the other, ultimately expressed itself in the outbreaks which subverted the very reason for the existence of a hotel quarantine program,” he said.

Ms Ellyard said that while those who had designed the quarantine program had tried their best, it had the wrong focus.

“It remained a program for keeping people detained in hotels rather than a health response,” she said. “Not withstanding the best efforts of many people, that focus [on health outcomes] was underdone.”

On Saturday Jenny Mikakos resigned as Victoria’s health minister after Premier Daniel Andrews had told the inquiry that he held her “accountable” for the ill-fated program that unleashed Victoria’s disastrous second coronavirus wave.

The inquiry has also heard that ordinary government procurement rules were not followed, with a security firm that had previously been rejected as an approved official supplier winning most of the work of guarding the hotels.

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The company, Unified Security, then relied almost entirely on subcontractors who used casual and part-timers to do the job.

The inquiry before Jennifer Coate will continue hearing closing submissions on Monday, the final day of the inquiry.

Ms Ellyard said the decision to use private security was likely made in the first hotel quarantine meeting in the state control centre at 4.30pm on March 27.

But it was made by no one. Instead, Ms Ellyard said, it was a creeping assumption that became a reality.

“By the end of that first state control centre meeting, the creeping consensus was everyone’s and while no one person made a decision, by the end of that state control centre meeting, it was understood by all present that that was what was going to happen,” she said.

In that meeting, Victoria Police said it preferred private security be used, and not its officers.

Though then chief commissioner Graham Ashton denied in the inquiry he had any view about whether or not private security was used and denied he made any recommendation, Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp relayed to the senior officer in that meeting that Mr Ashton had “made it clear … that private security is the first security option”.

The inquiry also heard that Mr Ashton may have “misremembered” some of the sequence of events on that day.

“But what can be said is that the nature of that private security role as being the frontline role, that consensus was influenced and strongly influenced, we would say, by everyone at that meeting understanding what Victoria Police’s preference was,” Ms Ellyard said. “Their preference became the outcome.”

Ms Ellyard said if the decision was made in that meeting, no one knew they were making it and no one wanted to own it.

“It was a creeping assumption that became the reality. And the absence of clarity, certainty and active engagement with that question on whether it was appropriate or not has to be understood as a failure of decision-making,” she said.

With no one decision-maker, Ms Ellyard said no one then oversaw private security when they were working in the hotels. This led to no oversight of infection control, no training and no continued supervision from those running hotel quarantine.

There was no doubt the companies were selected by the Jobs Department and contracts were signed-off by Jobs Department secretary Simon Phemister, Ms Ellyard said. The crucial question was who decided to engage private security and the “question is quite astonishingly still unable to be answered in any direct way”.

Ms Ellyard said: “As the Hotel Quarantine Program developed and the roles allocated to private security evolved, no one turned their mind to whether they remained a suitable workforce because no one understood themselves to have made the decision about their use in the first play. So that is where this decision becomes crucial and the absence of an owner of the decision turns out to be so potentially dangerous to the success of this program.”

The inquiry, announced by Mr Andrews in July, over 25 days of hearings heard from 63 witnesses – from those detained in hotel quarantine to those who designed it, delivered it on the ground, and those who held the highest offices in the state, including Mr Andrews himself. More than 290,000 pages of documents have been produced.

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