Jobs department officials texted each other seeking ideas for “good security companies” and warned of the need to be careful as it was a “cowboy industry”, an inquiry has been told.
Emails were shown to Melbourne’s hotel quarantine inquiry on Tuesday, sent between officials in the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions department, as part of the haste to get the program under way after it was announced by the Prime Minister on March 27.
“Anyone had anything to do with or know about Wilson Security SecureCore? Any ideas on good security companies?” one WhatsApp message asks.
Another message reads: “Gotta be careful with a lot of security companies. Heaps of cash work.”
Another responds: “Needs to be reputable. Don’t want … rogue … prowling the corridors.”
Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions secretary Simon Phemister admitted it would have saved “some time” if the team tasked with finding security firms knew about a government website detailing its preferred suppliers.
Another email between department public servants dated March 30 — the day after hotel quarantine began — referred to security companies that are “preferred with Trades”, a reference to Trades Hall.
“Unified employ loads of Jobs Victoria clients, so it’s actually serving a broader public purpose,” the email from a Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources representative read.
Mr Phemister agreed that the effect of the email seemed to be that future work would go to companies who were Trades Hall-preferred.
He said three chosen security firms – Wilson, MSS and Unified – subcontracted work to 14 other private security providers.
They were required to obtain the department’s approval before subcontracting, but sometimes this was not followed, he said.
The decision to use private guards has been a controversial issue.
The inquiry has heard of problems with guards taking adequate infection control measures before the virus spread from quarantine hotels into the community, causing Victoria’s second wave.
Mr Phemister told the inquiry he commissioned private security to guard at quarantine hotels, but did not make the decision to use them.
“I don’t know who made the decision,” he told counsel assisting Rachel Ellyard.
“All I know is that we were commissioned to procure private security in that 4.30 meeting. That’s what I was debriefed on the day, and that’s what I believe, having heard the transcripts.”
The State Control Centre meeting was held hours after mandatory hotel quarantine was announced.
It was chaired by Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp and attended by Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Michael Grainger and Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions executive director of priority projects Claire Febey.
“DJPR went into the first SCC meeting not knowing whether, and to what extent, private security would be required at hotels and emerged with a direction to engage private security to act as frontline security at frontline hotels,” Mr Phemister said in his statement.
Notes shown from the meeting revealed Ms Febey and Mr Grainger discussed the police role within the quarantine scheme.
Mr Grainger said there would be private security, and “then the police would have a role perhaps around that as well”.
Later on, Ms Febey asked Mr Grainger how he saw the role.
“We’d like to understand from you where you see VicPol’s role being predominantly, which I would have thought was around where things are not going as they should and you need to be called in to assist with enforcement.”
The inquiry has heard police expressed a “preference” rather than a decision or a direction that private security be used.
Dan Star QC, for Victoria Police, put to Mr Phemister that the only contingency at that time was that private security would be used and police would help out if there was a problem.
“I don’t agree with that statement,” Mr Phemister said.
Meanwhile, Victoria’s health department secretary Kym Peake also said she did not know who made the decision to appoint private security to guard quarantine hotels and her department was not consulted about it.
“I am also not aware of any member of my department having been consulted about this issue,” she said in her statement.
Counsel assisting Ben Ihle asked Ms Peake if it was a problem that no single person was accountable for a decision to use private security.
Ms Peake said it didn’t follow that having a ‘shared accountability’ model where many departments and agencies were involved in the pandemic response meant responsibilities couldn’t be defined.
“I know it would be more straightforward if there was an ability today to say there’s a single accountability … but I do think the whole weight of the evolution of public service delivery is that people are not carved up into portfolios,” she said.
“I think that there are particular decisions about private security and the use of ADF that obviously evolved. I’m not sure there’s actually a point where someone made a conscious decision.”
Ms Peake also told the inquiry she was not consulted about the contents of the contracts with the security firms who worked in the program.
Under contracts with hotel operators, hotel management retained responsibility for health and safety of their staff and providing a safe site and services.
Responsibility for management of hotel sites was shared between the health and jobs departments and management.
Ms Peake said the idea of having mass-scale quarantine to manage a health emergency was never considered before March.
“Not that I’m aware of, no,” Ms Peake told Mr Ihle.
“You weren’t aware prior to March 27, even of the possibility of a program such as that?” he asked.
“That’s correct,” replied Ms Peake.
She said the evening before, state Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton sent her a draft document commenting about the potential for an ‘emergency’ offering for people considered at high risk.
“But I’d not contemplated there’d be a mass quarantine program put in place,” she added.
Ms Peak said the scale, complexity and duration of the pandemic could not have been contemplated by any jurisdiction.
“I think this pandemic would’ve tested any emergency response.”
Premier Daniel Andrews is now due to appear at the inquiry on Friday afternoon, after his scheduled appearance on Wednesday was deferred at the inquiry board’s request.