The inquiry into Victoria’s coronavirus hotel quarantine program has held its first public hearing in Melbourne.
The first hearing of the COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry heard opening statements from Jennifer Coate, AO, who is leading the examination, and senior counsel assisting the inquiry, Tony Neal, QC.
The inquiry has been set up to examine the decisions and actions of government agencies, hotel operators and private service providers, including staff and contractors, the communication and contractual arrangements between parties, and the information, guidance, training and equipment provided to hotel staff.
The first evidentiary public hearing will commence on August 6, when the public examination of witnesses will begin.
Neal said evidence already available to the inquiry suggested the possibility of a link between many of the cases of coronavirus identified in the Victorian community in the past few weeks and people who were quarantined under the hotel program.
“Comments made by the chief health officer to the media have suggested that it may even be that every case of COVID-19 in Victoria in recent weeks could be sourced to the hotel quarantine program,” Neal said.
He said a number of government agencies and departments have already been identified as interest to the inquiry. These include the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, Department of Treasury and Finance, Department of Justice and Community Safety, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Department of Transport, Victoria Police, Emergency Management Victoria and Ambulance Victoria.
In addition, a number of private companies, including private hotels and security companies, are also of interest to the inquiry. These include Travelodge Hotel, Stamford Plaza, Rydges on Swanston, Park Royal Hotel Melbourne Airport, Holiday Inn, Four Points by Sheraton, Wilson Security, United Risk Management, Unified Security Group Australia, Ultimate Protection Services, MSS Security, Elite Protection Services Australia, Australian Protection Group and The Security Hub.
Neal said the inquiry has contacted all government agencies, government departments and private companies involved with the program to provide an initial response. He said a number of initial responses have already been received by departments and private companies.
“Amongst those responses are a range of perspectives about what worked well and what worked less well, and a lot of useful information about the structure of the hotel quarantine system and the key people that will be able to assist with this inquiry.”
According to Neal, some of the issues that have already been identified from the response were the initial response plans, the speed at which the hotel quarantine program was established and subsequent implications, resourcing, decision making around the contractual arrangements and the suitability of service providers.
In addition, Neal said what concerns and complaints emerged regarding the program, to whom they were reported and how they were addressed had also been identified as an issue, as well as lines of accountability, the training and supervision of security guards involved in hotel program and the extent of testing of those involved in the program.
Most of the responses are due on July 24. Evidentiary public hearings will commence from August 6. The scope of the matters to be examined at the evidentiary public hearings will be set by the inquiry and published in advance.
Witnesses are anticipated to include relevant medical experts, government decision makers, government officials performing functions in the quarantine program, hotel operators, private service providers, staff employed by hotel operators and service providers and people subject to quarantine.
Coate said the inquiry and its findings are important to the people of Victoria.
“To get this done I expect no less than full, frank and timely co-operation from all relevant government departments, entities and persons to enable me to do my job for the people of Victoria.”
Coate was one of six royal commissioners appointed to lead the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and has served on the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria, the Coroners Court of Victoria, the Federal Court and as President of the Children’s Court of Victoria.
The Victorian Government has provided $3 million to support the inquiry in its work, with a report to be delivered to the Governor by Friday, 25 September 2020.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has also announced a nationwide review into the government’s hotel quarantine program. The review will be conducted by Jane Halton, who currently sits on the government’s COVID Commission.
As of 20 July 2020, the total number of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in Victoria is 5,942 with 275 new cases since yesterday.
The overall total has increased by 246, with 29 cases reclassified, largely due to duplication. Of the new cases, 28 are linked to outbreaks or complex cases and 247 are under investigation.
There are 1,060 cases with an unknown source, an increase of 32 since yesterday.
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