Victoria may now have the “most rigourous” hotel quarantine system in the country, Health Minister Martin Foley says ahead of a final report on the original program that caused 800 deaths.
The long-awaited report from an inquiry into Victoria’s hotel quarantine system will be released on Monday after months of hearings heard from 63 witnesses and resulted in three high-profile resignations.
It’s hoped the report will shed light on who made the fatal decision to use private security guards in the program instead of police, after public servants and politicians passed the buck.
“Our hotel quarantine system is established now; perhaps the most rigorous in the country,” Mr Foley told ABC television on Monday.
“Victorians need to know they are safe, whether it be from the hotel quarantine risk or from the risks in Greater Sydney and the Central Coast.”
He noted Victoria’s new hotel quarantine program, which started on December 7, involved a dedicated agency responsible to one minister, had no private security guards and a “record number” of police officers.
“We know that Victorians went through a huge trauma with that second wave and we’ll have that report released very shortly,” Mr Foley said.
“We’ll wait to see what … the report says and we’ll give it the appropriate and really important consideration it deserves.”
Victoria’s second wave of coronavirus, which resulted in more than 18,000 new infections and 800 deaths, can be traced back to security guards poorly trained in infection control working at Melbourne’s Rydges and Stamford Plaza hotels.
But the mystery surrounding the bungle may linger after the inquiry hearings did little to clear up key questions.
Within minutes of a national cabinet meeting that discussed hotel quarantine, the then-Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton texted Victoria’s top public servant Chris Eccles to ask what role police would play, the inquiry heard.
Mr Ashton says he was told, perhaps by Mr Eccles, that the Australian Defence Force would be used to transfer passengers from the airport, while private security would be used in the hotels.
“That’s the deal set up by our DPC (Department of Premier and Cabinet,” Mr Ashton texted to his Australian Federal Police counterpart, according to phone records.
Phone records later provided to the inquiry established Mr Eccles spoke to Mr Ashton.
Mr Eccles resigned after the revelation, though he denied speaking to Mr Ashton about security.
Later, Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Mick Grainger told the state control centre the preference was that police not be used.
Lawyers assisting the inquiry argue there was no clear decision to engage private security guards.
“It was a starting assumption which, enforced by Victoria Police’s preference and in the absence of opposition, ultimately became the position,” they said.
The inquiry also laid bare the disharmony within the ranks of the Department of Health and Human Services, leading to the resignation of the department secretary Kym Peake and Health Minister Jenny Mikakos.
Counsel assisting described the relationship between the public health team and the initial hotel quarantine program as “at best poorly conceived and understood, and at worst dysfunctional and undermined by confusion and dissatisfaction”.
Retired judge Jennifer Coate will hand down the inquiry’s final report on Monday.