After five hours—over two days of questioning at the Hotel Quarantine Inquiry—Victoria’s top public health official revealed that two key governments departments were behind the failures leading to a second wave of COVID-19 disease in the state.
For over two months the Hotel Quarantine Inquiry has been investigating the question of who decided to use private security guards instead of the Australian Defence Force, state or federal police to guard overseas returnees in quarantine.
Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Secretary Kym Peake, was cross-examined extensively on Sept. 22 and Sept. 23 revealed that as of COVID-19 globally, the Victorian quarantine programme was set up in haste and some aspects were not handled well.
“It is a matter of profound regret to me as the Secretary of Department of Health and Human Services, that we experienced a second wave in Victoria and all of the consequences that came with that,” Peak said during cross-examination.
“I know that my staff and the staff of DJPR (Department of Jobs Precincts and Regions) spent thousands and thousands of hundreds of hours, seeking to prevent that outcome. I know that there was enormous care, and diligence—it wasn’t perfect, but there was enormous care and diligence to continuously address risks as they arose.
Despite her recognition of these issues, Peake declined to admit to any failures in the department lead to shortcomings in the quarantine programme.
“And I am of the view that the control structures that were in place were appropriate, there are absolute lessons and improvements to take,” she said.
DHHS play a central role in Victoria’s COVID-19 response after the Emergency Crisis Council was formed around that department to implement focused operations for managing the outbreak giving the DHHS oversight over the program.
However, according to Peake, it doesn’t mean her department were accountable for each function with the operation.
Peake told the inquiry her earliest recollection of private security being involved with the quarantine programme was when the Melbourne, Rydges Hotel outbreak occurred in May.
“I am of the view that the operations plan was clear that security services would be the responsibility of DJPR,” she said.
Prior to Peake giving evidence, senior government ministers Martin Pakula the Minister for Jobs Precinct and Regions and Lisa Neville the Minister for Police Emergency Services had distanced themselves from Victoria’s botched hotel quarantine program, which led to the state’s devastating second coronavirus wave.
Pakula attested that his department had the responsibility of contracting hotels and security companies for the program, but it was clear the DHHS had overall responsibility.
“It would have been preferable for the agency which has overall responsibility to have the contractual management responsibility. I think that would have been better,” he said.
While giving evidence to the inquiry on Sept. 23, Neville said, “It was a health emergency. Therefore the control agency was DHHS.”
Virus cases in Victoria have dropped to a current 14-day average of 28.1, though still in strict stage four restrictions, some lockdown measures are due to ease Sept. 27.
Health Minister Jenny Mikakos and Premier Daniel Andrews are the final two people to be heard by the inquiry, on Thursday and Friday respectively.
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