Police Minister Lisa Neville has told an inquiry she was “cranky” after discovering in the media that the ADF were to be deployed at Victoria’s quarantine hotels.
Ms Neville told the COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry on Wednesday she was surprised when she learnt of the deployment in late June after reading about it on the front page of Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper.
She sent a text to Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp the next morning.
“The use of army in hotels? That was not agreed to at CCs yesterday but is that [what] we [are] doing? And what will they be doing?” she said in the text.
“Not sure what they do at hotels given no one leaves!! And they have no powers.”
Asked about the messages, Ms Neville said she was seeking clarification on the details of the ADF involvement.
“I was still relatively annoyed about it,” she said.
“I think that probably more reflects I was pretty cranky at that point.
“I would have liked to have known about the request.”[embed: 14-day average]
Minister unaware of ADF discussions
Ms Neville also questioned the details of a text message sent by Mr Crisp to senior public servants on March 27 about the ADF’s involvement.
Mr Crisp’s message said: “My minister has some idea of ADF role that’s what we’re discussing with [then-police chief] graham Ashton at the moment.”
But Ms Neville told the inquiry she wasn’t involved in key decision-making meetings on the establishment of the hotel quarantine program.
“It would be my view that it was not me providing an idea of the ADF’s role,” she said.
She said it was Mr Crisp who first discussed the use of private security at an “information sharing meeting” on March 27.
“Maybe it was Mr Ashton but my best recollection is that it was it Commissioner Crisp,” she said.
“That component of the meeting was relatively short and we went on to discuss a number of other matters.”
But the Minister stopped short of saying Commissioner Crisp had made the call to use security, saying she assumed the decision had been made at an earlier meeting.
“It was clear to me and, I think, to both commissioners, that a decision had already been made about the front line,” she told the inquiry.
Ms Neville also said Mr Ashton was not consulted on the decision to use private security, but should have been.
She said it was unlikely Victoria Police was seriously considered as a security option.
“If there had been any serious consideration of Victoria Police playing a considerable role in hotel quarantine, it is my view that I would have been consulted,” she said.
Public servant did not pass hotel quarantine concerns up to Health Minister
The inquiry also heard more evidence from Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) secretary Kym Peake.
Amid intense questioning, Ms Peake admitted to not informing Health Minister Jenny Mikakos about concerns with the hotel quarantine program.
The concerns were raised by Public Health Commander Finn Romanes and were backed by Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton.
Ms Peake told the inquiry she was satisfied the concerns had been resolved.
“I was reassured by Public Health Command who was part of that, so the Deputy Chief Health Officer as well as other members of my staff, that the issues had been resolved and didn’t need to be escalated,” she said.
Pakula not told his staff had commissioned security guards
Victorian Jobs Minister Martin Pakula earlier told the inquiry he was unaware his own department had commissioned private security to be the first line of defence in the state’s hotel quarantine program.
Mr Pakula told the COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry he signed off on the hotels to be used, but the contracts for security firms never crossed his desk.
He said it “wasn’t uncommon” for ministers not to know the details of every government contract.
“No, the fact is departments … routinely enter into thousands of contracts every year, it is not typical for ministers to be apprised of the details,” he said.
Mr Pakula’s departmental secretary, Simon Phemister, told the inquiry on Tuesday he first began procuring the private security contractors after being briefed on a late afternoon meeting on March 27.
Mr Phemister was not at the meeting and said on Tuesday he did not ask who made the direction to find the contractors.
Evidence at the inquiry has suggested the Department of Jobs and Precincts (DJPR) played a key role in the hotel quarantine program’s establishment.
But the Minister said he was unaware of the critical decision to engage private security in the early stages of the program.
“I don’t recall specifically how I became aware, it may have been from media reportage,” he said.
Ministers say Health Department was in charge
Mr Pakula also said in his statement presented to the inquiry he was unaware of the concerns his department had about private security until the Premier called an inquiry into the botched program.
“I did not become aware of any concerns within DJPR regarding the way in which the program was being managed, including about the way it was being led by DHHS, until after this inquiry was established,” he wrote in his statement.
Both Mr Pakula and Ms Neville said DHHS was the lead agency.
Retired judge Jennifer Coate, who is chairing the inquiry, probed Mr Pakula on who he believed held ultimate accountability for the program, saying the evidence so far had been “varied”.
The Minister said it was “quite clear” responsibility for the state’s coronavirus response lay with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
“There was to my understanding one department in charge, if you like, and [that department] had overall responsibility, and my department … was to assist the control agency, which was in this case DHHS,” he said.
In Ms Neville’s statement, she said while she normally was responsible for overseeing state emergencies, the Health Department took the lead on the coronavirus response.
“I am not responsible for decisions or operational matters in a Class 2 public health emergency. DHHS is and has been the control agency for the pandemic,” she wrote.