Leaked emails suggest that Victoria’s top doctor knew in March that private security guards would be used in the bungled hotel quarantine program.
Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton told an inquiry that he had no idea contractors were being used until May.
But leaked emails published by the Age newspaper between him and staff from late March contradict these claims.
The email chain was from the day hotel quarantine arrangements were being made, specifically in response to a question about ways to ensure quarantine compliance.
Damning emails reveal Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton (pictured) was told months ago private security would be used in the bungled hotel quarantine program
Correspondence from a colleague within the Department of Health on March 27 clearly spelled out plans to use private contractors.
‘Directions will be provided to passengers as the (sic) disembark and will be supported by Victoria Police at the airport. Private security is being contracted to provide security at the hotels with escalation arrangements to VicPol as needed,’ the email read.
Sutton sent through a response only three minutes later saying: ‘Thanks so much.’
But during the inquiry into the state’s hotel quarantine program he said he wasn’t aware of this fact under after the outbreak at Rydges on Swanston.
Since the emails were leaked Professor Sutton has doubled down on his testimony made during the inquiry, ABC news reported.
Private security guards were pulled from a Melbourne quarantine hotel and replaced by police in September. Pictured: cleaning staff at a Melbourne CBD quarantine hotel
The disastrous hotel quarantine blunder sparked a second wave in Victoria in which more than 700 people lost their lives (pictured: new arrivals are ushered into the Crown Promenade Hotel in Melbourne)
‘I saw that they were responding back to the Commonwealth and I thanked them for the responses that they were given, but I clearly did not register that anything was being said about private security,’ Professor Sutton said.
‘Otherwise I would’ve gone to the inquiry and said that I was aware of it.’
The emails were not included as evidence during the inquiry.
Professor Sutton said he is willing to be re-examined and officials will provide ‘anything else that’s requested’.
Pictured: A little girl wearing a face mask is ushered into hotel quarantine at the Crown Promenade hotel by private security guards wearing hi vis, gloves and masks
The inquiry into Victoria’s hotel quarantine program, is set to be reopened at 2pm on Tuesday.
On Friday, the Board of Inquiry, chaired by retired judge Jennifer Coate, announced it would hold a sitting next week.
The board has reportedly received new phone logs from Premier Daniel Andrews and his staff and previously unseen documents from the Department of Health and Human Services that warranted reopening the inquiry.
The inquiry into Melbourne’s hotel quarantine scheme is set to be reopened after the board received new phone logs from Premier Daniel Andrews (pictured) and his staff and previously unseen documents from the Department of Health and Human Services
Pictured: Returned travellers are put into hotel quarantine during the coronavirus pandemic
The inquiry had finished on September 28 after hearing from 63 witnesses, including Mr Andrews, senior government ministers and public servants.
It is due to hand down its final report on November 6.
Health Minister Jenny Mikakos and Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) secretary Chris Eccles both resigned after appearing before the inquiry.
In a statement, Mr Eccles conceded the records show he spoke to former Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton at 1.17pm on March 27, the day it was decided private security guards would staff quarantine hotels.
‘The telephone records do not in any way demonstrate that I, or indeed anyone else in DPC made a decision that private security be used in the hotel quarantine program,’ Mr Eccles said.
The board has reportedly received new phone logs from Premier Daniel Andrews and his staff and previously unseen documents from the Department of Health and Human Services that warranted reopening the inquiry (pictured: hotel staff in Melbourne)
Guards employed by services company Spotless were sent home from the Novotel (pictured) in Southbank half way through their shift in September
‘I am absolutely certain I did not convey to Mr Ashton any decision regarding the use of private security as I was unaware any such decision had been made, and I most certainly had not made such a decision myself.’
The two-minute phone call between Mr Ashton and Mr Eccles occurred in a critical six-minute window when, according to the former police chief’s messages tendered to the inquiry, the decision to use guards was made.
Ms Mikakos’ resignation came the day after the premier appeared at the inquiry.
In her response to closing submissions, Ms Mikakos said Mr Andrews’ evidence about private security should be ‘treated with caution’.
She said it was ‘implausible’ to suggest no one made the decision to use private security guards in the botched program.
