Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is copping the grilling of his life in an inquiry into his government’s handling of the virus crisis.
Ben Graham and Lauren McMah
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has been grilled over his government’s bungled hotel quarantine program, including its decision to contract private security, at an inquiry into the state’s virus response.
Mr Andrews was the first witness called for the second sitting of the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee’s COVID-19 Inquiry, which kicked off this morning.
Health Minister Jenny Mikakos and Chief Health Officer Prof Brett Sutton were among the other witnesses called to give evidence at the inquiry today. Deputy Chairman of the inquiry, Liberal MP Richard Riordan, began by launching a powerful question at Mr Andrews about revelations in today’s Herald Sun that public servants from Victoria’s Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, with no health experience, were tasked with establishing the hotel quarantine program with a 24-hour turnaround.
“You have every day, thanked Victorians, and every day, you have admonished Victorians who have not done the right thing,” Mr Riordan said.
“Premier, every day, you have assured us you will take responsibility, personal responsibility, and own the mistakes of your government. “Every day, you have refused to tell the Victorians, which of your ministers was responsible for letting the virus out of hotel quarantine.
“This morning, the Herald Sun has revealed what you have been hiding from Victorians. Your Minister Jobs and Precincts was responsible for bungled hotel quarantine. Will you demand that he resign?”
“The answer to your question is no,” Mr Andrews responded. “And don’t take anything that I say in my answer as in any way me confirming the rather lengthy editorial that you’ve just given me.”
Mr Riordan’s scathing attack continued as he turned to comments by Prof Sutton last month suggesting all recent cases of the virus in Victoria could be traced back to hotel quarantine.
“Because of this, hundreds of thousands of Victorians have lost their jobs and businesses. And thousands of family members have lost loved ones,” Mr Riordan said.
“Victorians have trusted you to keep them safe. You have catastrophically let them down. Will you apologise to Victorians?”
“As I’ve said, Mr Riordan, I’m the leader of the government and the leader of the state and I take responsibility for all of the decisions that are made across our government and the performance of all of our agencies,” Mr Andrews said. Day one of the parliamentary inquiry has discussed Victoria’s bungled hotel quarantine program.
“That ultimate responsibility is an important function of the job that I have, the great honour that I have to serve as the Premier of this state.
“I don’t agree with the way you have characterised various statements that the Chief Health Officer has made.”
Mr Andrews was then cut off as he ducked around a question about the hotel quarantine system.
“Premier, after a month of acknowledged failure in hotel quarantine, nothing has been seen to by you – no admissions by you have been made,” Mr Riordan said.
“No acknowledgment of the error has been made by you. Today, all Victorians, all Victorians today saw, have seen, how you have run, how your government has run hotel quarantine and you have nothing to comment about who is accountable and who is responsible for that.” Mr Andrews responded by saying;
“You’re asking me questions, but, again, with respect, you don’t get to answer those questions by running another editorial. I’ve said no such thing.
“Your analysis is completely inaccurate. I have not only accepted ultimate and accountability for any issues in that part of our pandemic response and all issues in our pandemic response, but I’ve established an appropriate arms-length process chaired by a former judge, not for the avoidance of scrutiny.”
Mr Andrews was then interrupted by Mr Riordan who said: “I don’t want you to continue on that because you’re not answering the question.” Mr Andrews was also questioned about why he chose to use private security guards rather than police or Australian Defence Force to run the hotel quarantine system. Mr Andrews said he didn’t believe ADF support was on offer.
“It’s been provided in limited circumstances in New South Wales, not to provide security as such but to provide transportation from the airport to hotels,” he said.
“I think it is fundamentally incorrect to assert that there was hundreds of ADF staff on offer and somehow someone said no. That’s not, in my judgment, accurate.”
Nationals MP Danny O’Brien, who asked the question, said that answer didn’t explain why he chose to use private security.
“Who made the decision to use private security guards in the hotel quarantine program?” he asked.
Mr Andrews said: “There was a proposal drawn up. It was essentially already operating, at some significant scale, but would need it to go to another level … It was essentially an extension of a program that we had already stood up. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Prof Sutton told the inquiry he was not involved in the contracting of private security at quarantine hotels. “No, I was not involved in any of that decision-making whatsoever,” Prof Sutton said.
“I can’t speak to the broader department but I was not informed of it and I was not asked for advice.”
“No input from you at all about that?” Mr Riordan asked. “No,” Prof Sutton said.
Ms Mikakos has previously said it was on May 26, when a security guard at Melbourne’s Rydges hotel was diagnosed with the virus.
“Minister, I’ve got an email here sent to me on 11 May that was also sent to your department, clearly outlining deficiencies in hotel quarantine by an experienced infection control nurse in hotel quarantine,” Mr Riordan said.
“You seem to be telling Victorians and this committee that you received no advice whatsoever over the last three or four months of hotel quarantine. Is that what you’re saying?”
“It wasn’t addressed to me,” Ms Mikakos said.
“What I can say to you is what I said before: there may have been many hundreds or thousands of emails, perhaps, that have been exchanged by different departments, different agencies, different public servants working on the pandemic response. “I don’t think anyone would expect that I have the ability to read all of those emails. If they’re not addressed to me, there is no opportunity for me to read those emails.”
Mr Riordan also asked Ms Mikakos about which department was responsible for the hotel quarantine program.
She said she read the Herald Sun today “with some interest” and it was the first time she had became aware of “some details” of the state’s quarantine response.
The article reported Jobs Minister Martin Pakula was responsible for the botched system. “Are you saying today, Minister, today was the first time you have become aware as Minister for Health in the state of Victoria in the worst pandemic in a lifetime, it’s the first time today that you knew who was running your hotel quarantine program designed to keep Victorians safe?” Mr Riordan asked.
Ms Mikakos replied: “What inevitably will happen is there will be new revelations in the media on a day-to-day basis, as there have been already to date, and that’s why it’s important that there is a thorough examination of what happened.
“We all want answers. I want answers and Victorians want answers. And the inquiry will allow us to get to the bottom of it.”