A senior Department of Jobs official has been removed from their role as evidence mounts that the decision to use private security guards at Melbourne’s quarantine hotels was partly driven by a well-meaning attempt to provide jobs under “social inclusion” policies.
A leaked email from another public servant, the department’s deputy secretary for inclusion, also paints a picture of how rushed the implementation was, describing “heroic efforts” over a weekend in late March as bureaucrats became “expert in the delivery of hotel concierge services”.
The revelations will increase pressure on the Andrews government over whether it put too much emphasis on finding jobs for marginalised Victorians without ensuring that those guarding hotel guests were trained in infection control and supervised by authorised officers.
A spokesman for the Victorian Department of Jobs denied that job creation was the main driver: “Supporting an effective quarantine program was the department’s motivation, not job creation.”
Infection outbreaks among security guards at two quarantine hotels in Melbourne are widely believed to be responsible for the state’s second devastating wave of coronavirus, which has killed dozens of people and put hundreds of thousands out of work.
The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald can now reveal that officials in the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions employment division and its international trade agency, Global Victoria, were responsible for engaging private security firms for hotel quarantine on the weekend of March 28 and 29. They also had an ongoing role overseeing the quarantine operation.
The task of contracting the security firms was given to the department’s executive director of employment, whom The Age and Herald have chosen not to name. The official has since been replaced by two acting directors on the latest version of the department’s organisation chart. The officer has retained their senior role at the department.
Media reports from 2013 reveal the official had professional dealings with the Sydney-based security company given much of the hotel quarantine work, Unified Security, in their previous role as general manager of work and learning at the Brotherhood of St Laurence.
The charity and Unified established a partnership in 2012 to provide security training and jobs for marginalised people. The official also did some work with Unified in 2019 in finding a small number of positions under a Jobs Victoria project.
As an Indigenous-owned company, Unified satisfies the government’s criteria for contracts under its social inclusion procurement policy. It won the security contract for Metro Trains last year and specifically referred to its Brotherhood of St Laurence partnership in briefing documents supplied to government.
A Monday March 30 email written by the department’s deputy secretary for inclusion, David Clements, refers to the rush to get arrangements in place to handle returning travellers over the weekend. Mandatory 14-day quarantines had been authorised the previous Friday by national cabinet.
“I have had a crazy weekend, getting roped in to helping with arrangements for ‘standing up’ the
hotels accommodating passengers returning from overseas for their 14 days of quarantine,” Mr Clements wrote in the email.
“Suffice to say there have been some heroic efforts from numerous of your colleagues across DJPR to make this happen – including from [the executive director of employment] who is now an expert on contracting hotel security; the Global Victoria team who are now expert in the delivery of hotel concierge services.”
The revelation of Global Victoria’s role in hotel quarantine raises further questions for the government because the agency has no experience in security or public health measures. Global Victoria manages Victoria’s trade relationships and international marketing.
The hotel quarantine inquiry will examine the decision-making process that led to the hiring of security firms – and questions will be asked about who decided the Department of Jobs be given responsibility for contracting security providers and overseeing the rollout.
Premier Daniel Andrews on Thursday said he was unable to explain how the decision to rely on private security guards was made and Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said on Friday he had found out about “rumours and reporting around deficiencies with the workforce … when I read it in the newspapers”.
The rushed procurement process to find guards for hotel quarantine resulting in contracts being awarded to three security companies: Wilson, MSS and Unified.
The appointment of Unified proved controversial because, unlike Wilson and MSS, it was not on the government’s preferred panel of security suppliers. Despite this, Unified ended up doing the bulk of the hotel quarantine work. All three companies had to rely on sub-contractors to supply their guards – some of whom were recruited via WhatsApp messages – at short notice.
In early April, well before COVID-19 began crippling Victoria, Mr Andrews and Jobs Coordination Minister Martin Pakula released a media statement highlighting the government’s role in creating jobs for 1300 Victorians whose employment prospects had worsened due to the global pandemic.
The press release specifically referred to 450 jobs being created in the hotel quarantine program “including transport operations, security and cleaning”. International students and temporary migrants were key targets under the jobs program.
Private security companies, including Unified, were also used in NSW hotel quarantine, but private security guards in Sydney were overseen by police or Border Force officials in each hotel. In Victoria, the government decided against using police or defence force personnel, and there remains considerable confusion in public service ranks and security companies about which department had ultimate responsibility.
The Age and Herald have previously revealed leaked emails in which officials from Emergency Management Victoria requested the Department of Health and Human Services to get police involved in hotel quarantine in late March amid doubts about the preparedness of private security operators.
Some senior police at that time were privately frustrated Victoria has not been declared a state of disaster by Mr Andrews.
Such a declaration would have empowered police as the state’s authorised officers to lead crucial aspects of the pandemic response instead of those powers remaining with health department officials under the less serious state of emergency provisions.
Mr Andrews declared a state of disaster recently when Melbourne was moved onto stage four restrictions.
The inquiry into hotel quarantine led by former state coroner Jennifer Coate will begin public hearings later this month. Ms Coate will deliver her report in November.
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Richard Baker is a multi-award winning investigative reporter for The Age.
Noel Towell is State Political Editor for The Age