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    The three public servants who could take blame for Victoria’s quarantine bungle

    How three of Daniel Andrews’ most trusted colleagues are set to take the blame for hotel quarantine bungle – as embattled premier faces revolt and report claims Australia’s coronavirus strategy will cost $319billion

    • Inquiry into Victoria’s bungled hotel quarantine scheme finished on Monday
    • In their closing submissions lawyers mentioned three top public servants  
    • They should have kept ministers better informed about problems, inquiry heard  

    Three top public servants came under fire on the final day of the inquiry into Victoria’s catastrophic hotel quarantine program.

    Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles, Department of Health and Human Services secretary Kym Peake and Department of Jobs secretary Simon Phemister should have kept ministers better informed about problems, the inquiry heard.

    Counsel assisting Ben Ihle said Mr Eccles should have told Premier Daniel Andrews the federal government had offered ADF troops to man the scheme.

    Department of Jobs secretary Simon Phemister (pictured) was mentioned on the final day of the hotel inquiry

    Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles is pictured facing the inquiry in Melbourne

    Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles is pictured facing the inquiry in Melbourne

    On April 8, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Philip Gaetjens emailed his Victorian counterpart Chris Eccles to again offer ADF assistance. Mr Eccles replied: 'Thanks Phil' - but no request for help was made

    On April 8, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Philip Gaetjens emailed his Victorian counterpart Chris Eccles to again offer ADF assistance. Mr Eccles replied: ‘Thanks Phil’ – but no request for help was made

    On April 8, Mr Eccles got an email from the Prime Minster’s office offering troops. He replied saying ‘thanks’ but Mr Ihle said there was no evidence he told the premier. 

    Counsel assisting Rachel Ellyard said: ‘We do invite you to find that the offers of assistance made or available to be made to Victoria by the ADF should have been raised with the Premier, thinking particularly about the apparent availability of inclined personnel in early April.’

    Ms Peake was mentioned for not briefing former health minister Jenny Mikakos about various health concerns.

    One was an email from Public Health Commander Finn Romanes about a ‘risk to the health and safety of detainees’.

    Ms Peake previously told the inquiry she did not tell Ms Mikakos because ‘I was satisfied that the issues that had been raised had been addressed.’ 

    Health Secretary Kym Peake (pictured) was mentioned for not briefing former health minister Jenny Mikakos about various health concerns

    Health Secretary Kym Peake (pictured) was mentioned for not briefing former health minister Jenny Mikakos about various health concerns

    The final day of the inquiry came after former health minister Jenny Mikakos (pictured) resigned

    The final day of the inquiry came after former health minister Jenny Mikakos (pictured) resigned

    Pictured: A traveller returned from overseas is checked into an inner-city hotel in Melbourne on March 30. Lawyers at the inquiry said the program failed to meet its primary objective

    Pictured: A traveller returned from overseas is checked into an inner-city hotel in Melbourne on March 30. Lawyers at the inquiry said the program failed to meet its primary objective

    The other issues were a suspected suicide and delay in transferring a sick detainee who was later admitted to intensive care.

    Ms Peake referred the cases to healthcare quality body Safer Care Victoria but did not brief the minister on the outcomes of the reports because ‘they had been addressed,’ she said. 

    Mr Ihle on Monday said this was ‘the deliberate and conscious decision to not inform the minister of an issue which is of significance falling within the minister’s portfolio’. 

    Mr Phemister was mentioned after the inquiry heard that security companies were made responsible for making sure guards had infection control training. 

    Ms Ellyard said Mr Phemister should have consulted Jobs Minsiter Martin Pakula about this before the contracts were signed.

    ‘It shouldn’t have happened without appropriate ministerial consultation and knowledge, it shouldn’t have happened without appropriate consideration at the highest levels of the department,’ she said.

    Mr Phemister previously told the inquiry he did not brief Mr Pakula because he did not have a detailed level of knowledge of the contracts. 

    Mr Pakula said ministers were not normally consulted on contracts. 

