VicPol wanted to ‘avoid military presence’ at hotel quarantine

 

Victoria Police objected to the Australian Defence Force putting "boots on the ground'' but then did not supply 24/7 security to hotels being used to detain quarantined guests.

The hotel quarantine inquiry has heard extraordinary evidence Victoria Police wanted to "avoid a military presence'' and believed private security firms should provide the "first line of inquiry".

The exchanges, revealed in recordings, text messages and emails tabled at the inquiry, shed light on Victoria Police's until-now opaque role in deciding how security at the botched program would be run.

The inquiry also heard for the first time the Department of Health and Human Services was the "control agency'' for the program, putting Health Minister Jenny Mikakos as the minister in charge.

Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions executive director of priority projects Claire Febey told the inquiry Victoria Police saw its role as "being there for key points, so entry and exit, and then perimeter or proximate patrols, so available to be called in if there was a need to escalate via triple-0.''

The inquiry was told private security could not physically restrain guests, and were to act with "empathy and compassion". This worried department officials tasked with the early set-up of the program.

"It was my view that Victoria Police should be present onsite at hotels 24/7 and that perimeter or proximate patrol was not adequate,'' Ms Febey said, adding she had "escalated her concerns'' but "gained no traction.''

Claire Febey being examined by Rachel Ellyard.
Claire Febey being examined by Rachel Ellyard.

A message from the instant messaging app Slack was tabled, in which an unidentified person working with Ms Febey at the DJPR comments on a 4.30pm teleconference, which is believed to be a March 27 State Control Centre meeting.

"Apparently on 4.30pm telecon with (redacted) Assistant Commissioner (redacted) said there would be no boots on the ground ADF support in Victoria,'' the message read.

"They are happy to accept ADF's assistance in terms of advice and logistics but want to avoid military presence except in the case of a terrorist threat and would prefer to rely on VicPol.''

Another message sent between staff show that there was a concern raised about ADF personnel in Victoria being largely logistics, rather than "infantry men".

"Which would explain why as a state we would rely more on Vic Pol and private security," one message said.

A partial transcript of the 4.30pm SCC meeting was tabled, in which Assistant Commissioner of Victoria Police Mick Grainger says it is "absolutely our preference'' for private security to be the first line of security at the hotels.

Ms Febey said the fact private security would be used had been presented to her as a "fait accompli'' and a "directive'' at the 4.30pm meeting, and her private note from the day before mentioning private security were simply her "working assumption.''

Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Daniel Pockett
Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Daniel Pockett

The inquiry also heard other official within the Department of Jobs, Cameron Nolan, sent an email to colleagues on March 30 after a guest left his hotel room at 3am for a cigarette, and could not be stopped by security.

"Great. We'll use this to bolster our case to DHHS that they should insist on a 24/7 police presence. Sydney have the army there for Pete's sake,'' he wrote.

In response, the DHHS - who had made it clear they were in charge of the scheme by this time - said it would take the matter up with police.

It is unclear what happened next.

Victoria Police would not comment late on Thursday, other than to say it never received a "formal request'' to resource the quarantine hotels.

DHHS WAS IN CHARGE

The inquiry also heard for the first time that from March 28 - hours before the first overseas guests were due to be taken into hotel detention - the Department of Health and Human Services became the control agency for the program.

For the preceding 24 hours, after it was decided by the National Cabinet all returning overseas travellers should do 14-days mandatory hotel quarantine, the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, believed it was lead agency.

Ms Febey said department secretary Simon Phemister had called her and "I understood that DJPR would be responsible for the end to end process for the program and she would be "project lead".

"By the following day it was made clear that this was neither my, nor DJPR's role,'' she said.

"DJPR was to act in the role of support agency only - supporting the DHHS in its role as control agency by providing particular services which were to be performed at the direction and under the authority of the DHHS.

"I learned that DHHS would be our control agency on March 28.''