Pictured: The Pan Pacific hotel in Melbourne, which was used during Victoria’s bungled hotel quarantine program
Lawyers assisting the inquiry had previously argued the decision wasn’t made by one person or government department.
Instead, it was a ‘creeping assumption that became a reality’ following a 4:30pm meeting at the state control centre on March 27.
‘Such a submission has insufficient regard to the realities of governmental operation and decision-making,’ Ms Mikakos’ submission reads.
‘The board ought to treat with caution the premier’s evidence where he sought to explain the reference to the use of private security in the hotel quarantine program.’
Victoria’s second wave of coronavirus, which resulted in more than 18,000 new infections and more than 750 deaths, can be traced back to outbreaks at two Melbourne hotels used in the quarantine program.
Police and Protective Services Officers are seen in the foyer of the Novotel Melbourne South Wharf hotel in Melbourne in September
Suggested findings for Victorian quarantine hotels inquiry
Lawyers Tony Neal QC, Rachel Ellyard and Ben Ihle submitted their suggested findings to Victoria’s hotel quarantine inquiry. They are as follows:
GOVERNMENT HAD NO PLAN
* Public servants were given just 36 hours to set up the program.
* There was no suggestion those who set up the program worked other than with ‘the best of intentions and to the best of their ability’.
* ‘Bad faith or corruption is not what the evidence shows.’
DHHS WAS IN CONTROL
* The Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions played a substantial role but the Department of Health and Human Services was the control agency responsible for the program.
BRETT SUTTON SHOULD’VE BEEN IN CHARGE
* It was wrong to appoint people without public health expertise as the state controllers of the pandemic in February as it ‘influenced the way in which DHHS subsequently understood and acted on its responsibilities’.
* ‘Had the chief health officer or another person with public health expertise been appointed state controller … they would have had direct oversight of the hotel quarantine program and been able to directly influence the model of that program.’
NO ONE PERSON MADE THE DECISION TO USE SECURITY GUARDS
* ‘It can be best understood … as a creeping assumption or default consensus reached in the state control centre after the preference of Victoria Police was known.’
POLICE HAD PREFERENCE FOR GUARDS
* ‘It was not Victoria Police’s decision, but Victoria Police’s clear position that security would be preferable was a substantial contributing factor to the consensus.’
PREMIER SHOULD HAVE BEEN TOLD ABOUT ADF OFFER
* Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles should have told Premier Daniel Andrews his federal counterpart had offered Australian Defence Force support in an April 8 email exchange.
* But the initial decision not to have ADF boots on the ground was ‘reasonable and open – and no criticism should be directed to those who made those operational decisions’.
CONTRACTS WERE INAPPROPRIATE
* ‘There was insufficient supervision of those contracts to ensure compliance with the contractual terms, including as to subcontracting.’
* ‘The contracts with hotels and security companies should not have placed responsibility for PPE and infection control education on those contractors.’
HOTEL QUARANTINE RESPONSIBLE FOR SECOND WAVE
* Ninety per cent of second wave COVID-19 cases are attributable to the Rydges on Swanston outbreak in mid-May. Just under 10 per cent were attributable to the outbreak at the Stamford Hotel in mid-June.
* ‘The hotel quarantine program in Victoria failed to achieve its primary objective. The program that was intended to contain the disease was instead a seeding ground for the spread of COVID-19 into the broader community.’
* ‘The failure by the hotel quarantine program to contain this virus is, as at today’s date, responsible for the deaths of 768 people and the infection of some 18,418 others.’
PEOPLE IN QUARANTINE NOT LOOKED AFTER
* ‘The program did not always operate so as to meet the needs of those who were detained, in particular, those who had specific needs or vulnerabilities.’
* ‘Very early on, better consideration ought to have been given to the likely psychosocial impact of detention and expert advice should have been sought.’
* ‘Exemptions could and likely should have been granted in more situations.’
LACK OF TRANSPARENCY
* ‘There were significant issues which should have been brought to the respective ministers’ attention. The departmental secretaries were obliged to ensure that they discharged those obligations.’
* ‘They likely contributed to a loss in opportunities to identify and address issues which may have prompted better, fuller and more timely action.’
The submissions may form the recommendations of the inquiry’s chair, retired judge Jennifer Coate. She is due to deliver her final report to Victorian Governor Linda Dessau by November 6.