The Victorian hotel quarantine system inquiry’s final report has highlighted major issues with governance structures and accountability during the program, particularly within the Department of Health and Human Services.
In the report, released on Monday, inquiry chair Jennifer Coate acknowledged that the probe found no evidence of state public servants “acting in bad faith” in regard to the quarantine program.
“There was considerable evidence of long hours and dedication to public service demonstrated by many public servants engaged to perform roles in response to COVID-19,” she wrote.
However, the report found that despite DHHS being the ‘control agency’, the governance structures surrounding the program were “complex and unclear”.
Further, the beginning of the program in the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions [DJPR] “created the first fracture in the lines of accountability and governance from which aspects of the operation did not recover”, the report argued.
“That DJPR held the contracts for hotels, security guards and aspects of cleaning contributed to the firmly held view in DHHS that it was in a model of ‘shared accountability’ with DJPR for the operation of the Hotel Quarantine Program,” it said.
“To the detriment of the operation of the hotel quarantine program, DHHS did not accept that role or responsibility of being the single lead agency during the running of the program or, indeed, even on reflection, during this inquiry. This left the hotel quarantine program without a government agency taking leadership and control and the overarching responsibility necessary to run a complex and high-risk program.”
Coate argued that former DHHS secretary Kym Peake’s decision to appoint two emergency management experts as state controllers — rather than chief health officer Brett Sutton — had three “important ramifications”.
“First, it contributed to the mischaracterisation of the operation of the hotel quarantine program as a ‘logistics’ and ‘compliance’ exercise rather than a public health program,” she wrote.
“Second, it created another fragmentation in governance of the program, as it removed the head of the DHHS public health team from much-needed operational oversight of the program. Third, it meant that those in leadership roles for the program were not people with public health expertise.”
Peake, as well as Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles, and health minister Jenny Mikakos, have since resigned from their positions.
The report noted that there was “considerable disquiet” from some senior DHHS public health team members about the lack of clarity in the command structures used by the department to run the program.
“Inside the DHHS internal governance structures, there was not an agreed view or consistent understanding between emergency management executives and the public health senior members as to who was fulfilling what functions and roles, and who was reporting to whom,” it said.
“This created confusion and fragmentation in governance structures and, apparently, tension and frustration.”
Last month Premier Daniel Andrews announced that DHHS would be separated into two new departments — the Department of Health and the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing — to better align with the state’s post-pandemic priorities.
In regards to the use of private security, Coate found “the evidence did not identify that any one person decided to engage private security in the program”.
“However, there were clearly people who influenced the position that was found to have been adopted at the SCC [State Control Centre] meeting on the afternoon of 27 March 2020,” she wrote.
The report also raised concerns over how quickly important decisions had been made.
“The fact remains that not one of the more than 70,000 documents produced to the inquiry demonstrated a contemporaneous rationale for the decision to use private security as the first tier of enforcement, or an approval of that rationale in the upper levels of government,” it found.
“Such a finding is likely to shock the public.”
Coate’s interim report, released last month, made 69 recommendations to government, including that “clear control and accountability structures are in place for the operation of the quarantine program”.
The final report has made a number of additional recommendations, bringing the total to 81. These recommendations relate to pre-pandemic planning, the role of the control agency and ministerial accountability, the testing regime, and the rights and welfare of returned travellers.
The premier has signalled that the state government will likely adopt all of the recommendations.