Brett Sutton, Daniel Andrews evidence released by COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry

Brett Sutton’s anger at how Victoria’s hotel quarantine program was set up without his input has been laid bare in an email released by the inquiry into the scheme.

The state’s Chief Health Officer said it was “astounding” that he and his deputy, Annaliese van Diemen, were excluded from the planning process for the scheme, known as Operation Soteria, despite having legal responsibility for it.

The tensions are revealed in an April 13 email from Professor Sutton to Euan Wallace, the CEO of Safer Care Victoria, which is responsible for patient and hospital safety.

In it, Professor Sutton said Operation Soteria was set up and put in place through Emergency Management Victoria (EMV) “without even getting my approval or even input”.

“Annaliese [van Dieman] was similarly excluded. That, in and of itself, is astounding to us.

“It was seen as an almost wholly logistic exercise and had EM [Emergency Management Victoria] governance without an understanding of where accountability sat, or perhaps should sit.”

He said because hotel quarantine was a policy recommendation from National Cabinet, state chief health officers needed to issue directions for its implementation — which made them legally accountable for it.

“In this case Annaliese wrote the direction —so was effectively the ‘maker’ of the entire scheme and has responsibility in law for it,” he wrote.

A “disconnect” with EMV colleagues meant they “effectively excluded those with significant accountability”, he wrote.

In previous evidence, Professor Sutton told the inquiry he believed he should have been appointed to the role of ‘state controller’, so he had better oversight of pandemic responses for which he bore some responsibility.

Dozens of documents released by inquiry

The COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry has been looking into the beleaguered scheme after its failures were blamed for Victoria’s devastating second wave of the virus.

On Friday afternoon, it released dozens of documents, including affidavits from Professor Sutton and Premier Daniel Andrews, phone records from top staffers at the Department of Premier and Cabinet and Mr Andrews’s office, and emails from various departments.

The inquiry requested the additional material to try and determine who was involved in the decision to engage private security at the quarantine hotels and at what point Professor Sutton knew private security guards were being used — matters that weren’t resolved by the inquiry’s last hearing in September.

Professor Sutton has said he did not know private security was being used in the scheme until he read about it in the media — even though he was copied into an email about that plan.

Premier Daniel Andrews, in his affidavit, also maintained he played no role in determining that private security would be used in the program, and did not know who had.

Daniel Andrews gestures and speaks at a press conference.
Daniel Andrews provided additional evidence to the inquiry after his appearance.(AAP: Erik Anderson)

However, the Premier shed some light on why he mentioned “private security” at a press conference he held on the afternoon of March 27, despite later saying no decision had been made to use private security by that time.

Mr Andrews said while he had no memory of it, it was likely he was briefed before the press conference by his chief-of-staff Lissie Ratcliff, and “probably” his press secretary Stephanie Anderson and media director Adam Sims.

Mr Andrews said they may have been briefed by a member of his private office, whose name had been redacted.

“I am informed that it is possible that those who briefed me obtained information from [name redacted] for the purposes of the briefing, but I am informed that [name redacted] was not present when I was briefed.”

Text messages between Premier, chief-of-staff released

At the press conference, Mr Andrews told the media that “police, private security, all of our health team will be able to monitor compliance in a much easier way” at the hotels.

However, when he gave verbal evidence to the inquiry, Mr Andrews said he was not sure why he had mentioned private security at the press conference, or how he had learned they would be used.

Jennifer Coate sits behind a bend with the words "COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry" on the wall behind her.
Jennifer Coate’s final report is due to be handed down by December 21.  (AAP: James Ross)

Mr Andrews said for the sake of “completeness” he would also provide text messages between him and his chief-of-staff about the hotel arrangements that he was aware of later that evening.

The text messages showed the CEO of Linfox was happy to assist with hotel arrangements, and supermarket La Manna was happy to feed people.

Mr Andrews asked Ms Ratcliff: “how are we going on hotels and midnight tomorrow. Do we have many flights tomorrow? Call if you need to”.

Ms Ratcliff responded that she would have updates on the number of rooms: “we’re aiming for more than 5,000 — transportation, guidelines for leaving rooms, protection for workers, number of expected arrivals and flights for Sunday”.

The reply from Ms Ratcliff to Mr Andrews also said “it’ll only apply to flights landing after midnight so anyone coming in during the day tomorrow won’t be caught up.

“Will get you an update as soon as it comes through.”

Inquiry chair Jennifer Coate is due to hand down her findings by December 21.

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