Health Minister Jenny Mikakos wanted army in, private security out of hotels
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Health Minister Jenny Mikakos wanted army in, private security out of hotels

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Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos has sharply criticised the quality of the private security companies that worked in hotel quarantine and says she called for them to be replaced by members of the Australian Defence Force.

However, her department's proposal to enlist the help of the ADF was rejected “by other parts of the government,” she said.

Health Minister Jenny Mikakos.

Health Minister Jenny Mikakos.

But on a number of occasions during her evidence to the hotel quarantine inquiry on Thursday, Ms Mikakos said she had not been briefed by her department on key issues, had not asked questions and had not become "personally involved," in decisions even though her department was the control agency between March and late June.

She became the third Andrews government minister after Police Minister Lisa Neville and Jobs Minister Martin Pakula who has admitted to being ignorant about key decisions made in their portfolios during this pandemic.

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Arthur Moses SC, the lawyer representing Unified Security – one of three security companies contracted by the government – used his cross-examination to ask Ms Mikakos if it was a "dereliction of duty as a minister" to not have read the operational plan for the hotels program that her department was in charge of.

"Not at all," Ms Mikakos replied. "In fact, my department did not formally provide me with a brief on it ... I have been provided with copies at my request."

Ms Mikakos said she had no particular expectation that her department would bring operational documents to her attention, and she had only taken an interest in the plan after coronavirus outbreaks had occurred at quarantine hotels.

Mr Moses then asked why disease specialists from The Alfred hospital were only brought into the "hot hotel," Rydges, after the outbreak. The Rydges was the source of 90 per cent of Victoria's second wave of infections and was where many people known to the COVID-19 positive were housed.

Ms Mikakos said the risks at the hotel only became apparent after the outbreaks and The Alfred. She said it was up to the inquiry to judge her and her department about whether she should have pushed for a risk assessment of "hot hotels".

Ignorant about private security until after outbreak

Ms Mikakos also admitted that the first time she knew of private security being used to guard the state's hotel quarantine detainees was when outbreaks occurred in mid-May in the Rydges on Swanston hotel, almost two months after the program began.

In a testy exchange, Ms Mikakos said it was not until those cases among staff and security guards at the Rydges on Swanston that she turned her mind to the role security guards were playing.

Ms Mikakos wrote in a statement that she not believe it was her health department’s role to ensure private security guards and other workers in Victoria’s quarantine hotels were adhering to infection control measures such as wearing personal protective equipment. In hindsight, she said, she would not support the use of private security guards in hotel quarantine.

But pressing Ms Mikakos on her level of knowledge, counsel assisting the inquiry Ben Ihle said: "Is it your evidence to this inquiry that until the outbreak at Rydges, you didn’t even turn your mind to the question of how people were actually being detained in the hotels?"

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"That’s correct," Ms Mikakos replied. "The DHHS provided the legal framework, I understood [DHHS] authorised officers were issuing those travellers with detention notices but I had no reason to be turning my mind to the issue of security guards."

Mr Ihle continued: "What I’m asking you is practically, who was ensuring compliance with ... directions. Did you turn your mind to that question at all before Rydges?"

"No I did not ... It wasn’t an issue that was brought to my attention," Ms Mikakos admitted.

"And indeed it wasn’t an issue that you even turned your mind to?" Mr Ihle replied.

"That’s correct," Ms Mikakos said.

Security guards were responsible for sparking 99 per cent of Victoria's second wave of coronavirus after they caught it while working at the Rydges and Stamford Plaza hotels then took it back into the community.

'No knowledge' of quarantine system set-up

The Health Minister also admitted that, even though the Department of Health and Human Services was the lead government agency on the hotels program, she was never consulted on how it was set up and was not involved in or consulted about the initial decisions that were made.

"As the Minister for Health ... do you consider you should have been consulted on these things?" Mr Ihle asked.

"With the benefit of hindsight, it would have been desirable if I had been," Ms Mikakos replied.

Ms Mikakos wrote in her statement to the inquiry that she thought the DHHS's role was to provide health and wellbeing services for returned travellers, and to provide a legal framework for returned travellers to be detained.

'Too many cooks'

Ms Mikakos said that by mid-June, she believed there were “too many cooks spoiling the broth” in the hotels program. She said she believed then that responsibility for the program should be moved solely to the Justice Department, which Premier Daniel Andrews did in July.

At that time, Ms Mikakos wrote that she also asked her department's deputy secretary, Melissa Skilbeck, to draft a new plan for the hotels that included Victoria Police, between 50 and 100 Australian Defence Force personnel, Alfred Health and other health services staff, Protective Services Officers officers and Sheriffs.

Ms Mikakos said she was not personally involved, however, in Mr Crisp's overturned request for 850 ADF personnel on June 25 and wasn't "sure exactly what request was made".

"All I can say is that my department understood very clearly from me that I had a very strong view that we needed to replace the security guard workforce with an alternative workforce, and they were working assiduously to bring that about," she said.

Ms Mikakos also told the inquiry she wasn't consulted about the decision to sideline Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton as the state controller in charge of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In earlier evidence to the inquiry, the Health Department's deputy secretary and secretary decided to appoint someone other than Professor Sutton, claiming he was too busy in his lead advisory role and being the face of the pandemic.

Under the state emergency plan, the state controller in charge of a pandemic response is the Chief Health Officer, and Professor Sutton gave evidence he would have preferred to be in charge. He appeared before the hotel quarantine inquiry last week. Secretary Kym Peake appointed herself state controller in July.

Private security not up to the task

In her statement to the hotels inquiry, Ms Mikakos said that by mid-June – once outbreaks had occurred in two quarantine hotels – it had become clear to her that private security guards were not up to the job of overseeing the hotels.

“By the time we had the Stamford outbreak ... I was, you could say, exasperated and absolutely determined to replace the security guards,’’ she told Mr Ihle.

"It was not a workforce that my department had contracted. We didn't have any contractual levers ... it was critical to secure the support of other agencies ... to fix this problem ... This was just a workforce that was too high risk in nature. I apologise if I offend anyone who works in this profession, a workforce that in some instances were not forthcoming about second jobs and other jobs they might have. It made it very hard for them to do the contact tracing."

Ms Mikakos wanted various groups including Victoria Police and between 50 and 100 ADF members to take control. However, the Health Minister wrote in her statement to the inquiry that this was rejected by the Victorian government.

Ms Mikakos said she only became aware of Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp’s request for 850 ADF personnel on June 25, which was cancelled hours later, via the media.

“Personally, I did not have any concerns about use of the ADF in the HQP,” she wrote in her statement.

“ADF personnel had already been used successfully by the DHHS at testing sites, to train and supervise contact tracers as we were significantly growing the contact tracing team at that time, and in logistics roles at the SCC [State Control Centre].”

Police Minister Lisa Neville told the inquiry on Wednesday that she too only found out about Mr Crisp's overturned request for ADF members via the media, which made her "pretty cranky".

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Ms Mikakos' evidence comes on the same day as an explosive letter from the Health Workers' Union demanding the Premier sack her. The letter claimed that locked-down Victorians are paying the price for her incompetence.

Health Workers Union secretary Diana Asmar wrote that Ms Mikakos be ousted for "breathtaking incompetence".

A letter in response from the much larger Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation defended Ms Mikakos, saying she was a "hard-working minister who is across her portfolio".

Mr Andrews said he had "confidence in all of my ministers or they wouldn't be in my government". When asked by a reporter whether Ms Mikakos lacked a basic understanding of her portfolio, as the letter alleged, Mr Andrews replied, "No".

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