Victoria’s botched hotel quarantine program has claimed another casualty, with the head of Premier Daniel Andrews’ office quitting abruptly on Monday.
Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles, the state’s top public servant, resigned after phone records revealed he spoke to the head of police as the state’s disastrous hotel quarantine program was set up.
In a statement on Monday, Mr Eccles – who had been considered Mr Andrews’ right-hand man – confirmed his resignation was effective immediately.
Earlier, the judicial inquiry into Victoria’s hotel quarantine heard Mr Eccles was involved in setting up the program on March 27.
In texts from that day, former Victoria Police chief commissioner Graham Ashton described the appointment of private security as a “deal set up” by Mr Eccles’ department
Mr Eccles revealed he spoke to Mr Ashton at 1.17pm on March 27.
“The telephone records do not in any way demonstrate that I, or indeed anyone else in DPC made a decision that private security be used in the hotel quarantine program,” he said in a statement.
“I am absolutely certain I did not convey to Mr Ashton any decision regarding the use of private security as I was unaware any such decision had been made, and I most certainly had not made such a decision myself.”
The decision to use private security guards in the program is believed to be responsible for the state’s second devastating wave of coronavirus, which has killed hundreds of people and led to the nation’s toughest lockdown.
Health Minister Jenny Mikakos resigned in September over her role in the program.
Monday’s shock resignation came on a bleak day for Melburnians, with Victoria confirming 15 more coronavirus case – a fifth day of double-digit increases.
There was also a slight rise in the city’s key 14-day average of new infections. That figure – which is meant to fall to below five by next weekend to allow virus rules to be wound back – climbed back up to 9.9.
Another key benchmark, the city’s number of mystery cases in the past fortnight, has also risen. It is up one to 11.
Earlier, federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has turned up the pressure on Mr Andrews, urging him to “give people back their freedom” as hopes were dashed of Melbourne taking big steps out of lockdown.
Mr Frydenberg said “enough is enough”, demanding more relief for Victorians struggling with lockdown fatigue.
“My message to Daniel Andrews is to get on with it,” Mr Frydenberg told Nine’s Today on Monday.
“Stop stringing people along and give them an opportunity to get about their daily normal lives in a COVID-safe way.”
Mr Andrews, who will give more details at a briefing later on Monday, has already acknowledged that Melbourne will not be ready to take a “full step” on its path to reopening from October 19. But he has hinted that restrictions on outdoor activities are likely to be relaxed.
“It will be the stuff that people are really missing,” he said.
He also indicated businesses in regional Victoria were more likely to see relief than those in Melbourne.
The 14-day average of new cases in regional Victoria is just 0.4, and it has no mystery cases in the time period.
There was some relief for Victorian families on Monday, with nearly 600,000 students in primary school and years seven, 11 and 12 heading back to the classroom for the first time since June.
Mr Frydenberg praised the move, but urged the Premier to do more to help small businesses.
“They have lost months of school. You can’t replace the experience in the classroom with the experience in the living room,” he said.
“It’s just heart-breaking. Not to mention all the small businesses that are losing their livelihoods.”
Elsewhere, a Victorian restauranteur was to file action against the state government in the High Court on Monday, arguing the constitutional legality of its “aggressive and heavy-handed” coronavirus lockdown measures.
Lawyers for Julian Gerner, who owns a restaurant and bar in Sorrento, on the Mornington Peninsula, will seek an expedited hearing.
Mr Frydenberg, who has been a repeated critic of Victoria’s lockdown during its second wave of the virus, said people had been in lockdown for long enough.
“It’s up to Daniel Andrews to give people back their freedom,” he said.
“He needs to budge. He needs to get on with it and give people back their lives in Victoria. Enough is enough.”
There were no new COVID fatalities on Monday. Victoria’s toll has risen by only one since last Thursday, and remains at 810. Across Australia, the pandemic has claimed 896 lives.