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Vic hotel quarantine inquiry delayed

An inquiry into Victoria’s botched hotel quarantine program, which sparked the second wave of coronavirus in the state, has been delayed by almost two weeks.

The inquiry headed by former Family Court judge Jennifer Coate was on Wednesday postponed until August 17, due to the state’s stage four coronavirus restrictions,

It was scheduled to begin public hearings on Thursday, the day restrictions on workplaces come into effect.

The inquiry’s reporting date has also been pushed back by six weeks, from September 25 to November 6, due to delays in receiving submissions.

Justice Coate said some 106,000 documents have been received by the inquiry from government departments and private entities so far.

“This inquiry of such magnitude and importance must not suffer through being rushed by a less than thorough process,” she said.

“I am acutely aware, as are those assisting me, of the community’s need to have as thorough an understanding of what has happened in the hotel quarantine program and the ramifications.

“I acknowledge this extra time for reporting will cause frustration and distress to many.”

Justice Coate said it was impossible to move the hearings online by 10am on Thursday and going ahead in person would have risked the safety of her colleagues.

“I can not prioritise proceeding tomorrow in the way intended over the safety of the staff and counsel that would have to be physically present,” she said.

The inquiry will be moving to an entirely online format from August 17, with infectious diseases expert Professor Lindsay Grayson, Professor Ben Howden from the Doherty Institute and Dr Charles Alpren from the Department of Health and Human Services expected to be called first.

The experts will be providing the inquiry with information on epidemiology, contact tracing, genomic testing and infection control.

The state government launched the $3 million inquiry after new COVID-19 cases in late May and early June were linked to infection control breaches by security guards at quarantine hotels.

Justice Coate noted there are no international flights arriving in Victoria at present and that the program has “substantially” changed since the inquiry was announced on June 30.

Premier Daniel Andrews and his ministers have repeatedly dodged questions on the scheme, referring journalists to the inquiry currently underway.

But Justice Coate said there was no stopping him from answering questions.

“Under law, unlike a court, there is no general restriction or prohibition, which would prevent a person from commenting publicly or answering questions to which they know the answers on matters which are the subject of examination by this board of inquiry,” she said.

Relevant government ministers will likely be summoned to appear before the inquiry, Justice Coate added.

Shadow attorney-general Edward O’Donohue said the botched scheme has cost lives, billions of dollars in lost economic activity and “immeasurable angst and stress in the community”.

“Daniel Andrews needs to recognise the loss his mismanagement has caused and come clean with the facts. The time for ducking, dodging and obfuscation is over,” he said in a statement.

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