Published: 08:10 BST, 17 September 2020 | Updated: 09:37 BST, 17 September 2020
Victoria’s top cop when COVID-19 hit our shores was told Premier Daniel Andrews’ office ordered private security to be used at quarantine hotels instead of police.
In bombshell text messages exchanged between former Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton and Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police Reece Kershaw, it was revealed the order had come from the premier’s office itself.
The exchange took place on March 27 – days before the hotel quarantining of returned travellers began – where Mr Kershaw expresses surprise upon learning of the decision.
former Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton takes on oath on the bible to tell the truth at Thursday’s inquiry into Victoria’s disastrous hotel quarantine program
Former Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton text messages his federal colleague advising that the order to use private security came from the premier’s office
Private security has been accused of bungling the hotel quarantine operation and causing Victoria’s deadly second wave of COVID-19
‘Mate my advice is ADF will do Passenger transfer and private security will be used,’ Mr Ashton responded six minutes later.
‘I think that’s the deal set up by our DPC. I understand NSW will be a different arrangement,’ Mr Ashton replied.
Just moments before the text exchange, Mr Ashton had texted Premier Daniel Andrews’ top bureaucrat Chris Eccles.
Mr Eccles was appointed secretary of the DPC in December 2014 and leads the Victorian public service in advising the premier and the entire government of Victoria.
‘Chris I am getting word from Canberra for a plan whereby arrivals from overseas are to be subjected to enforced isolation from tomorrow,’ Mr Ashton texted him.
‘The suggestion is Victorian arrivals are conveyed to a hotel Somewhere where they are guarded by police for 14 days. Are you aware of anything in this regard?? Graham.’
Mr Ashton claims Mr Eccles did not respond and he cannot recall whether Mr Eccles – or some other person – telephoned him with the information regarding the use of private security before he texted Mr Kershaw.
Mr Eccles, who will give evidence next week, has given a statement to the inquiry declaring he also cannot recall if he spoke to Mr Ashton at that time of the texts and that ‘he didn’t himself know about an arrangement about private security … so he couldn’t have been the source of the information’.
Quarantine breaches involving private security guards seeded 99 per cent of Victoria’s deadly second wave of COVID infections, which in turn has led to more than 700 deaths of the elderly.
After more than three weeks of sitting, the inquiry has heard not a single person can identify who made the decision to hire the private security guards.
An email from Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Rick Nugent where he states he was contacted by the premier’s office about the use of private security
Earlier, two of the bureaucrats tasked with leading Victoria’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic claimed they were not involved in placing private security guards at quarantine hotels.
Mr Ashton claimed he could not remember who it was that told him about the supposed plan from the premier’s office.
‘I now do not recall from whom I received the advice to which I referred in the first text … I have reviewed the text messages and WhatsApp messages I received at around that time, and none include that information. I have also reviewed the available records for my mobile telephone, which do not disclose the incoming calls that I received on that day,’ he told the inquiry.
Mr Ashton further asserted that he had no issue with private security being used at the hotels.
‘It wasn’t my decision, but I supported that position because it made sense at the time,’ Mr Ashton said.
In a day of drama, the inquiry further heard that Mr Ashton’s then underling, the now current Chief Commissioner Shane Patton, had made a note stating Australia Defence Force personnel had been made available to serve in Victorian quarantine hotels before the program began.
Notes of his diary were revealed on Thursday during the ongoing inquiry into the disastrous hotel program.
The inquiry was shown a note made by Mr Patton during a meeting in the days before the quarantine program started on March 29.
Chief Commissioner Shane Patton takes the bible during the inquiry on Thursday. He too does not know who made the decision to use private security at hotels
A diary note from Mr Patton on March 27 where he notes the use of ADF personnel was available
On Wednesday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews continued to stand by his earlier claims that Victoria was not offered ADF assistance with hotel quarantine.
Despite making the note, Mr Patton told the inquiry he had no recollection of making it.
The inquiry was further shown an email from Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Rick Nugent on March 28 further discussing the possible use of ADF personnel.
The inquiry has heard the deadly virus leaked out of the hotels after a series of breaches by security firms.
Mr Patton added to the mystery, declaring he too was unaware of who made the decision, but had been made aware none-the-less that the decision had been made.
‘DC Nugent refers to having received a telephone call from a DPC representative in the evening on 27 March 2020,’ Mr Patton stated.
‘DC Nugent has recently informed me that he took this call while he was at home and that he is now not sure of the identity of the person who called him or whether that person was in fact from the DPC or another government department.’
The respected police officer told the inquiry to his knowledge it was the first time private security guards had ever been used in Victoria to detain people against their wishes.
Premier Daniel Andrews continues to claim he was not offered assistance from the ADF with his bungled hotel quarantine scheme
Last week the inquiry was shown shocking photos of quarantine guests walking freely to a convenience store from a Melbourne facility
Earlier, two former state controllers in the COVID-19 pandemic, Jason Helps and Andrea Spiteri, both claimed they had no role in deciding on the employment of the private security firms.
It also hear that on March 29 a Department of Jobs executive had made an urgent request for Victoria Police to be stationed in hotels on the first night of hotel quarantine.
Mr Patton, who was not chief commissioner at the time, told the inquiry he did not receive the request for a 24/7 police presence until July.
‘Had any such request been funnelled to us through an official channel … we would have dealt with it and engaged and risk assessed.’
Mr Patton revealed police were now working as security at two Melbourne hotels currently housing infected Melburnians.
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