As Daniel Andrews faces mounting pressure over his now-debunked claim that military support was never on the table for Victoria’s failed hotel quarantine program, it’s been revealed the PM wrote to him directly on three occasions to offer support.
The Prime Minister’s repeated correspondence occurred before the state’s devastating second wave of coronavirus, which has been tied to the bungled mandatory quarantine of returned travellers.
The revelation, which comes in a 149-page submission by Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Defence Department to an inquiry into the bungled program, deals a further blow to the credibility of the embattled Victorian Premier.
“When the COVID-19 case numbers began to escalate in Victoria by the end of June 2020, the Prime Minister wrote to Premier Andrews on three separate occasions (4 July 2020, 6 July 2020 and 11 July 2020) reaffirming the Commonwealth’s preparedness to continue the provision of ADF support to Victoria as needed,” the Commonwealth submission reads.
“Premier Andrews expressed his appreciation for the Commonwealth’s continued efforts in meeting previous requests for assistance, including ADF assistance (letters dated 5 July 2020, 7 July 2020, 12 July 2020 and 14 July 2020).”
Mr Andrews has repeatedly denied any ADF support was on offer to help with the hotel quarantine program, and this week refused to answer questions about other revelations in the inquiry that cast doubt on his claims.
Victoria’s use of private security guards to oversee the quarantine program resulted in a number of serious health protocol breaches that largely caused the second wave of coronavirus, triggering a devastating second lockdown last month.
Yesterday it was revealed that on June 20, then Commonwealth chief medical officer Brendan Murphy emailed Victorian chief health officer Brett Sutton to say the “ADF could help at very short notice”.
The emails show Mr Sutton replied by thanking his colleague, saying “we’ve got good training … but the workforce is the wrong cohort” and he was “talking to DJPR (the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions) about better options”.
On Tuesday, a separate email also appeared to contradict Mr Andrews’ position. It showed that on April 8, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Philip Gaetjens emailed Chris Eccles, the boss of Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet, about “the question of assistance with security”.
“I am advised the only deal with NSW was in-kind provision of ADF personnel,” Mr Gaetjens wrote. “I am sure the Commonwealth would be willing to assist Victoria if you wanted to reconsider your operating model.”
Mr Eccles replied that day, “Thanks Phil.”
At his daily COVID-19 press conference on Wednesday, Mr Andrews was repeatedly asked about why his statements at a state parliamentary inquiry last month – where he said it was “fundamentally incorrect to assert that there was hundreds of ADF staff on offer and somehow someone said no” – appeared to contradict evidence at the inquiry.
“All can I can say is the statements I’ve made are accurate,” he said.
“I stand by those statements. I’ll providing evidence (in the inquiry) next week and it’s not appropriate for me to run debates back and forth. You’re fine to ask the question but there’s a live process going on. I’m not distant from it. I’ll be part of that process next week.”
Giving evidence before the inquiry yesterday, Professor Sutton revealed that he was unaware private security was being used until there were outbreaks. In a statement, he said until there were outbreaks, he had no reservations about the quarantine program.
“After the outbreaks, I heard of the allegations about security in the media and, considering the issue now, I can see the risks created by the use of that workforce,” he said. “I was not involved in the making of that decision. Until there were outbreaks, I was not in fact aware that they were using security guards.”
The inquiry also heard yesterday from Victoria’s emergency management commissioner Andrew Crisp, who said he requested ADF assistance after being given a “list of issues” with the private security guards but later rescinded the request because other options, including police, were being explored.
The Commonwealth submission shows that on June 24, Mr Crisp sent an email to Emergency Management Australia – a division of the Commonwealth’s Home Affairs Department – and the ADF attaching three requests for assistance, one of which sought up to 850 ADF personnel to support hotel quarantine compliance.
An EMA official replied that day that “Defence has accepted all tasks”.
The next day, however, Mr Crisp sent an email withdrawing the request.
“Based on changing operational and resourcing requirements I am writing to advise you that Victoria no longer wishes to progress RFA015, the request for up to 850 resources to support our hotel quarantine operation (Op Soteria),” he wrote.
“Thank you for your efforts in progressing this request and as always, we sincerely appreciate the support of EMA and the ADF.”
Mr Morrison told reporters on June 26 that he understood “that was a request that was subsequently withdrawn, I assume as a result of further discussions by officials in Victoria”.
“But the point is this – where any state needs some support here, then we will provide it,” he said.
“And these situations can be quite fluid and the needs can change in a short period of time if they didn’t end up needing that additional support and that can be done by their police service, well, good. But if they needed additional support from the federal government, then it would have been there.“
The inquiry continues.
– with Ben Graham and NCA Newswire