News Experts front day one of Victorian hotel quarantine inquiry

Experts front day one of Victorian hotel quarantine inquiry

Senior counsel assisting Tony Neal QC said the hiring private security contractors was an ‘issue for this inquiry’. Photo: AAP/Scott Barbour
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Victoria’s COVID-19 hotel quarantine program was hastily established, with multiple departments tasked with overlapping roles, it has been revealed.

Failures in the scheme are believed to be responsible for the state’s second wave of the deadly virus, which has cost hundreds of lives and led to the nation’s toughest lockdown.

Senior counsel assisting Tony Neal QC opened an inquiry into the scheme on Monday, outlining how the program was established just hours after a national cabinet decision on March 27.

Following a meeting at the State Control Centre at 4:30pm on March 27, the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions was tasked with finding hotels and hiring private security to oversee the program.

The Department of Health and Human Services and other government departments were also given responsibilities.

“The evidence you will hear in this inquiry will raise questions as to the clarity of the roles of those individual agencies,” Mr Neal said.

“From the beginning, it seems there were multiple and potentially overlapping areas of responsibility between the departments.

“Evidence will be called in due course about the roles that some departments envisaged playing … and how they differ from the roles that they actually played as the program commenced.”

It was also agreed at the meeting that the Australian Defence Force and Victoria Police would not have frontline roles.

“Rather, private security companies would be engaged to enforce quarantine requirements at the accommodation. Why that was so is an issue for this inquiry,” Mr Neal said.

In late May, when the virus first broke out of hotel quarantine, 19 people in Victoria had died from COVID-19.

The state’s death toll on Monday stands at 334.

International flights are being diverted away from Victoria while Corrections Victoria has taken over quarantine operations.

Mr Neal said it was important to find out what went wrong as the program will likely be required again in the future.

Meanwhile, an application by Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien to appear at the hearings was rejected by the inquiry head, retired judge Jennifer Coate.

Mr O’Brien had submitted he had a “direct or special interest” in the probe on behalf of coalition voters, and that his participation would “enable a different voice to be heard”.

In her ruling, dated August 12 but posted online on Monday, Justice Coate rejected Mr O’Brien’s arguments and defended the independence of her inquiry.

“The subject matter of this inquiry is of enormous significance to all of the people of Victoria. It will be conducted on behalf of all Victorians,” she wrote.

“It is at least implied by the applicant that without his involvement, the board will not (or will not appear to) bring appropriate ‘reasoned perspective’ or independence to its task. I do not accept this submission.”

Infectious diseases expert Professor Lindsay Grayson and Professor Ben Howden from the Doherty Institute will give evidence at the hearing on Monday.