November 6 looms as the date when Victorians may finally receive some answers about the botched hotel quarantine scheme.
It’s the date when the inquiry head, Jennifer Coate AO, will deliver a final report detailing findings and recommendations to Victorian Governor Linda Dessau.
Usually, the governor passes the report to the premier, who then has 30 days in which to table the report in Parliament.
The board of inquiry was appointed on July 2 to examine aspects of the COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Program, including
- Decisions and actions of government agencies, hotel operators and private contractors
- Communication between government agencies, hotel operators and private contractors
- Contractual arrangements
- Information, guidance, training and equipment provided to staff in hotels
- Policies, protocols and procedures.
In a dramatic final day of submissions in Melbourne on Monday, the scheme was blamed for more than 760 deaths, and members of Daniel Andrews’ government were slammed for their “astonishing” claims to not know how key decisions were reached.
It comes as the Premier fended off questions for the third day about the shock resignation of health minister Jenny Mikakos, saying he never walked to talk about her departure “ever again”.
A conga line of state ministers told the inquiry in recent weeks they didn’t know who made the decision to retain private security staff to guard the hotels holding returned international travellers.
One after the other, senior politicians all the way up to Ms Mikakos and Mr Andrews said they weren’t sure how the arrangement came to be.
“That question is quite astonishingly still unable to be answered,” counsel assisting, Rachel Ellyard, told the inquiry on Monday.
Ms Ellyard told the inquiry the decision to use private security guards was like “a creeping assumption that became a reality” – one that might explain why nobody could put their hand up to say where the idea had started.
“While no one person made a decision, by the end of that state control centre meeting, it was understood by all present that that was what was going to happen,” she said in her closing submission, summing up a meeting on March 27 between government authorities.
Ms Ellyard noted texts from Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp, where he said Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton had “made it clear … that private security is the first security option at hotels and not police”.
She claimed no one in the meeting gave “any specific consideration” to the suitability of private security.
Hotels a virus ‘seeding ground’
Inquiry lawyer Ben Ihle was even more scathing, laying blame for the state’s second wave directly at the feet of the quarantine stuff-ups.
“The program that was intended to contain the disease was instead a seeding ground for the spread of COVID-19 into the community,” Mr Ihle said.
“The failure by the hotel quarantine program to contain this virus is, as at today’s date, responsible for the deaths of 768 people and the infection of some 18,418 others.”
The hotel inquiry, having heard final submissions, is now due to report back by November 6.
Mr Andrews told his daily press conference in Melbourne that he would “expect” to make the findings public on the day the report is handed to government.
“[The inquiry] will make findings. I don’t know what those findings will say. But we all just have to wait and see,” he said.
“We might want to look at them for a short period of time and then have a response, announce it together. Given the public interest in this matter, I think you will find that our response to this will be quick.”
Mr Andrews was also forced to fact-check a tweet from the former health minister, who claimed Victoria was targeting “eradication” of COVID-19.
The Premier said that was not his government’s strategy, instead pushing for the national cabinet’s stated goal of suppression.
The state’s health minister, Ms Mikakos, is already gone – having resigned just a day after Mr Andrews told the inquiry that he thought her department responsible for the hotel quarantine program.
It’s unclear whether more resignations or departures will come from the state government, considering no minister took responsibility for other parts of the scheme.
Jenny Mikakos resigns. 7 to go including the Premier. Go now and go quickly
— Jeff Kennett (@jeff_kennett) September 26, 2020
Former Victorian Liberal premier Jeff Kennett called for the rest of the government’s “gang of eight” of senior ministers to fall on their swords.
But it’s yet to be seen how damning the final inquiry report will be.
The assessments of senior legal minds involved in the inquiry has varied.
Ms Ellyard said quarantine responsibility “should have remained with the state”, and that “no contract should have purported to outsource those matters”.
However, another counsel assisting, Tony Neal QC, said those involved worked with “the best of intentions and to the best of their ability”.
“Bad faith or corruption is not what the evidence shows,” he told the inquiry, saying a “multitude” of actions and decisions led to the breakdown of the system.
With Ms Mikakos’ departure, the inquiry itself wrapping up, and Victoria recording its first day of single-digit case numbers since June, Mr Andrews may now be in for a brief period of relative calm.
However, upon the report’s tabling some time in early November, he will again be pressured to give answers to the tough questions that none in his government have yet been able to deliver.