Victoria’s hotel quarantine scandal deepens
"Pivotal" details of Victoria's botched quarantine system have emerged as reports contradict claims from Premier Daniel Andrews that help from the Australian Defence Force was not on offer.
Mr Andrews has been accused of lying about whether there was ADF support available to supervise returned overseas travellers at the hotels, where lax controls are being blamed for the state's second wave of infections.
According to the Herald Sun, a team of 100 troops was in fact on standby to assist with the hotel quarantine on March 27, the day the program was locked in.
Defence records reportedly show the ADF had a standing offer available to Victoria to help with hotel quarantine, which authorities repeatedly said they did not need.
A Victoria Police plan for the program even specifically excluded the use of Defence Force personnel, the paper reported.
Adding to the picture are reports in The Age that ADF officials were sent to Victoria to help plan the emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic a week before the hotel quarantine program was approved by the National Cabinet.
The paper reports Chief of Defence Angus Campbell instructed his Victorian-based liaison team on March 27 to make up to 100 personnel available to respond to any requests from the state.
However, the next day, a liaison officer reported back that Victoria Police was "well advanced" in its planning and preparation for quarantine and "this plan does not presently include or require ADF involvement".
There were also no requests for assistance over the next two months, according to regular "situational reports" prepared by Defence's liaison team working inside the state's State Emergency Centre.
'I DON'T BELIEVE SUPPORT WAS ON OFFER'
On Wednesday, Mr Andrews hit back at questions about the state's hotel quarantine system and why he didn't get the ADF involved earlier. A reporter said it appeared the state was reluctant to ask for help.
"That's just not right," Mr Andrews said. "How it appears and the facts are not always the same thing.
"We've had hundreds and hundreds of ADF personnel in Victoria for more than two months.
"They've been here for a lengthy period of time. Some of them have been here from when I first requested help with the bushfires between Christmas and New Year.
"So I'd simply say to you - how this looks, I'm much less worried about that. In fact, I'm not concerned about that. What I'm concerned about is doing my job and driving these numbers down."
Mr Andrews also denied lying about the situation to Victorian Parliament's Public Accounts and Estimates Committee (PAEC), which is scrutinising the government's pandemic response.
"I don't believe ADF support was on offer," Mr Andrews told the hearing on Tuesday.
"It's been provided in limited circumstances in New South Wales, not to provide security as such but to provide transportation from the airport to hotels.
"I think it is fundamentally incorrect to assert that there was hundreds of ADF staff on offer and somehow someone said no. That's not, in my judgment, accurate."
This claim was contradicted by Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, who released a statement saying an application for 850 ADF personnel to assist with quarantining returning travellers was made on June 24 but Victoria withdrew the request the following day.
"ADF officials asked whether Victorian authorities required assistance with its mandatory quarantine system on multiple occasions," she said.
"No request for quarantine support was subsequently received from Victoria at that time."
She said ADF planning teams were established from March 21 in every state and territory to rapidly facilitate any requests for support.
On March 28, Victorian authorities advised that the state was not seeking ADF assistance with mandatory quarantine arrangements.
"On 12 April 2020, Victorian authorities reaffirmed to ADF officials that all quarantine compliance monitoring operations were within Victorian authorities' capacity."
Premier Andrews told reporters on Wednesday that the Defence Minister was "perfectly entitled" to issue a statement, noting that Emergency Management Commissioner for Victoria Andrew Crisp had also issued a statement that was "at odds" with her claims.
"For my purposes, that clears the matter up. I don't know the Federal Defence Minister. I don't deal with her. I deal with the Prime Minister.
"I do know Andrew Crisp. I think Victorians know Andrew Crisp as well. I direct you to the really clear statement that he's issued."
Commissioner Crisp's statement, released on Wednesday morning, confirmed ADF were involved in the initial planning of the hotel quarantine program, during meetings on March 27 and 28.
However, it noted: "During these discussions I did not seek nor did representatives of the ADF offer assistance as part of the hotel quarantine program".
"Subsequent communications with the ADF on the 12th and 15th of April did not relate to ADF assistance as part of the program."
'PIVOTAL' MEETING SEALED STATE'S FATE
Meanwhile the parliamentary inquiry into the Victorian Government's response to the coronavirus pandemic heard on Wednesday that the state's decision to use private security guards was made at a "pivotal" meeting on March 27, the day the program was announced, The Guardian reported.
The meeting was attended by officials from several state departments and chaired by Commissioner Crisp. However, The Australian reports no Andrews Government ministers or ministerial staff were present.
The Jobs Department emerged as the body responsible for signing up security firms for the hotel program but department secretary Simon Phemister said they only had a logistics role.
"We all put forward our views, deferred to the experts when it came to matters of security, when it came to matters of health protection and public health, and from that meeting an operational plan was struck," Mr Phemister said.
Victorian Jobs Minister Martin Pakula dismissed media reports that he was ultimately responsible for the program and said it was the responsibility of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to oversee infection control, including training the security guards.
Mr Pakula told the inquiry that early in the program's rollout, staff had asked for police to be brought in to monitor hotels. He said the department also raised issues around security to deputy state controller Chris Eagle.
Victorian Opposition Leader Michael O'Brien has called for Premier Andrews to resign over the state's hotel quarantine system.
"The Premier lied to Parliament. He lied to Victorians. We can't trust him. Time to go," Mr O'Brien tweeted.
But Mr Andrews said he was not interested in playing politics.
"I thought it was pretty obvious who was focused on the politics and who is focused on the community," he said.
Originally published as Victoria's hotel quarantine scandal deepens