The division of the findings of the Victorian COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry into two – the interim report published today, with a final report due December 21 – is aimed at making a timely contribution to the redesign of the quarantine systems that will remain key to Australia’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic for some time to come.
With a view to the expected influx of returnees at Christmas, the national cabinet is due to discuss necessary changes later this month. Justice Jennifer Coate’s clear recommendations for how to devise and operate a quarantine system will surely be pivotal to its deliberations.
Coate’s primary message is that quarantine – in whatever form it might take – is a public health operation. So any future quarantine system needs to be designed in a manner that ensures the centrality of this public health imperative.
We must wait until the final report to find out what Coate has to say on the larger governance and accountability questions surrounding “the decision” to contract out the front line of Victoria’s hotel quarantine operation to private security provision. However, her interim report already tells us a lot – if indirectly.
The report states it “is clear from the evidence to date” that the majority of those involved in the hotel quarantine program who contracted the virus were:
private security personnel engaged by way of contracting arrangements that carried with them a range of complexities.
It is therefore unsurprising that the issue of the appropriateness of contracting-out is the elephant in the room across a number of its key recommendations.
In particular, the recommendations record that the expertise of those involved in future quarantine operations will be crucial. Moreover, every effort should be made to ensure people working at quarantine facilities are “salaried employees” who are “not working in other forms of employment”.
It takes little effort to surmise that contracted-out service delivery is unlikely to meet any of these demands.
As I have explained elsewhere, to contract out a statutory function in whole or in part requires that it be translated into a “service” that private sector providers are capable of delivering.
In the Victorian case, this meant the front line of the hotel quarantine operation was performed pursuant to an “observe and report” security services contract. It was carried out by an entirely casualised workforce with little infection-control training and no lawful powers of enforcement. Many or most of them worked in other jobs at the same time.
Melbourne’s hotel quarantine bungle is disappointing but not surprising. It was overseen by a flawed security industry
Coate also recommended that, alongside the “embedded” presence of expert infection-control personnel, a 24/7 police presence be established at every facility-based quarantine operation. This clearly points to the failure of contracting-out from an enforcement perspective as well.
So, by implication or otherwise, the interim report confirms that too little thought was