Friday, October 23, 2020
Politics

Victoria’s coronavirus hotel quarantine inquiry to hold ‘extraordinary sitting’; Opposition wants Brett Sutton recalled

Victoria's coronavirus hotel quarantine inquiry to hold 'extraordinary sitting'; Opposition wants Brett Sutton recalled
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Victoria’s hotel quarantine inquiry will hold an “extraordinary sitting” next week, in light of several new revelations that emerged after its hearings wrapped up.

The inquiry board has not said why next Tuesday’s sitting will be held, nor whether witnesses will be recalled.

It follows the inquiry’s receipt of phone records, which could help it answer a key outstanding question: who made the decision to use private security, which is now widely seen as a flaw in the hotel quarantine program’s structure.

The inquiry this week sought phone records from Premier Daniel Andrews’s office, and those of top public servants.

The ABC understands Telstra has now provided further phone records to the inquiry, which could shed more light on communication between authorities at the time the decision was made.

Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien has been calling for the inquiry to bring some witnesses back for further questioning.

They include Chris Eccles, who was the head of the Department of Premier and Cabinet until he resigned earlier this week, and Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton.

Mr Eccles could face further questions after his phone logs, tendered to the inquiry, showed he phoned then-police chief Graham Ashton on March 27, the day the hotel quarantine inquiry was set up.

Earlier, Mr Ashton had been unable to remember who called him that day to tell him private security would be used in the quarantine hotels. But a police timeline showed he was advised of the decision to use private guards between 1:16pm and 1:22pm.

The phone logs revealed Mr Eccles called Mr Ashton at 1:17pm, for just over two minutes.

Mr Eccles resigned after the revelation, but said his phone call to Mr Ashton did not mean the decision to use private security came from him or the Premier’s department.

Chris Eccles told the inquiry he did not remember calling Mr Ashton, but phone logs showed he did.(COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry)

Earlier this week, the Opposition Leader said there were still many unanswered questions and Victorians had been given “an avalanche of amnesia, a cavalcade of cover-ups and a litany of lies” by the inquiry’s witnesses.

On Friday afternoon, the inquiry released a statement that said:

Inquiry chair Jennifer Coate is due to hand down her report on Friday, November 6.

Mikakos points to email to Sutton mentioning private security

Mr O’Brien again called for the inquiry to do more work after a story in The Age newspaper on Friday, citing senior departmental sources, questioned evidence provided by Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton.

Professor Sutton told the inquiry he did not know private security was being used to guard returned travellers at quarantine hotels until late May, after there was an outbreak at the Rydges on Swanston hotel.

But according to evidence from Jenny Mikakos — the state’s former health minister, who recently quit — Professor Sutton was among officials who were sent an email that mentioned the use of private security, more than a month earlier.

Brett Sutton stands at a podium.
Brett Sutton should be recalled, the Opposition says.(ABC News: Billy Draper)

The March 27 email said certain points relating to hotel quarantine had been “agreed” at a National Cabinet meeting, including:

Ms Mikakos said in a statement to the inquiry that the email was provided to the inquiry but no witnesses were ever questioned about it.

Following The Age’s front-page report, Mr O’Brien said the inquiry should recall Professor Sutton.

“Clearly we need to understand when Professor Sutton did know about private security guards in hotel quarantine,” he said

“He gave one answer in evidence; documents seem to suggest something else. It’s appropriate that he be recalled to clarify the situation so that Victorians know exactly what the truth is.”

‘If they need more information, they’re free to call for it’

The Premier was asked about the discrepancy between the Chief Health Officer’s evidence and information provided by Ms Mikakos.

“This is a matter between the Chief Health Officer, the Department, and the Board [of Inquiry], so I can’t offer any commentary on that,” he said.

“I have no reason not to be [confident that Professor Sutton’s evidence was correct] but those matters are being followed up by the board.

“I’ve got no reason to be anything other than confident in his skills, his experience and his commitment to playing his important role.”

Daniel Andrews speaks at a podium with one hand raised.
Daniel Andrews says the inquiry is free to do as it wishes.(ABC News: Billy Draper)

Mr Andrews was also asked whether he would support the board of inquiry reconvening for public hearings to talk about matters such as Professor Sutton’s evidence and Mr Eccles’s phone records.

“The thing about an independent inquiry is they’re absolutely independent,” he said.

“They can make whatever judgements they believe are the most appropriate. So if they need more information, they’re free to call for it. If they want to do other things then they’re perfectly free to do that. That’s entirely a matter for them. And that is the nature of an arms-length, independent process, established under an act of the Parliament and that’s not a matter for me.”

Asked whether he would be willing to appear again if required, Mr Andrews said: “I’ve been at all times absolutely willing and determined to be as cooperative and helpful as possible.

“And that will not be changing. I set the thing up and I want the report and the report is due in just a few weeks and we’ll be able to talk more freely about it then.

“And every Victorian should be in no doubt that I will not waste a moment in taking the decisive action that’s necessary to make sure that these sorts of mistakes can never happen again, regardless of the context.”



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