Australia Health Minister Jenny Mikakos tells Victorian coronavirus hotel quarantine inquiry she was in the dark about security guards plan
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Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos does not know who suggested and approved the use of private security guards in hotel quarantine, the inquiry into the state's bungled program has heard.
Ms Mikakos told the Victorian COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry she was not consulted on the program's establishment and said a multi-agency response had resulted in "too many cooks spoiling the broth".
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The inquiry also heard that Ms Mikakos was kept in the dark on major issues and reviews involving the program throughout the year.
She said she was not even aware of the use of private security guards until May, when an outbreak at the Rydges on Swanston hotel emerged.
In her much-anticipated appearance before former judge Jennifer Coate's probe, Ms Mikakos said she was not part of any decision-making process to use private security contractors.
"I believe I first became aware of the use of private security guards contracted by DJPR (Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions) in the HQP (hotel quarantine program) after the Rydges outbreak occurred in late May," she said.
"In particular, at around that time, I was advised by the DHHS (Department of Health and Human Services) public health team that the private security contractors engaged to participate in the HQP had the contractual responsibility to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and infection prevention and control training to their staff."
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Ms Mikakos said the state's contact tracing team had a hard job trying to track infected security guards because guards were not always "forthcoming" with where they had been and second jobs they had worked.
'Exasperated' Minister pushed to replace security guards after outbreaks
In mid-June, after outbreaks at the Rydges and Stamford Plaza hotels, Ms Mikakos said she had become "exasperated and determined to replace the security guards".
"I formed the very strong view that we needed to replace the security guard workforce with an alternative workforce,'' she told the inquiry.
She said she asked the department to develop options that included using Victoria Police.
"And as I recall, the options also considered approximately 50 to 100 ADF members. It wasn't of a larger magnitude than that,'' she said.
In June, Victoria made a request for hundreds of ADF personnel, which was later rescinded. But hundreds of troops did still come to help with the entire pandemic effort.
Is this proof Victoria's health minister KNEW about private security?
At an inquiry in the bungled quarantine program on Thursday, Ms Mikakos said she did not know private guards were enforcing the scheme until late May when the Rydges hotel suffered an outbreak.At an inquiry into the bungled quarantine program on Thursday, Ms Mikakos said 'to the best of her recollection' she did not know private guards were enforcing the scheme until late May when the Rydges hotel suffered a coronavirus outbreak.
"I wasn't aware of any offer of assistance in relation to providing an alternative workforce for the hotel quarantine program until I read about this in a media report, I believe on 25 June," Ms Mikakos said.
"I was not involved in any requests for the ADF providing that alternative workforce for the hotel quarantine program, and I wouldn't have expected to make that formal request."
Ms Mikakos said she had no objections to the use of ADF personnel, who she said had already worked well in other roles in the pandemic.
But she said in her statement she "enthusiastically" supported the ultimate decision on June 27 to use Corrections Victoria staff to take over and reset the hotel quarantine program.
'Difficult' to say if earlier briefings would have changed outcomes
Ms Mikakos said, with the benefit of hindsight, it would have been "desirable" if she had been consulted on lines of accountability.
She also said she would have "expected" to have been briefed by DHHS on "significant issues" within the hotel quarantine program.
This followed evidence that DHHS secretary Kym Peake did not pass all issues onto the Minister.
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Counsel assisting the inquiry, Ben Ihle, asked Ms Mikakos whether she may have been able to identify structural weaknesses in the program if she had been briefed in a timely way.
"That's a difficult question to answer fairly,'' she replied.
Ms Peake's role as "mission lead secretary" meant that she was also answerable to Premier Daniel Andrews.
"I understood the HQP to be a multi-agency response with shared accountability,'' Ms Mikakos said.
Mikakos identifies 'significant weaknesses' in quarantine program
As the program began to break down in June, Ms Mikakos said, she formed "the view that the multi-agency response to the HQP meant there were too many cooks spoiling the broth".
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She said DHHS lacked any contractual levers with the hotels or security contractors, which was "a significant weakness in how the program had been structured".
The Health Minister's department, DHHS, was the "control agency" for the program, which provided the legal framework for hotel quarantine.
"The terminology has a particular meaning under our emergency management framework and unfortunately it's been bandied about quite a lot and I think it is highly misunderstood as a term,'' she said.
"It doesn't mean that DHHS had control as such. I think the best way to understand it is a coordination role."
Ms Mikakos also told the hearing that she was not consulted about the program's establishment.
She said the first she heard of the concept was at a meeting of Australian health ministers on March 26, when Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy raised the idea.
In her written answers to the inquiry, Ms Mikakos said she would not support the future use of security guards.
"COVID-19 is a highly contagious virus that has challenged many workforces. I am aware of healthcare workers in hospitals with years of experience in IPC, and wearing higher levels of PPE, nevertheless becoming infected, as have clinicians from the ADF working at testing sites wearing PPE, as have members of Victoria Police wearing PPE," she said in the statement.
"In my view, there is no 'silver bullet' workforce to respond to the risk of a highly-contagious virus but there is an unacceptable risk in using a largely unskilled and casualised workforce, as we have seen recently also in the private aged care sector."
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