Victoria’s Chief Medical Officer Brett Sutton was told private security would be used to guard quarantined travellers at hotels from day one despite his previous denials.
As the public inquiry into Victoria’s disastrous COVID-19 hotel quarantine efforts returned on Tuesday, it was told an email had been produced clearly showing Professor Sutton was aware of the doomed plan from March 27.
Professor Sutton had told the inquiry last month that he had no knowledge private security was even in the hotels until the virus broke free from them in May.
Security guards working at Victoria’s hotel quarantine had refused to use hand sanitiser over religious beliefs
Professor Brett Sutton at the Hotel Quarantine Inquiry last month. He has been asked to provide further evidence
An email sent by Dr Brett Sutton revealing his concerns upon learning that private security guards had led to an outbreak of COVID-19
A damning email chain produced to the inquiry has now exposed those statements to be untrue, with Professor Sutton copied into discussions about private security before the program officially kicked off.
March 27 email copying in Professor Brett Sutton
The inquiry heard the ‘penultimate email’ in the chain is from Mr Braedan Hogan, Deputy Director Strategy and Policy DHHS advises Commonwealth officials amongst other things that:
‘Private security has been contracted to provide security at the hotels with escalation arrangements to Vic Pol as needed’.
Professor Sutton is included in copy to this penultimate email and himself, by separate email, acknowledges its receipt with the words ‘thanks so much, Braedan’.
On its face this email has relevance to the time at which Professor Sutton had knowledge of the use of private security within the Hotel Quarantine Program.
His evidence before the Inquiry was that he was unaware of it until media reports concerning the outbreak at the Rydges Hotel in May this year came to his attention.
Tony Neal QC, the counsel assisting Victoria’s hotel quarantine inquiry, said the emails had not been produced by Victoria’s health department despite it being asked to hand over everything that related to the program.
Quarantine breaches involving private security guards seeded 99 per cent of Victoria’s deadly second wave of COVID infections, the inquiry has heard.
Mr Sutton was included on an email chain discussing the use of private security on the evening of March 27.
Another exchange included him between March 30 and July 2.
Professor Sutton has now been asked to submit a second statement to the inquiry explaining his previous evidence that he was unaware private security had been used in hotels until much later.
He has seven days to comply with the demand.
The revelations could lead to more people being recalled to the inquiry to explain previous evidence.
Mr Neal said the emails covered ‘matters that occupied a very considerable amount of the board’s time’ during the inquiry.
‘You [retired judge Jennifer Coate, who is leading the inquiry] may consider it adds some weight in one direction or another to your deliberations as to who was in charge for the detention regime,’ he said.
When questioned about the email exchange last weekend, Professor Sutton told reporters the detail had ‘not registered’ with him.
Last month the inquiry was shown shocking photos of quarantine guests walking freely to a convenience store from a Melbourne facility
Premier Daniel Andrews apologised last month for the bungled hotel quarantine scheme
Professor Brett Sutton faced the Quarantine Hotel Inquiry last month
The Age reported that Professor Sutton claimed he had seen and responded to the email but that its reference to private security had not registered with him before he passed it on and that he had played no part in a decision by the Health Department to withhold the document from the inquiry.
Last month, Professor Sutton had told the inquiry he believed private security was the ‘wrong cohort’ for the state’s bungled hotel quarantine scheme.
At the conclusion of the inquiry, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews apologised for his government’s disastrous decision to use private security guards at quarantine hotels.
‘Mistakes have been made in this program and answers are required,’ Mr Andrews said.
The bungle is estimated to be costing Victoria anywhere up to $400 million a day with fears the current lockdown could run as high as $25 billion.
Dozens of security guards ended up catching coronavirus from quarantined returned travellers while working in the hotels.
The inquiry had earlier seen text messages from former Victoria Police chief commissioner Graham Ashton declaring he had been told of the private security decision by someone within the Department of Premier and Cabinet on March 27 – the same day Professor Sutton was copied in on the emails.
Professor Sutton had previously told the inquiry he had no input into the hotel quarantine program despite being an expert in the field of infectious diseases.
‘With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that using a highly casualised workforce, generally from a lower socio-economic background, where that means that poor leave provisions limit how one can care for and financially support one’s family if unwell,’ Professor Sutton wrote in his submission to the inquiry.
‘In addition, where many of these staff might combine multiple, piecemeal jobs across different industries to maintain an adequate income, creating transmission risk.
‘In addition, the security guard workforce is often represented by people with relatively larger families and larger networks of friends, which creates additional transmission risks should they become unwell.’
Victoria’s deadly second wave of COVID-19 quickly spread throughout the community in June and into the state’s vulnerable aged care sector.
As of Tuesday, 816 Victorians have died from the virus – most of them elderly citizens infected in nursing homes.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced in March that returning travellers would be going to secure hotels. It was news to Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton
Professor Sutton said he was unaware private security was even being used to guard hotels quarantining returned travellers until there were outbreaks.
‘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 told the inquiry.
‘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.’
In hindsight, Dr Sutton said if he was to run a quarantine program now he would not use hotels to do it.
Victoria’s hotel quarantine inquiry may now need to postpone its final reporting date of November 6.