Texts shown to the Melbourne hotel quarantine inquiry reveal Victoria’s top cop questioned why the AFP wasn’t being called on to guard the hotels.
Graham Ashton, then chief commissioner, said he believed his first information about the hotel quarantine program came from Australian Federal Police commissioner Reece Kershaw on March 27 — the day the mandatory hotel quarantine plan was announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
But he could not recall who then told him that private security would be used.
In text messages shown to the inquiry, Mr Ashton asked Australian Federal Police commissioner Reece Kershaw: “Mate. Question. Why wouldn’t AFP guard people at the hotel??”
Mr Ashton said he asked believing returned travellers would still be the Commonwealth’s responsibility.
“I was trying to ascertain why the AFP wouldn’t be still looking after them if they were a Commonwealth responsibility. I was later to learn that there was an agreement that the states would take responsibility for them,” he told the inquiry.
In a follow up text to the boss of the Victorian Public Service, Chris Eccles, Mr Ashton said he was hearing enforced isolation for travellers would be coming into effect.
“Chris I am getting word from Canberra whereby arrivals from overseas are to be subjected to enforced isolation from tomorrow. The suggestion is that Victorian arrivals are conveyed to a hotel somewhere where they are guarded by police for 14 days. Are you aware of anything in this regard?” Mr Ashton asked.
Minutes later, Mr Ashton appeared to have received confirmation that private security — not police — would be used.
He then texted Commissioner Kershaw: “Mate my advice is that ADF will do passenger transfer and private security will be used.”
Mr Kershaw replied: “Ok that’s new”.
Mr Ashton responded: “I think that’s the deal set up by our DPC (Department of Premier and Cabinet)”.
Under cross examination, Mr Ashton rebuffed suggestions it was police who tasked government officials to use security guards for hotel quarantine.
Counsel assisting the inquiry Rachel Ellyard said Claire Febey, a director at Victoria’s Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, understood at a meeting later on March 27 that she was tasked by police to engage private security.
However Mr Ashton said using private security was already in the government’s plan and the fact police were happy with the arrangement meant Ms Febey “would’ve taken that as confirmation that was the way to go”.
Ms Ellyard asked if he rejected that police were the decision makers in using private security and he replied: “Absolutely”.
Mr Ashton said Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp later confirmed to him in a meeting on March 27 that private guards would be the front line of security at the hotels.
“He said private security would be doing that,” he said.
“That wasn’t my decision. But I supported that decision.”
KEY MOVE THAT COULD HAVE STOPPED SPREAD
A more visible police presence at Melbourne’s quarantine hotels would have provided a good example for security guards on the frontline, a state controller of the COVID-19 response said.
Andrea Spiteri said she couldn’t recall when she made her views known, but she would have told the health department’s deputy secretary Melissa Skilbeck and other agency commanders.
But she says it would have been preferable to have a small police presence at each hotel 24/7 in addition to security.
It came after concerns regarding some guards acting inappropriately on the job.
Ms Spiteri said while there was an escalation process in place, having actual police there could have changed things.
“I felt that a small uniformed presence of Victoria Police within the hotel environment could have potentially quelled some of that behaviour,” she told the inquiry.
“It was a personal view.
“I just felt there could have been benefits in having police a bit more visible.”
NO REQUEST RECEIVED FOR POLICE 24/7 AT HOTELS
However, then deputy commissioner Shane Patton, said he never heard any request for a 24/7 police presence at quarantine hotels.
“We never received any response at the appropriate level or even my level. I was the State Police Commander … I never received any requests,” he told the inquiry.
“Had any requests been funnelled up to us through an official channel, through any type of communication, we would have dealt with it and engaged and risk assessed and seen when we were in a position to and whether it made sense to do that.”
ADF MENTIONED TO HAVE POSSIBLE ROLE IN QUARANTINE EARLY ON
An email between senior police in the planning of hotel quarantine mentioned defence force personnel could have a role.
The communications were shown as Mr Patton was examined at the inquiry.
An email was shown from Deputy Commissioner Rick Nugent on March 28 to Mr Patton and another senior officer, Mick Grainger, stating ADF could be available.
The email said Mr Ashton advised the night before the agreed position between police and the Victorian Secretaries Board was that “private security will be involved for this health intervention”.
“We agreed CBD motels would make it easier for police response should we be called,” the email said.
The DPC also confirmed the arrangement, it continued.
“DPC also rang me about this late last night and confirmed that was the arrangement as discussed at VSB. I did suggest, if increased risks/issues were identified, ADF could have a role in this regard.”
