One hundred Australian Defence Force personnel were on standby to oversee Victoria’s hotel quarantine program – but the state government hired private security firms instead of taking up the offer, bombshell documents reveal.
The Daniel Andrews government is facing mounting criticism over the bungled operation as the state’s coronavirus crisis deepens, with 410 new cases identified on Wednesday and a further 21 deaths.
The hotel quarantine program – in which private contractors allegedly slept with infected travellers – is understood to be responsible for most, if not all cases recorded during Victoria’s second wave.
While Mr Andrews has stood firm on his claims that ADF soldiers weren’t offered to assist in the program, Defence Department records show 100 personnel were ready to enforce quarantine, but they were not utilised.
Documents show the offer was refused because Victoria Police were in the ‘advanced planning stages’ of a quarantine program at the time.
An ADF liaison officer told the federal government Victoria’s quarantine plans ‘do not presently include or require ADF involvement’.
Australian Defence Force personnel and policemen on patrol in Melbourne last week
Daniel Andrews’ government is facing mounting criticism as the state’s coronavirus crisis deepens, with 410 new cases identified on Wednesday and a further 21 deaths
The National Cabinet mandated hotel quarantine on March 26, and Emergency Management Victoria Commissioner Andrew Crisp chaired a meeting the following day when he called for private security firms to manage the program.
Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions secretary Simon Phemister told a parliamentary hearing on Wednesday the meeting was ‘pivotal’ in the decision to use security guards.
‘We all put forward our views, deferred to the experts when it came to matters of security, when it came to matters of health protection and public health,’ he said.
In the weeks to follow, Defence was ‘repeatedly’ told the hotel quarantine program was being well managed.
Both Queensland and New South Wales took up the ADF’s offer, and neither have reported any major breaches in the mandatory quarantine program.
On April 2, five ADF staff were deployed to assist in Victoria’s program without warning, but they were reportedly tasked with administration jobs.
Staff inside a hotel in Melbourne are seen moving luggage for guests in quarantine on June 25
Recently arrived overseas travellers get off their bus and wait inside to check in to their hotel quarantine
On June 24, amid mounting pressure and a public health crisis, Mr Crisp requested 850 ADF personnel to support and monitor at hotel quarantine going forward.
The request was almost immediately approved by the federal government, but Mr Crisp never followed through and withdrew the request the very next day.
Meanwhile Mr Andrews told a parliamentary inquiry into the bungled program that his government never rejected the help of ADF officers.
‘ADF support has been provided in very limited circumstances in NSW, not to provide security, as such, but to provide transport from the airport to hotels,’ he reasoned.
‘It is fundamentally incorrect to assert that there were hundreds of ADF staff on offer and somehow, someone said no. That’s just not, in my judgement, accurate.’
This image taken outside one of Melbourne’s quarantine hotels appears to support the accounts of dozens of workers and returned travellers who say private security guards (pictured) failed to take the quarantine operation seriously before the virus escaped
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds released a damning statement saying repeated offers were snubbed.
She said in a statement: ‘ADF officials asked whether Victorian authorities required assistance with its mandatory quarantine system on multiple occasions.
‘No request for quarantine support was subsequently received from Victoria at that time.’
The statement also made clear that ADF troops were deployed in both Queensland and New South Wales to guard returned travellers as well as transport them.
Opposition leader Michael O’Brien said Daniel Andrews had been caught ‘lying’.
A very quiet Bourke Street is seen on August 11 as Melbourne endures its second week of stage-four lockdown
Opposition leader Michael O’Brien said Daniel Andrews had been caught lying about his decision to use private security guards
‘Andrews himself claimed ADF would be used from the very start of the program,’ he wrote on Twitter.
Mr O’Brien shared an image of a statement released by the premier on 27 March – when quarantine program was announced – which said: ‘It has also been agreed that the Australian Defence Force will be engaged to support the implementation of these arrangements.’
Daily Mail Australia has contacted Mr Andrews’ office for comment.
During the inquiry, the premier was also asked whose idea it was to man hotel quarantine with private security guards instead of the police and army troops.
Mr Andrews said the Victorian government had already been using private security guards for quarantining health workers and vulnerable people before the nationwide quarantine program for returned travellers began.
‘It was essentially an extension of a program that we had already stood up. Nothing more, nothing less,’ he said.
The premier was asked if he regrets ‘the decision to employ private security guards in hotel quarantine’.
He replied: ‘No-one wanted a second wave of the virus. But none of us have the luxury of going back in time.’
Mr Andrews was the first witness called at the second sitting of the Victorian Public Accounts and Estimates Committee’s COVID-19 Inquiry on Tuesday.
Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton has previously said it is conceivable that all Victoria’s second-wave cases arose from security employed at hotels unwittingly carrying the virus out of quarantine.
The debacle first came to public attention on May 27 when the infection of a security guard working at the Rydges on Swanston hotel in Carlton, inner-north Melbourne was announced.
The following week, on June 6, the spread of the deadly virus appeared under control as zero cases were recorded for the first time since March 5.
But on June 17 an outbreak erupted at the Stamford Plaza in Melbourne’s CBD and 21 new cases were recorded across the state.
On Tuesday Victoria recorded 19 deaths and 331 cases of coronavirus, taking the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 247 and the national figure to 332.
New daily case numbers have declined in Victoria since the peak of 725 on 5 August.
Of the state’s 267 fatalities, all but 20 of which have occurred since July 5.
A person wearing a face mask is seen in Melbourne amid COVID-19 lockdown