Victoria's premier doesn't know who made quarantine decision that led to Australian state's lockdown

Mr Daniel Andrews and his Labor government have been under mounting pressure over security failures at quarantine hotels.
Mr Daniel Andrews and his Labor government have been under mounting pressure over security failures at quarantine hotels.PHOTO: AFP

MELBOURNE (BLOOMBERG) - The leader of the state at the centre of Australia's coronavirus outbreak said he doesn't know who in his government made the decision to hire security firms to monitor quarantine procedures in Melbourne hotels that subsequently failed.

"The decision to engage private security contractors, and many decisions like it, were of an operational nature," Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said in a statement to the inquiry into his government's hotel quarantine programme.

"I believed that those directly involved in the design and delivery of the programme would carefully consider infection control protocols as part of their deliberations."

Mr Andrews and his Labor government have been under mounting pressure over security failures at quarantine hotels for returned overseas travellers that led to a resurgence of community transmission in Victoria.

The renewed outbreak means the state capital will be under a strict lockdown and curfew until the end of October, hampering the nation's economic recovery.

In the statement, submitted before he appeared at the inquiry for questioning on Friday (Sept 25), Mr Andrews said that while he was aware of the federal government's offer to provide Australian Defence Force personnel to help quarantine measures, "I certainly had no expectation that the ADF would have any extensive involvement at that time" in his state's hotel programme.

Epidemiologist Charles Alpren told the judicial inquiry last month that at least 90 per cent of the state's coronavirus cases since May could be linked to the hotel breaches.

Unlike other states, which relied on police or the armed forces to oversee hotel quarantine, the Andrews government hired private security firms.

Among a litany of problems, the contractors failed to use personal protection equipment, families were able mix in each other's rooms, and some guards had sex with quarantined guests, the Herald Sun newspaper reported.

According to the report, the virus spread among the guards who car-pooled or shared cigarette lighters.

They then unwittingly introduced the disease to their own communities in Melbourne's poorer and more multicultural suburbs, where it spread through large family gatherings that breached social distancing rules.

 
 
 

Social welfare lobbyists also say the government failed to properly convey public health advice to multicultural communities, with leaflets not translated into enough languages.

Faced with a surge of cases that reached a daily high of 686 on Aug 4, Mr Andrews locked down Melbourne, the nation's second-largest city after Sydney, and then the rest of the state.

The measures have deepened Australia's first recession in almost three decades, with Victoria - responsible for about a quarter of gross domestic product - grinding to a halt.

Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has been particularly scathing of the State Premier's handling of the crisis, saying it was "like watching a car crash".

While the other states and territories have curbed or even largely eliminated community transmission, Victoria's virus tally has swelled to more than 20,000 - about 75 per cent of the national total.

The majority of the 773 lives lost due to the virus in the state have been connected to elderly care homes.

 

While numbers are falling, with 14 new cases recorded on Friday, more progress is needed before the lockdown can be lifted.

Mr Andrews says that won't happen until the rolling 14-day average of new cases in Melbourne falls below 5. On Friday, it stood at 25.1.

Despite fierce criticism from Mr Frydenberg and the business community, Mr Andrews is yet to take a real political hit from the crisis.

A Newspoll published in the Australian newspaper on Tuesday showed 62 per cent of Victorian voters agreed the Premier, who first won power in 2014, had handled the health crisis well.