In an extraordinary sitting of the inquiry on Aug 5, Justice Jennifer Coate confirmed public hearings will begin on August 17, rather than on Thursday as scheduled.
The inquiry’s reporting date has also been pushed back by six weeks, from September 25 to November 6, due to delays in receiving documents.
“This inquiry of such magnitude and importance must not suffer through being rushed by a less than thorough process,” Justice Coate said, noting some 106,000 documents have been received by the inquiry.
“I am acutely aware, as are those assisting me, of the community’s need to have as thorough an understanding of what has happened in the hotel quarantine program and the ramifications.
“I acknowledge this extra time for reporting will cause frustration and distress to many.”
Justice Coate said the state’s move to stage four coronavirus restrictions meant she would be putting the safety of her colleagues in danger if the inquiry was to go ahead in person.
“I can not prioritise proceeding tomorrow in the way intended over the safety of the staff and counsel that would have to be physically present,” she said.
The inquiry will be moving to an entirely online format from August 17, with infectious diseases expert Lindsay Grayson, Ben Howden from the Doherty Institute and Charles Alpren from the Department of Health and Human Services expected to be called first.
The experts will be providing the inquiry with information on epidemiology, contact tracing, genomic testing and infection control.
The state government launched the investigation after new COVID-19 cases in late May and early June were linked to infection control breaches by security guards at quarantine hotels.
Justice Coate noted there are no international flights arriving in Victoria at present and that the program has “substantially” changed since the inquiry was announced on June 30.
Premier Daniel Andrews has repeatedly dodged questions on the scheme, referring journalist to the inquiry currently underway.
But Justice Coate said there was no stopping him from answering questions.
“Under law, unlike a court, there is no general restriction or prohibition, which would prevent a person from commenting publicly or answering questions to which they know the answers on matters which are the subject of examination by this board of inquiry,” she said.
Relevant government ministers will likely be summoned to appear before the inquiry, Justice Coate added.
Benita Kolovos in Melbourne