    Overseas travellers arrive at the Crown Promenade Hotel in Melbourne on March 29

    Overseas travellers arrive at the Crown Promenade Hotel in Melbourne on March 29

    Report: Lockdowns to  cost nation $319billion 

    A report by free market think tank The Institute of Public Affairs claims Australia has ended up pursuing a coronavirus elimination strategy which will cost $319billion between 2020 and 2022. 

    That figure, equivalent to 23 per cent of GDP, is same as the cost of defence, education, health, and social security and welfare combined in one year.

    The report says that a ‘medical capacity’ strategy to reduce Covid-19 infections so that hospitals do not get overwhelmed – rather than eliminate community transmission – would cost only $93.8billion. 

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    The final day of the inquiry came after former health minister Jenny Mikakos resigned.

    Mr Andrews reportedly faced a backlash from some of his own Labor MPs after he told the inquiry on Friday that Ms Mikakos was ‘accountable’ for hotel quarantine. 

    ‘It has put a lot of people on edge,’ an anonymous minister told The Herald Sun. 

    ‘He is a tyrant. He is a dictator with a capital D.I.C.K,’ another said.

    ‘He doesn’t care about anybody but himself… I don’t like the way she was treated.’

    When asked about Ms Mikakos on Sunday, Mr Andrews said he had not contacted the former minister since her resignation.

    ‘No one is happy to see someone who is an incredibly hard working member of the team go, but if you make a decision that you can’t serve in the cabinet then you can’t serve in the cabinet,’ he said. 

    Meanwhile, a report by free market think tank The Institute of Public Affairs claims Australia has ended up pursuing a coronavirus elimination strategy which will cost $319billion between 2020 and 2022. 

    That figure, equivalent to 23 per cent of GDP, is same as the cost of defence, education, health, and social security and welfare combined in one year.

    The report says that a ‘medical capacity’ strategy to reduce Covid-19 infections so that hospitals do not get overwhelmed – rather than eliminate community transmission – would cost only $93.8billion. 

    Officially National Cabinet policy is to purse an ‘aggressive suppression strategy’. But IPA researchers say this has amounted to elimination because the goal is no community transmission.  

    ‘Eliminating COVID-19 means eliminating jobs, freedom, and hope,’ said Daniel Wild, Director of Research at the IPA and co-author of the report.

    Asher Judah, IPA Associate and co-author. said: ‘Governments must adopt an approach that recognises that we must learn to live with the virus.

    ‘Lockdowns… impose significant social, cultural, and economic costs.

    ‘Governments should put in place measures to protect the elderly and vulnerable, implement high quality contact tracing, continue with random community testing, and maintain international border control measures. 

    ‘Otherwise, economic, social, and recreational life should return to normal, with social distancing observed as needed.’ 

    Suggested findings for Victorian quarantine hotels inquiry 

    Lawyers Tony Neal QC, Rachel Ellyard and Ben Ihle submitted their suggested findings to Victoria’s hotel quarantine inquiry on Monday. They are as follows:

    GOVERNMENT HAD NO PLAN

    * Public servants were given just 36 hours to set up the program.

    * There was no suggestion those who set up the program worked other than with ‘the best of intentions and to the best of their ability’.

    * ‘Bad faith or corruption is not what the evidence shows.’

    Calls are growing for Daniel Andrews (pictured) to resign after an inquiry heard the state’s hotel quarantine disaster caused 768 deaths

    DHHS WAS IN CONTROL

    * The Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions played a substantial role but the Department of Health and Human Services was the control agency responsible for the program.

    BRETT SUTTON SHOULD’VE BEEN IN CHARGE

    * It was wrong to appoint people without public health expertise as the state controllers of the pandemic in February as it ‘influenced the way in which DHHS subsequently understood and acted on its responsibilities’.

    * ‘Had the chief health officer or another person with public health expertise been appointed state controller … they would have had direct oversight of the hotel quarantine program and been able to directly influence the model of that program.’

    NO ONE PERSON MADE THE DECISION TO USE SECURITY GUARDS

    * ‘It can be best understood … as a creeping assumption or default consensus reached in the state control centre after the preference of Victoria Police was known.’

    POLICE HAD PREFERENCE FOR GUARDS

    * ‘It was not Victoria Police’s decision, but Victoria Police’s clear position that security would be preferable was a substantial contributing factor to the consensus.’

