Former health minister Jenny Mikakos
Jenny Mikakos, who resigned as Victoria’s health minister last month, has taken a parting shot at the Premier in her final submission, saying his evidence to the inquiry should be “treated with caution”.
She says it is “nonsense” for her, or her department, to be held solely accountable for the failures in the hotel quarantine program. If she was unaware of many critical decisions, that was due to no fault on her part, she says.
It would be a nonsense … for the DHHS, and through it, Ms Mikakos, to be considered to be solely responsible and solely accountable for the hotel quarantine program.
Jenny Mikakos’ final submission
The former minister says the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, as well as Jobs Minister Martin Pakula, should be held “jointly responsible” for the bungled program.
She adds that it is “implausible” to believe that the decision to use private security was the result of a “creeping assumption” among top bureaucrats, rather than a considered choice at an elevated level of the state government.
Department of Health and Human Services
Victoria’s Health Department says it is “impossible to link” the state’s disastrous second wave of COVID-19 with the outbreak at the Rydges on Swanston quarantine hotel.
The DHHS also uses its final submission to claim the hotel program was not as bad as it has been portrayed with 20,000 people passing through the system, most of them without difficulty.
The department says it was Victoria Police, with its regulatory oversight role for the security industry, that should have flagged risks involved with putting a lightly trained, largely casualised workforce, in such a vital role.
But its claim that the link between Rydges and the “downstream” effects of the second wave was not proven is likely to be the most controversial aspect of the department’s 85-page submission.
“It is impossible to link the downstream impacts of COVID-19 to a specific transmission event in the Rydges hotel, given the wide range of other factors and circumstances involved, the lack of definitive evidence about the nature of the transmission event, and the capricious and unpredictable nature of the virus,” the submission reads.
It is worth noting that genomic sequencing carried out by Melbourne’s Doherty Institute and presented to the inquiry shows that more than 99 per cent all of Victoria’s second-wave COVID-19 cases can be traced back to quarantine breaches at the Rydges on Swanston and Stamford Plaza hotels.
In its submission, Victoria Police backs former health minister Jenny Mikakos’ assertion that the decision to use private security in hotel quarantine was made soon after a National Cabinet meeting on March 27.
The crucial decision was “undoubtedly made” before a State Control Centre meeting was held that afternoon at 4.30pm, the force says.
It was “unaided by any view (however expressed)” by police at that meeting.
Following the National Cabinet meeting, then-police chief commissioner Graham Ashton sent a text message to Victoria’s top public servant, Chris Eccles, saying he was “getting word from Canberra” that returned travellers would be “guarded by police for 14 days”.
Six minutes later, Mr Ashton texted his federal police counterpart, saying “our DPC [Department of Premier and Cabinet]” had set up a deal for private security.
Victoria Police maintains “someone had given information” to Mr Ashton in the six-minute window, although he cannot remember who.
You can read more about the ‘missing six minutes’ here.
Mr Ashton has obtained his phone records, but they only include incoming calls from other Victoria Police executives. The force claims the Telecommunication Act bars it from accessing Mr Ashton’s other incoming call records.
The force points to phone calls made between Victoria’s top bureaucrats following the National Cabinet meeting.
Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles called Jobs Department boss Simon Phemister to start setting up the program. Notes of conversations Mr Phemister had with department executives afterwards reveal security was potentially part of the plan.
Victoria Police says this shows the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions was “proceeding to make plans with respect to security without contacting or seeking input from Victoria Police”.
Department of Premier and Cabinet and Secretary Chris Eccles
Victoria’s top public servant is prepared for an adverse finding from the inquiry, but only for one small aspect of his role in the scandal.
Chris Eccles, Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, concedes it is open to the inquiry to find that he should have passed on an offer of military assistance for security at the hotels to Premier Daniel Andrews.
But in his department’s final submission to the board, Mr Eccles’ lawyers argue that the senior public servant had little, if anything, to do with the decision to hire private security guards.
The department’s legal team goes on to argue that it is not open to the inquiry to accept submissions from its assisting lawyer that the “attitude” of Mr Eccles and two other senior government officials “to transparency and accountability” contributed to the failure of the program.
The lawyers say the accusation, which was also levelled against Health Department boss Kym Peake and Jobs Department secretary Simon Phemister, is “vague, imprecise and uncertain” and raises issues of natural justice and procedural fairness.
Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions
Victoria’s Job Departments says there “never was, in fact, any confusion” that the Department of Health and Human Services was accountable for the hotel quarantine program.
More specifically, the Health Department was responsible for infection control, it says.
The department says its staff raised “multiple and repeated” issues with cleaning in the hotels and experienced difficulties in getting infection control information from their health counterparts to hotel staff and contractors on the ground.
But the department concedes it should have done more to scrutinise the extent to which companies were subcontracting security work in the quarantine hotels.
It maintains it “did not have any role” in the decision to use guards in the first place.
The department says a Victoria Police preference to use private security guards was a “substantial contributing factor” to the “creeping assumption” that developed on the day the program was established.
The Jobs Department was responsible for hiring three security companies: Unified Security, Wilson and MSS.
Unified was awarded the majority of work at the hotels, even though it was not on the government’s preferred panel of suppliers, and the vast majority of its guards were hired through subcontracting.
Tammy Mills is the legal affairs reporter for The Age.
Noel Towell is State Political Editor for The Age