Victoria’s most senior public servant was offered assistance from the Australian Defence Force to guard quarantine hotels as early as April, despite Premier Daniel Andrews’ repeated claims otherwise.
A federal government statement tendered to the Hotel Quarantine Inquiry reveals the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Phil Gaetjens, sent an email to his Victorian counterpart Chris Eccles offering help on April 8.
“On the question of assistance with security, I am advised that the only deal with NSW was in-kind provision of ADF personnel. I am sure the Commonwealth would be willing to assist Victoria if you wanted to reconsider your operating model,” Mr Gaetjens wrote.
Mr Eccles replied: “Thanks Phil”.
Mr Andrews told a parliamentary inquiry in August he did not believe ADF services were on offer for the program and has stood by that statement despite being contradicted by federal MPs.
Under the Victorian quarantine model, private security guards were used instead of ADF or police officers to watch over returned travellers in hotels. In Queensland and NSW, ADF personnel were used heavily from late March.
Ninety-nine per cent of Victoria’s second wave of virus infections have been traced back to travellers and workers within the program.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison wrote to Mr Andrews three times, on July 4, 6 and 11, reaffirming the Commonwealth’s willingness to provide ADF support if needed, the federal government’s submission said.
Mr Andrews on Tuesday stood firm over his comments that ADF support was never offered for Victoria’s hotel quarantine, putting him at odds with Mr Morrison.
“The Prime Minister’s representations to the inquiry – I’ll leave that to the inquiry to make recommendations and findings about that,” Mr Andrews said. The Premier will appear before the inquiry next Wednesday.
“I’m not interested in having a debate with the Prime Minister, or anyone else, frankly, from his party.
“What I would say to you is my comments are consistent, my comments are accurate, my comments are supported by statements issued by Andrew Crisp as the emergency management commissioner. I don’t have much more to add beyond that.”
Commissioner Crisp, appearing before the inquiry on Tuesday, said he did not believe ADF assistance was needed in the hotels when the Mr Gaetjens first made the offer in March.
His view that there was “not a need for ‘boots on the ground'” was based on his satisfaction that the Victorian plan would work.
He also asked the federal government for 850 personnel to provide compliance and monitoring support for state health department officials in hotels being used for quarantine on June 24.
The request followed a meeting with the ADF and DHHS, at which they decided “there was a need to find an alternative to the private security firms”.
“I submitted the request so that we had the Australian Defence Force as an available option,” Commissioner Crisp told the inquiry.
But the commissioner said he “rescinded the request” the next morning, after learning that other options such as Victoria Police and state protective services officers were being considered instead.
Corrections Victoria staff took over running the quarantine hotels on June 30.
Commissioner Crisp had been aware as early as March that private security companies engaged in the program were “not performing satisfactorily”, however.
He told the inquiry he learned that both the jobs department and Victoria Police were concerned that guards were failing to socially distance or properly practice infection control, within weeks of the program starting.
In late June, he was told of more egregious misconduct by guards, such as “mingling with families who were in quarantine”, sharing cigarettes and carpooling.
While Commissioner Crisp “did not have a specific recollection” of learning of the misconduct, said he was satisfied at the time that policies and procedures had been updated to prevent further breaches.