 

SECURITY GUARDS BEHAVING INAPPROPRIATELY

Badly-behaved security guards working on hotel quarantine slid a suggestive note under the door of a returned traveller, leered at nurses and "hit on" female staff, the inquiry heard.

An newly-released April 14 email circulated among department staff reveals a woman kept in isolation at Crown Plaza made an official complaint after discovering a note that read "Hey hun, add me on SnapChat" in her room.

The returned traveller then looked up the Facebook account of the person who provided the note and realised they were a guard working at the hotel.

The Wilson Security employee had previously escorted the woman outside for fresh air earlier in the week accompanied by two other guests and two other guards.

The complaint sent authorities scrambling to stand down the guard and officials began pushing for the company to be replaced at hotel jobs.

Unified Security, the firm working at the site of the Rydges Hotel coronavirus outbreak, was put forward as a replacement.

But the behaviour of security guards working for Unified Security became another issue for the department just a month later.

In another email on May 10, hotel staff and overnight nurses detailed a litany of complaints about guard behaviour at the Rydges on Swanston.

This included intimidating behaviour, leering, inappropriate comments and "hitting on" female employees.

Harassment included repeated comments such as "eat, you're skinny".

The same email alleged guards insisted nurses get in lifts with COVID-positive guests, used the hotel's kitchen against safety procedures and that PPE was going missing from the site just hours after it arrived.

Unified Security agreed to stand down the entire team, who were hired through a subcontractor, in response to the complaint.

The Rydges on Swanston hotel in Melbourne. Picture: NCA NewsWire/David Geraghty
The Rydges on Swanston hotel in Melbourne. Picture: NCA NewsWire/David Geraghty

 

HOW WAS UNIFIED SECURITY CHOSEN

DJPR official Katrina Currie told the inquiry she had been seconded to the "Working for Victoria'' program supporting people who had lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic when she was tasked with working to find private security firms able to provide staff at short notice to the hotels.

She contacted the manager of the "employer engagement team'' at 10pm on March 27 and asked for advice on "large and good employer'' security firms. The manager sent a group WhatsApp meeting to his team and came back with four names.

"It was just a case of they were at the top of the list, so there was a list of four firms, the firms were I think Wilson, Unified, MSS and a firm called Monjon,'' she said.

Ms Currie emailed Wilson and Unified just before midnight, and Unified was the first company to get back to her early the next morning.

The inquiry has since heard Unified had the contract for the two hotels which suffered the catastrophic security breaches - Rydges on Swanston and the Stamford Plaza.

Two security guards in Sydney who have also tested positive at hotel quarantine hotels also worked for Sydney-based Unified, which was not on the Victorian government's preferred supplier list.

Katrina Currie getting examined at the hotel inquiry.
Katrina Currie getting examined at the hotel inquiry.

Ms Currie said the team had recommended Unified because they had previously received positive feedback about them and because they had been awarded other large-scale projects, including with Metro Rail.

Ms Currie said she had expressly "made it known to each of the three firms it was imperative that staff were directly employed".

She said this was because it would guarantee award wage and responsibility for staff.

The inquiry has been told that Unified and other company contracted out work to subcontractors, who in turn contracted work out to individual guards.

Ms Currie said she did not think the companies would use subcontractors.

The inquiry heard Unified had advised they had specifically recruited 93 long-term unemployed people to work on the hotel quarantine program.

"Without wishing to be disrespectful to the 93 people involved, was this a role … suitable to recruit people who might have been out of the workforce for a very long time?'' counsel assisting the inquiry Rachel Ellyard asked.

"I didn't read that paragraph in the way that you've read it, Ms Ellyard. I read it as a paragraph about their longstanding relationships with Jobs Victoria,'' Ms Currie replied.

She also confirmed the department was "liaising'' with Trades Hall about the hiring of Unified and all other providers.

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Originally published as VicPol wanted to 'avoid military presence' at hotel quarantine


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