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Victoria’s embattled health minister, Jenny Mikakos, has denied being involved in the decision-making to use private security for the state’s bungled hotel quarantine program, which has been blamed for the state’s second wave of Covid-19.
Mikakos is the latest in a string of Victorian ministers and public officials who have denied responsibility in front of the hotel quarantine inquiry over the failure in the government-run program.
The health minister made her denial despite admitting her department was the control agency for the government’s response to Covid-19 and overseeing the hotel quarantine program.
Mikakos said that “with the benefit of hindsight, it would have been desirable” if she had been consulted, but that she did not become aware of the use of private security until the Covid-19 outbreak at the Rydges Hotel in late May.
She considered the use of security guards in hotel quarantine as “high risk” after the Rydges outbreak, the inquiry heard.
Mikakos said she had no reason to turn her mind to the use of security guards until the outbreak, and defended not having knowledge of it because it was a “multi-agency response” with shared accountability and shared responsibilities.
“That means there are other departments who hold specific contracts. And I would expect that they would take appropriate action as the contracting party to ensure that obligations are met, under those contracts.”
After the Stamford Plaza Hotel outbreak that followed the Rydges outbreak, she said, she was “absolutely determined” to replace security guards in hotel quarantine.
Mikakos said the public health team reported that some guards during contact tracing interviews “were not forthcoming about second jobs, and other jobs that they might have”.
“It made it very hard for them to do the contact tracing. They were not all forthcoming with shifts that they had undertaken in the hotels.”
The inquiry heard the outbreaks spread from guards and staff at the hotels, to their households and social contacts, leading to over 18,000 Covid-19 cases in Victoria and more than 750 deaths.
On 24 June, the health department developed a proposal for replacing hotel staff with a mix of Victoria police, Alfred Health, protective services officers, sheriffs and ADF personnel but this proposal “was not supported by other parts of government”.
The minister said she was not aware of any offer of ADF support in hotel quarantine until she read it in a news report on 25 June.
Mikakos said at the time she also formed the view that there were “too many cooks” involved in the running of the program across government, and responsibility should be transferred to the Department of Justice. That ultimately happened and security guards were replaced with Corrections Victoria staff.
The health minister told the inquiry she was “profoundly saddened” that the hotel outbreaks had led to Victoria’s second wave.
“These particular outbreaks have sadly sparked a second wave of cases in our state, something that I’m profoundly saddened about. And I was working to ensure that we could mitigate the risks as quickly as possible in the month of June.”
Mikakos couldn’t say if the second wave would have been prevented if she had been aware of the structure of the program in late March.
“I think that’s a difficult question to answer fairly, because of course, everyone’s judgments are coloured with the benefit of hindsight. I think things were very crystal clear to me by June, what needed to happen,” she said.
“I can’t say any degree of certainty that I would have had that same insight in late March.”
Mikakos is the third Victorian government minister to state they had no involvement in the decision to use private security guards, following jobs minister Martin Pakula and police minister Lisa Neville.
On Wednesday, Pakula and Neville also pleaded ignorance over the decision-making surrounding the use of private security guards for hotel quarantine.
No one in any position of authority who has appeared before the inquiry over the past few weeks – from police commissioners and ministers to the chief health officer and senior public servants – has been able to say exactly who made the decision, except to say it was made on 27 March, the day the hotel quarantine program was announced.
The one remaining witness to be asked the question is the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, who will appear before the inquiry on Friday at 2.15pm.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Victoria’s health minister pleads ignorance over decision to use private security for hotel quarantine | Australia news