STATE CONTROLLER WASN’T AWARE OF ADF OFFER
Another state controller in the pandemic response, Jason Helps, said he was unaware of any specific offer by defence for the hotel quarantine scheme, the inquiry heard.
He also said it was common practice that states exhausted local services before going to the ADF for help.
“In my view, this is standard operational procedure, and it is not unusual that the ADF did not have ‘boots on the ground’ with regards to the hotel quarantine program,” he said in his statement to the inquiry.
“This is especially so in circumstances where local services had not been exhausted in Victoria.”
He said if ADF was to boost personnel support for the program, he believed it would add to support it was already providing in planning and logistics roles.
He said at a meeting on March 28, ADF representatives confirmed his understanding ADF would not be patrolling Victorian hotels.
Atn the meeting, Emergency Management Commissioner asked the ADF representative: “ADF, anything further that you might wish to raise?”
The representative responded: “No Andrew, just noting that the news tonight mentioned that ADF would be patrolling the corridors of hotels, Ah not in Victoria!”
Mr Helps said that exchange reinforced his understanding of the role the ADF was performing in Victoria, and that they were not available for operational roles within the hotel quarantine program.
“I personally expected that private security contractors would have had a role to play in the hotel quarantine program, the exact role depended on the roles and resources taken by other agencies. Other than that, I do not hold any other views about private security contractors,” he said in his statement.
Mr Helps said at the time of planning for the program, on March 27 and 28, he understood security arrangements had already been put in place by the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, and it was working with Victoria Police to refine the role of the force in hotel quarantine.
“In those circumstances, I did not see the need for ADF at that early stage,” he said.
LACK OF WILLINGNESS, UNDERSTANDING ABOUT INFECTION CONTROL
Ms Spiteri, who was responsible for the governance for the operation and logistics of the quarantine program, said she was satisfied information about infection control was being filtered down to people working in quarantine hotels.
She said was satisfied health and safety instruction was being given to hotel employees and the right people with the right experience were in roles to ensure it happened.
“I was comfortable that we had senior expertise in command roles that were directly accountable,” she told the inquiry.
“I felt there was structure and arrangements in place and I could see through the email traffic responses being provided.
“I was satisfied we had the arrangements in place … and the people providing that information.”
“I was comfortable there were systems in place to do that.”
Ms Spiteri became aware about lack of compliance with infection control measures.
She was “surprised” it had led to the virus spreading.
“On occasion there were issues that were escalated to me about the application these infection protection control measures,” she said.
“I felt information was getting to the ground.”
But she said there was a lack of “willingness” and “understanding” by some people working in that environment to take on board infection control measures, such as using PPE correctly and social distancing.
“There was ongoing reminders. Ongoing training.
“It was a constant education process.”
HOMELESS COVID-19 PERSON DENIED STAY IN QUARANTINE HOTELS
A homeless person with coronavirus was denied a stay in Victoria’s quarantine hotels.
Ms Spiteri said the department was told about a homeless person who had COVID-19 on March 31 who required relief accommodation.
She said up to that point, the department had been unable to find a hotel to accommodate people from the community who tested positive for the virus.
“We contacted first a departmental hotel team leader and then I called Claire Febey (from Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions) to request access to a quarantine hotel red floor to accommodate the person,” she said in her statement.
A red floor was a designated floor within a quarantine hotel where only COVID-19 positive returned travellers were accommodated.
However, the request was turned down.
“I was advised that this was beyond the scope of the current contracts and the hotels refused the request.”
NO ‘SINGLE CAUSE’ OF SECOND WAVE
Deputy chief health officer Annaliese van Diemen said the hotel quarantine program was delivered with “extreme haste”, leading to concerns the services provided were being “fragmented”.
Ms van Diemen did not have oversight of the operation aspects of the program.
However, she told the hotel quarantine inquiry on Wednesday there was not one single thing to blame for the second wave of the virus, which was sparked by outbreaks from quarantine hotels.
“I am certain there is no single cause of the current second wave, and that there were hundreds of micro-decisions and actions that resulted in the second wave, none of which would have individually been enough to cause the end result,” Ms van Diemen said.
The inquiry has been told Victoria had 36 hours to create the program after the Prime Minister announced the mandatory 14-day program for returned travellers on March 27.
Victoria’s chief health officer Professor Brett Sutton said on Wednesday he was unaware private security contractors were supervising hotel quarantine and did not find out about it “until after the outbreaks”.
He and Ms van Diemen expressed concern about the program in April, leading deputy public health commander Dr Finn Romanes to send an email on their behalf to the state controller running the pandemic response.
The email, shown to the inquiry, demanded an “urgent review governance” of the quarantine program, given the apparent “lack of a unified plan”.