    PREMIER SHOULD HAVE BEEN TOLD ABOUT ADF OFFER

    * Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles should have told Premier Daniel Andrews his federal counterpart had offered Australian Defence Force support in an April 8 email exchange.

    * But the initial decision not to have ADF boots on the ground was ‘reasonable and open – and no criticism should be directed to those who made those operational decisions’.

    CONTRACTS WERE INAPPROPRIATE

    * ‘There was insufficient supervision of those contracts to ensure compliance with the contractual terms, including as to subcontracting.’

    * ‘The contracts with hotels and security companies should not have placed responsibility for PPE and infection control education on those contractors.’

    HOTEL QUARANTINE RESPONSIBLE FOR SECOND WAVE

    * Ninety per cent of second wave COVID-19 cases are attributable to the Rydges on Swanston outbreak in mid-May. Just under 10 per cent were attributable to the outbreak at the Stamford Hotel in mid-June.

    * ‘The hotel quarantine program in Victoria failed to achieve its primary objective. The program that was intended to contain the disease was instead a seeding ground for the spread of COVID-19 into the broader community.’

    * ‘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.’

    PEOPLE IN QUARANTINE NOT LOOKED AFTER

    * ‘The program did not always operate so as to meet the needs of those who were detained, in particular, those who had specific needs or vulnerabilities.’

    * ‘Very early on, better consideration ought to have been given to the likely psychosocial impact of detention and expert advice should have been sought.’

    * ‘Exemptions could and likely should have been granted in more situations.’

    LACK OF TRANSPARENCY

    * ‘There were significant issues which should have been brought to the respective ministers’ attention. The departmental secretaries were obliged to ensure that they discharged those obligations.’

    * ‘They likely contributed to a loss in opportunities to identify and address issues which may have prompted better, fuller and more timely action.’

    The submissions may form the recommendations of the inquiry’s chair, retired judge Jennifer Coate. She is due to deliver her final report to Victorian Governor Linda Dessau by November 6.

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    On Monday Victorian Opposition leader Michael O’Brien said Victoria’s quarantine operation was ‘the worst failure of public administration in Victorian history’. 

    He added: ‘If accountability for the deaths and damage is to mean anything, all those responsible must go – starting with Andrews.’

    On Monday afternoon the final day of Victoria’s hotel quarantine inquiry heard the program’s failure was responsible for the deaths of all 768 residents who have died in the state’s second wave. 

    Mr Ihle said protective gear was not used properly, staff were poorly trained and there was a lack of social distancing at the quarantine hotels. 

    He said the system was set up quickly and the government failed to monitor it.

    Opposition leader Michael O'Brien

    Opposition leader Michael O’Brien

    ‘What was established was necessarily untested and prudence dictated that the program should have been accompanied by intensive ongoing monitoring and auditing,’ he said.

    ‘The Victorian government failed to adequately ensure that this was done.’

    Former Health Minister Jenny Mikakos resigned on Saturday after Mr Andrews said she was ‘accountable’ for the quarantine program. 

    On Sunday Mr Andrews said he would not resign, telling reporters: ‘I don’t run from problems and challenges’. 

    Melbourne’s second wave of coronavirus was sparked in late May when the disease escaped from a quarantine hotel and rapidly spread around the city. 

    ‘The scientific evidence now strongly suggests, and we submit that the board can comfortably find, that 90 per cent of positive cases in Victoria since [26 May] are attributable to that initial outbreak at the Rydges in late May,’ Mr Ihle said.

    The Victorian government has been criticised for using private security guards to man the hotels instead of the police and ADF troops like in New South Wales and Queensland.

    Contracts written up by the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions left infection control and training in personal protective equipment use to the security companies.

    Hotels, meanwhile, were responsible for cleaning, unless a returned traveller tested positive to Covid-19.

    ‘Responsibility for managing the risk of infection and providing for the safety of those involved in the program should have remained with the state. No contract should have purported to outsource those matters,’ Ms Ellyard said.

    Counsel assisting Tony Neal QC said there was no suggestion those who set up the program worked other than with ‘the best of intentions and to the best of their ability’.

