Victoria was offered soldiers for its hotel quarantine, an inquiry has heard, in evidence that contradicts Daniel Andrews’ claims.
The explosive revelation is contained in a series of emails and Defence Force documents released by the hotel quarantine inquiry on Tuesday.
The Premier has repeatedly maintained that ADF support was not on offer to provide security in hotels used to isolate returned overseas travellers.
Victoria instead used private security guards, with health protocol breaches responsible for the state’s deadly second wave of COVID-19.
The new documents show that on April 8, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Philip Gaetjens emailed Chris Eccles, the boss of Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet, about “the question of assistance with security”.
Mr Gaetjens referenced how the ADF assisted with security in New South Wales hotels and said: “I am sure the Commonwealth would be willing to assist Victoria in a similar way if you wanted to reconsider your operating model.”
Mr Eccles replied that afternoon and said: “Thanks Phil.”
Mr Andrews has been embroiled in a war of words with the federal government over the past month, having already rejected evidence provided by the Defence Force about their offers of support.
SOLDIERS SOUGHT AFTER ‘LIST OF ISSUES’ WITH SECURITY GUARDS
Victoria’s emergency management commissioner Andrew Crisp says he was tasked to seek 850 soldiers for hotel quarantine after being given a “list of issues” involving private security guarding the hotels.
However, Ms Crisp says he was later directed to rescind the request because other options, including using police and protective services officers, were being explored.
Mr Crisp told the inquiry the Department of Health and Human Services secretary pointed to a list of issues with private security guarding travellers in quarantine hotels, during a meeting in late June, to justify looking for another workforce.
“It was about exploring whether ADF at that time could take a role at the hotels,” he said.
“I asked the deputy secretary how many. I was given the number of 850.”
Mr Crisp said the request for soldiers was rescinded after a conversation with the department justice secretary, who had been exploring other options with the health department.
PROBLEMS WITH GUARDS REVEALED EARLY ON
Mr Crisp learned as early as March 30 there were “challenges” with security staff working in hotel quarantine.
A meeting of the hotel quarantine co-ordination team on March 30, involving the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, advised there were issues with private security, Mr Crisp says in his statement to the inquiry.
A Victoria Police representative also advised there were “challenges”.
A further meeting on April 4 noted reports hotel security staff were not following good social distancing practices and breaching physical distancing and infection control practices, Mr Crisp says.
One security guard at the Stamford Hotel turned up to work with symptoms, according to a meeting of the state control team on June 22.
The Australian Defence Force was involved in the initial planning of the hotel quarantine program.
But Mr Crisp told a teleconference on March 27, two days before international travellers were due to arrive, that he did not see a need for “boots on the ground”.
He told the inquiry he first learnt a hotel quarantine program would be created at a meeting about 1.30pm on March 27, with Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville, before it was formally announced by the Prime Minister.
By the time he attended a teleconference about 4.30pm that afternoon, he said he understood a decision to use private guards was already made by the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions.
Corrections Victoria took over security for the hotel quarantine program in July.
SHARED RESPONSIBILITY, NOT JUST ONE PERSON IN CONTROL
Mr Crisp says no one person should be in charge of the pandemic response.
“I know everyone wants to see one person that’s accountable,” he told the inquiry on Tuesday.
“There should always be the lead agency, but I think we need to move away from thinking it’s all about a single state controller and that person has to be responsible for everything.
“As we have seen in more recent times, it could be a completely different mechanism.”
He said while the Department of Health and Human services continues to be the control agency for the COVID-19 response, other parts of the operation, such as responsibility for hotel quarantine, was transferred to the justice department.
JUST 36 HOURS TO CREATE HOTEL QUARANTINE PROGRAM
Mr Crisp says there was “pressure” on the states as decisions were made on a national level affecting Victoria’s arrangements to tackle COVID-19.
He said the hotel quarantine program, Operation Soteria, was one example, as it had to be established within 36 hours.
“There was a need for national co-ordination around this and decisions were being made at a national level that were impacting on us. So it was quite reasonable that be co-ordinated through the National Cabinet,” he said.
“However, at times it did create some pressure on some of the operational activities within the state, with Soteria and the quarantine program being an example where it had to be established within basically 36 hours.
“But not to suggest … for one minute that it wasn’t the right thing to do for the country as a whole at that point in time.”
Camera IconEmergency management commissioner Andrew Crisp at the inquiry. Credit: Supplied
POLICE ‘ABSOLUTELY’ AGREED TO PRIVATE GUARDS
Victoria Police “absolutely” wanted private security to guard travellers in hotel quarantine, the inquiry has been told.
Emergency management commissioner Andrew Crisp said then chief commissioner Graham Ashton told him via text message on March 27 that private security was the preferred option.
The notion was echoed by Assistant Commissioner Mick Grainger, during a meeting with Mr Crisp and other government representatives that day.
“Absolutely, that’s our preference,” Mr Grainger told Mr Crisp at the meeting, the inquiry heard.
Mr Crisp said he understood a decision to use private guards was already made by the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions before the 4.30pm teleconference.
“I believe DJPR had been tasked by the Department of Premier and Cabinet and had already made arrangements of private security,” he said.
He rejected suggestions by Julie Condon QC, representing the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, that he had given the task of contracting the private security to the department’s Claire Febey at the meeting.
Camera IconCounsel assisting the inquiry Rachel Ellyard. Credit: Supplied
Mr Crisp said he did not believe he had the legal power to compel police to be involved in the program.
He added he thought guards would do a good job.
“I thought they would have been a suitable and appropriate workforce to use at the hotels,” he said.
He “definitely” would have raised it if he thought private guards would not be suitable as the first line of security.
“My thinking was well trained, well supervised private security in this role would’ve been efficient and effective,” Mr Crisp said.
Counsel assisting Rachel Ellyard asked Mr Crisp what would have happened if police requested they be chosen to guard the hotels.
“If police said ‘no, we think we should be there’, would that have carried the day?” Ms Ellyard asked.
“No, if the offer had have been made, there’d have been further discussion about what that looked like,” Mr Crisp responded.
Camera IconStamford Plaza in Melbourne CBD. Credit: News Corp Australia, Wayne Taylor
INQUIRY TO PROBE USE OF PRIVATE SECURITY
Why private guards were used as security at Victorian quarantine hotels is expected to come under the microscope at Tuesday’s hotel inquiry.
The inquiry will open with an examination of Victorian emergency management commissioner Andrew Crisp as the board attempts to unravel the decision to use private guards instead of police or the defence force.
The use of private guards has been a controversial issue, as coronavirus outbreaks at Melbourne’s Rydges on Swanston and Stamford Plaza Hotel, where returned travellers were being quarantined, led to 99 per cent of Victoria’s second wave of coronavirus.
The inquiry has heard of numerous examples of guards breaching infection prevention control and social distancing requirements.
Chris Eagle, from Forest Fire Management Victoria, will also give evidence before retired judge Jennifer Coate.
Former emergency management commissioner Craig Lapsley will no longer appear on Tuesday, but his witness statement will be tendered to the inquiry.
The inquiry continues.