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Concerns raised over Vic hotel quarantine

A Victorian government department involved in the state’s botched hotel quarantine program asked for police to monitor returned travellers, having raised concerns about the capabilities of security guards in charge.

The Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions was instructed to hire security guards to monitor the returned travellers following a meeting at the State Control Centre on the afternoon of March 27, the day before the quarantine program began.

However, Jobs Minister Martin Pakula has told a parliamentary inquiry his department raised concerns soon after about the guards.

“There were on a couple of occasions early in the program, entreaties from officers of my department, where it was our view that police should be on-site at hotels,” Mr Pakula told the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee’s COVID-19 Inquiry on Wednesday.

“That was a recommendation made by DJPR (Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions) early in the process.”

Victoria Police were not brought into to assist at the hotels until July, well after genomic testing linked infection control breaches by security guards to the state’s second wave of coronavirus.

The second wave has killed hundreds and led to the nation’s toughest lockdown.

Department secretary Simon Phemister said the decision to use private security guards rather than police or the Australian Defence Force was made at the March 27 meeting.

He did not attend the meeting, which was chaired by Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp.

“I don’t know what went into that decision-making process of the experts in the State Control Centre,” Mr Phemister said.

“Those experts then commissioned my department to go forth and procure private security, which we activated immediately after the meeting.”

Mr Pakula said the Department of Health and Human Services was in charge of infection control at the hotels, while his department dealt with logistics.

“That would be the booking of rooms and the organising of meals and laundry and things of that nature,” he said.

He also distanced his department from the Rydges on Swanston hotel, where the first COVID-19 infection in a security guard was confirmed on March 27.

“That was not a hotel that Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions staff were present at,” he said.

Mr Pakula would not be drawn on which government minister was ultimately responsible for the program.

Also appearing before the inquiry on Wednesday was Treasurer Tim Pallas.

He forecast unemployment will peak at 11 per cent in the three months to September – a two per cent rise on forecasts released last month – while job losses will reach 325,000.

Premier Daniel Andrews fronted the inquiry on Tuesday and said ADF staff were never offered to guard the hotels.

Hours later, federal Defence Minister Linda Reynolds released a statement that contradicted Mr Andrews’ evidence, insisting ADF support was offered to Victoria “on multiple occasions”.

In a statement issued overnight, Mr Crisp said the ADF was involved in the initial planning of the hotel quarantine program on March 27 and 28.

“During these discussions, I did not seek nor did representatives of the ADF offer assistance as part of the hotel quarantine program,” he said.

The premier on Wednesday directed journalists’ questions on the matter to Mr Crisp’s statements.

“You will need to draw your own conclusions,” he said.

A separate $3 million inquiry into the hotel quarantine program, led by former Family Court judge Jennifer Coate, begins public hearings on August 17.

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