    ‘Bad faith or corruption is not what the evidence shows,’ he said.

    ‘Yet it is true that the hastily assembled program failed at two locations within approximately two and a half months and with disastrous consequences.

    ‘A multitude of decisions, actions and inaction, many of which compounded the effect of the other, ultimately expressed itself in the outbreaks which subverted the very reason for the existence of a hotel quarantine program. 

    Hotel quarantine: A timeline 

    * March 27 – National cabinet announces returned overseas travellers will have to complete 14 days of hotel quarantine. The Australia Defence Force prepares 100 personnel in each large state (and 50 in smaller states and territories) to ‘support expected quarantine compliance monitoring requests’. NSW and Queensland accept the support, Victoria decides to use private security guards. The decision is made at a 4:30pm meeting in Victoria’s state control centre.

    * March 28 – At another state control centre meeting, Emergency Management Victoria Commissioner Andrew Crisp says there is no need for ADF ‘boots on the ground’. Victoria’s hotel quarantine program, named Operation Soteria, launches at 11:59pm.

    * April 8 – Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Philip Gaetjens emails Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles to offer ADF assistance.

    * April 9 – Public Health Commander Finn Romanes writes to Department of Health and Human Services secretary warning of a ‘risk to the health and safety of detainees’ due to governance issues. Letter backed by Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton and his deputy Annaliese van Diemen.

    * April 11 – Man takes own life while in quarantine at Pan Pacific hotel.

    * May 15 – A family of four with COVID-19 are moved to the Rydges on Swanston hotel, a ‘hot’ hotel.

    * May 25 – A staff member at the Rydges on Swanston tests positive to COVID-19. Two others develop symptoms.

    * May 27 – Rydges on Swanston outbreak first identified by the DHHS. It will grow to 17 people who have either worked at the hotel, or are household members or social contacts.

    * June 1 – Stage-three restrictions eased.

    * June 14 – Staff member at Stamford Plaza tests positive to COVID-19.

    * June 17 – Stamford Plaza outbreak identified by DHHS. The cluster will grow to 46 people.

    * June 21 – Further easing of restrictions.

    * June 24 – Mr Crisp requests 850 ADF personnel to replace private security at hotels. Request rescinded a day later as the Department of Justice and Community Safety takes over the program.

    * June 26 – It’s revealed 30 per cent of travellers in hotel quarantine are refusing tests.

    * June 29 – Hot-spot Melbourne suburbs return to lockdown and international flights diverted.

    * June 30 – Premier Daniel Andrews announces an inquiry into the hotel quarantine program after genomic sequencing revealed a number of COVID-19 cases can be linked to ‘staff members in hotel quarantine breaching well-known and well-understood infection control protocols’.

    * July 4 – Hard lockdown announced at short notice for nine public housing towers. State records 108 new cases – its first day above 100 since late March.

    * July 4, July 6, July 11 – As Victorian cases escalate, Prime Minister Scott Morrison writes to Mr Andrews three times offering ADF support.

    * July 6 – The Victoria-NSW border shuts for first time in century.

    * July 8 – Melbourne and Mitchell Shire go into stage-three lockdown for six weeks.

    * July 20 – Hotel Quarantine Inquiry begins.

    * August 2 – Victoria records 671 cases and seven deaths. State of disaster declared, stage four restrictions imposed.

    * August 5 – Stage four restrictions delay inquiry’s public hearings by two weeks. State records 725 new cases and 15 deaths.

    * August 11 – Mr Andrews tells a parliamentary inquiry ADF support was not offered for hotel quarantine, sparking war of words with federal Defence Minister Linda Reynolds.

    * August 17 – Public hearings at inquiry begin.

    * August 18 – DHHS epidemiologist Charles Alpren tells inquiry 99 per cent of active cases in Victoria stem from Rydges and Stamford outbreaks.

    * September 6 – Stage four restrictions extended until October.

    * September 25 – Mr Andrews appears before inquiry, apologises for mistakes. The program is responsible for more than 18,000 COVID-19 infections and 750 deaths.

    * September 26 – Health Minister Jenny Mikakos resigns.

    * September 28 – Inquiry’s closing submissions. Final report due November 6.

    Source: AAP 

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