The retired judge leading the inquiry into Victoria’s bungled hotel quarantine program says there is nothing preventing the Premier and his ministers answering questions on the scheme now.
The inquiry into the botched program that could have led to “every case” of coronavirus in the state’s second wave has been delayed and will not release its findings until November.
The first public hearings were due to start on Thursday, but retired County Court judge Jennifer Coate announced that witnesses will not give evidence until August 17 due to Melbourne’s stage four lockdown restrictions.
The $3 million inquiry is investigating the links between the current COVID-19 outbreaks in the community and the hotel quarantine program, which was supposed to prevent a surge in cases by placing return travellers in 14-day isolation in hotels manned by private security companies.
Premier Daniel Andrews and his government ministers have repeatedly refused to answer questions on the quarantine program, saying it is not appropriate for them to do so while an inquiry is ongoing.
However, Ms Coate has said there is nothing preventing the Premier or ministers answering questions about the quarantine program, because the inquiry is not a court.
“This board of inquiry is not a court,” Ms Coate said on Wednesday.
“Under law, unlike a court, there is no general restriction or prohibition, which would prevent a person from commenting publicly or answering questions to which they know the answers on matters which are the subject of examination by this board of inquiry.”
The inquiry has received 106,000 pages of documents from government departments and private entities so far, Ms Coate said.
About 87,000 have been uploaded to an online document management system and the remainder are due to be uploaded soon.
Many other documents, however, were not received within the correct time frame, which Ms Coate said contributed to the decision to push back the inquiry’s reporting date by six weeks.
An 11th-hour sitting of the inquiry began at 2pm on Wednesday, where Ms Coate said it was impossible to make sufficient new arrangements to conduct hearings remotely by 10am on Thursday.
“My first consideration has been the safety of those working with us and supporting us as this virus continues to spread through the community,” she said.
All witnesses and legal representatives were set to appear remotely but inquiry staff were due to be physically present to process documents.
Ms Coate said it would put the safety of her colleagues in danger if the inquiry were to continue as usual.
“I am acutely aware, as are those assisting me, of the community’s need to understand what has happened in the hotel quarantine program and the ramifications of it for all of us.”
Counsel assisting the inquiry, Tony Neal, QC, has previously said evidence suggested a link between the current outbreaks and hotel quarantine.
“Comments made by the Chief Health Officer to the media have suggested that it may even be that every case of COVID-19 in Victoria in recent weeks could be sourced to the hotel quarantine program,” Mr Neal said on July 20.
Ms Coate said her inquiry had already struggled to meet deadlines because of increasing coronavirus restrictions. Victoria was under stage two restrictions when the inquiry was announced, and when the first hearing was held last month metropolitan Melbourne was under a stage three lockdown.
“The declaration of the state of disaster on Sunday, and the move to stage four restrictions, has only compounded that situation,” Ms Coate said.
“This inquiry of such magnitude and importance must not suffer from being rushed through a less thorough process.”
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Michael is a state political reporter for The Age.
Tammy Mills is the legal affairs reporter for The Age.