The ugly spat between the Victorian and federal government has escalated after a day of finger-pointing and obfuscation over whether army officers were offered to help in the state’s hotel quarantine program.
In a day of revelations on Wednesday, Victorian state officials again flatly denied the Commonwealth had offered the Australian Defence Force to help deal with returning overseas travellers.
The hotel quarantine inquiry also heard a state government department raised concerns about the private security guards who ended up running the program.
As Victoria logged its deadliest day of the pandemic with 21 fatalities recorded – the highest single-day toll of any state – its government officials are trying to get to the bottom of where it all went wrong.
With genomic sequencing tracing Victoria’s current outbreak back to bungles in hotel quarantine, Premier Daniel Andrews has been under intense pressure.
Much of the scrutiny has focused on why Victoria did not use ADF staff to help enforce the hotel arrangements, the only state to make that decision.
Reports have emerged of errors made by private guards, with claims of lax infection control and inappropriate contact with quarantined travellers.
“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,” he said on Tuesday.
Victoria Police was not brought in to assist at the hotels until July, well after genomic testing linked infection control breaches by security guards to the state’s second wave of coronavirus.
The second wave has killed hundreds and led to the nation’s toughest lockdown.
Hours after Premier Andrews fronted the inquiry on Tuesday and said ADF staff were never offered to guard the hotels, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds released a statement directly contradicting him, insisting ADF support was offered to Victoria “on multiple occasions”.
In a statement issued late on Tuesday, Emergency Management Victoria Commissioner Andrew Crisp said the ADF was involved in the initial planning of the hotel quarantine program on March 27 and 28, but that using personnel to staff the hotels was not part of the meeting.
“During these discussions, I did not seek nor did representatives of the ADF offer assistance as part of the hotel quarantine program,” he said.
On Wednesday, Mr Andrews again denied ADF support was offered.
“I don’t know the federal Defence Minister. I don’t deal with her. I deal with the Prime Minister,” said Mr Andrews at his daily COVID press conference.
Liberal MP Richard Riordan has called for Premier Andrews to return and give more evidence, but the final answer as to whether the Commonwealth did or did not offer ADF support is still elusive.
However, Jobs Minister Martin Pakula said his Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions had raised concerns about the private guards eventually hired.
“There were on a couple of occasions early in the program, entreaties from officers of my department, where it was our view that police should be on site at hotels,” Mr Pakula told the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee’s COVID-19 Inquiry on Wednesday.
“That was a recommendation made by DJPR (Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions) early in the process.”
Mr Pakula’s department had been told to bring on private security guards to monitor the returned travellers.
Secretary of that department, Simon Phemister, said the March 27 meeting did decide on using private security instead of police or army members.
However, Mr Phemister said he was not at the meeting, and that he didn’t know “what went into that decision-making process of the experts in the State Control Centre”.
“Those experts then commissioned my department to go forth and procure private security, which we activated immediately after the meeting,” he said.
Mr Pakula would not be drawn on which government minister was ultimately responsible for the program.
A separate $3 million inquiry into the hotel quarantine program, led by former Family Court judge Jennifer Coate, begins public hearings on August 17.