After weeks of hearings and months of deliberation, the COVID-19 hotel quarantine inquiry has finally released its full report. While retired judge Jennifer Coate, who headed the probe, is understanding of how daunting a task it was to stand up the program in just 36 hours, her judgment of the Andrews government’s performance pulls no punches in taking aim at the buckpassing, the bureaucratic disarray and the lack of political oversight that led to Victoria’s second wave.
At the heart of the report is a detailed account of what took place once the decision had been made by national cabinet on March 27 to implement mandatory hotel quarantine in each state for every person entering the country. Without any blueprint or pre-planning, each state was left to work out the logistics themselves.
The program was kicked off in Victoria when the state’s then top public servant, Chris Eccles, left the national cabinet meeting early to call on Simon Phemister, the secretary of the Jobs Department, to start finding hotels and muster people to organise the logistics. Mr Phemister took this call to mean his department was in charge of the whole operation.
And yet by the following day, Mr Eccles informed Mr Phemister that the Health Department would be the lead agency in the program. While this was fundamentally the right decision, that initial confusion about who was in charge was to haunt the program until it was suspended during the second wave.