A senior public servant tasked with establishing Victoria’s hotel quarantine program was rebuffed after suggesting police take a lead role guarding return travellers, an inquiry has been told.
Claire Febey, an executive director at the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions (DJPR), also revealed on Thursday state health authorities had wanted to conserve PPE and advised against the widespread use of masks and gloves among hotel quarantine staff.
Febey, who briefly led the ill-fated program, said she did not know who made the controversial decision to use private security companies, a key focus of the judicial inquiry chaired by the former judge Jennifer Coate.
But she said Victoria police had indicated it was the force’s “preference” that private guards be used as the “first line of security”.
The use of private guards was presented as a “fait accompli” and she was merely tasked with implementing the decision, the inquiry heard , though Febey “escalated” concerns that police did not have a 24/7 presence across quarantine sites.
“I continued to press the issue, but gained no traction,” she said in a witness statement.
In a transcript of a crucial meeting in late March provided to the inquiry, the emergency management commissioner, Andrew Crisp, is quoted as asking Febey who would be responsible for contracting the private security companies.
Febey told the inquiry she took that question as a direction. “The decision had been made and we had been tasked,” she said under questioning on Thursday.
She ceased working on the program in mid-April.
The government has faced criticism for not using police or the Australian Defence Force as part of the scheme and no government minister or bureaucrat is yet to claim responsibility for the decision to use private security.
One guard who appeared on Monday said he had been hired via WhatsApp with minimal screening. He said guards had been instructed to stuff their PPE into their pockets for reuse rather than disposing of them and were sometimes only given one pair of gloves and one mask for a 12-hour shift.
On Thursday, the inquiry heard the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions and the Department of Health and Human Services had clashed over the use of protective equipment.
Febey said her department had advocated that all hotel quarantine staff be provided PPE, but that Health and Human Services, which ran the scheme, disagreed.
“DHHS counselled us away from that approach, saying that PPE needed to be conserved and that it was inappropriate for staff to use PPE unless they were unable to avoid being 1.5 metres away from a quarantined person,” she said in her statement.
It also emerged that in the early days of the program there was doubt about its legal authority and the chain of command.
State bureaucrats were tasked with setting up the scheme after the national cabinet agreed to the hotel quarantine program on 27 March, but Febey acknowledged that even as the first guests were due to touch down in Melbourne, officials were not clear about the legal basis for detaining them.
Febey said she initially understood the her department was responsible for the program, but the DHHS took over 24 hours later.
DJPR remained a support agency, but Febey said she now believes health authorities should have also been responsible for contracting the security companies.
The inquiry continues.
Source: The Guardian