Victorian Health Minister Wanted the Army in Quarantine Hotels

Victorian Health Minister Wanted the Army in Quarantine Hotels
(L-R) Minister for Health, Jenny Mikakos, Premier Daniel Andrews, and Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, Melbourne, Australia. March 11, 2020. (Luis Ascui/Getty Images)

Health Minister Jenny Mikakos has slammed the decision to use security guards in Victoria's quarantine hotels, saying she called for the army to replace them following coronavirus outbreaks.

Mikakos has told the state's hotel quarantine inquiry she didn't know private security guards were being used in the program until an outbreak at the Rydges on Swanston in mid-May.

Following a second outbreak at the Stamford Plaza in June, she said she became "exasperated" and formed a "very strong view that we should work to replace the security guard workforce."

"This was just a workforce that was too high risk in nature," Mikakos told the inquiry on Sept. 24.

She said guards failed to tell contact tracers what shifts they had worked or if they had a second job, hampering efforts to slow the virus spread.

The state's second wave of coronavirus, which resulted in more than 18,000 new infections and 750 deaths, can be traced back to the two outbreaks.

In her written statement to the inquiry, Mikakos said the Department of Health and Human Services developed a plan on June 24 to replace the guards with a mixture of Victoria Police, Protective Services Officers, sheriffs, health workers and a "small number of Australian Defence Force personnel."

The plan was rejected "by other parts of the government."

Mikakos said she only became aware of a separate request for 850 ADF personnel, made by Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp on June 25, via media reports.

"Personally, I did not have any concerns about use of the ADF," she wrote in her statement.

Crisp's request was rescinded on June 26 when the Department of Justice took over the program.

Mikakos said she wasn't involved in the establishment of the hotel quarantine program, despite the DHHS being named the lead agency.

The inquiry has heard the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions contracted hotels and security companies.

The contracts written up by the department placed the responsibility of training guards on the security companies, including in the use of personal protective equipment.

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

Mikakos said the multi-agency response meant there were "too many cooks spoiling the broth".

"It became apparent to me that the DHHS lacked any contractual levers with either the hotels or security contractors and that this was a significant weakness in how the program had been structured," she wrote her statement.

But within the DHHS, there were also problems.

Mikakos said she didn't know Public Health Commander Finn Romanes had written to DHHS secretary Kym Peake on April 9, warning of a "risk to the health and safety of detainees" due to governance issues.

The letter was backed by Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton and his deputy Annaliese van Diemen.

Peake also failed to brief Mikakos on two Safer Care Victoria reports, which identified problems with the hotel quarantine program.

"I'm actually very disappointed that they were not raised with me," Mikakos told the inquiry.

She said it was hard to say what could've happened if they had been brought to her attention earlier.

"Whilst things were very crystal clear to me by June, what needed to happen, I can't say with any degree of certainty that I would have had that same insight in late March," Mikakos said.

"It would have been helpful to have had a more intimate involvement in some of those key decision points much earlier."

A union has reportedly called for the dismissal of Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos, accusing her of “breathtaking incompetence.”

A Health Workers Union letter to Premier Daniel Andrews urging her removal has been made public with Mikakos to appear on Sept. 24 before the inquiry into Victoria’s hotel quarantine program, which led to the state’s devastating second wave of coronavirus.

Premier Daniel Andrews is the inquiry's final witness and will appear on Sept. 25 afternoon.

By Benita Kolovos