Quarantine hotels debacle: what we’ve learned so far
As the state government's inquiry into its ill-fated hotel quarantine program moved on Tuesday into its final weeks of public hearings, counsel assisting Ben Ihle summed up much of what has been learned in recent evidence about just how the management of Melbourne’s isolation hotels went so disastrously wrong.
Here are some of the stand-out points.
Jennifer Coate is chair of the hotel quarantine inquiry.Credit:Getty
Just who was in charge?
Nobody seems to have known. The confusing jumble of responsibilities shared between the Jobs Department, the Health Department, the hotels themselves and Victoria Police have made it hard to pin down just who was responsible for key failings in relation to protective gear, infection control and quarantine breaches.
"The lack of common understanding and clear lines of command was mired in different perspectives and understanding of where responsibility for matters of infection control and training lay," Mr Ihle told the board of inquiry.
Ben Ihle, counsel assisting the quarantine inquiry.
What about infection control?
Confusion seems to have reigned here too, with the government's deals with hotels and security guards putting the onus for infection control on those private contractors. However, evidence to the inquiry suggests that many in the quarantine program were looking in vain to the Health Department for leadership in containing the spread of COVID-19.
"There was evidence of an expectation that the Department of Health and Human Services would provide training and otherwise be the source of expert advice on matters of infection control and the use of personal protective equipment," Mr Ihle said.
"There was evidence of concern and frustration that those expectations were not met."
Everyone tried hard, but …
Quarantine hotels were a huge logistical operation set up from scratch and in an exceptionally tight time frame over the weekend of March 27 and March 28 "without warning or much time to plan"Mr Ihler observed on Tuesday.
But the hurriedly put together structure "had built-in complications, which themselves were a source of confusion and lack of clarity". While Mr Ihle was at pains to acknowledge the hard work of all those who set up the program, the right people were not always in the right jobs, he said.
"There is nothing to suggest any lack of good faith or effort on the part of anyone involved," the barrister said.
"However, the evidence also tends to suggest that those tasked with the job were not always the people with the right skill set or resources."
Whose idea were the security guards?
We still don’t know, although the question is to be explored in greater depth in next week’s hearings.
But the inquiry has managed to establish that nobody thought the decision was a big deal, or a bad idea, at the time.
"The evidence suggests that the decision to engage private security guards was apparently not considered controversial at the time, at least not openly," Mr Ihle said.
"Nothing has been revealed that suggests any person or body expressly or vehemently disagreed with it at the time those decisions were being made.
"But it has proved to be a contentious decision and there is a range of views about whose decision it actually was."
Serious problems with security contracts
The inquiry has heard that ordinary government procurement rules were not followed, with a security firm that had previously been rejected as an approved official supplier winning most of the work of guarding the hotels, Mr Ihle said on Tuesday.
The company, Unified Security, then relied almost entirely on subcontractors who used casual and part-timers to do the job.
The hearings continue on Wednesday.
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