Still no answers after Mikakos appears at hotel inquiry
Embattled Health Minister Jenny Mikakos says she had no knowledge of key elements of the hotel quarantine program, or of why her department was put in charge.
In a bruising interrogation on Thursday at the inquiry into the botched program, Ms Mikakos said she hadn't been told about a range of problems, including a hotel suicide.
She contradicted Jobs Minister Martin Pakula, Police Minister Lisa Neville and several other officials, who have said the Department of Health and Human Services was the control agency.
"In terms of the control agency reference, it does not mean that DHHS is single-handedly running this hotel quarantine program,'' Ms Mikakos told the inquiry.
"It is a multi-agency response with shared accountability.''
She said the multi-agency response resulted in "too many cooks spoiling the broth".
In testimony lasting more than three hours, Ms Mikakos:
SAID she only found out private security guards were being used after the Rydges outbreak, almost two months after the program started;
REVEALED she had not been consulted about how Operation Soteria would be run, and had no say in its organisational structure;
PUSHED blame for complaints from hotel detainees about food and inadequate cleaning onto Mr Pakula, saying his department held the contracts for catering and cleaning and her staff ensured his office was "appropriately engaged'' on the complaints;
BLAMED bureaucrats for not telling her about problems, saying she was "very disappointed'' not to have been briefed about senior public health team officials on April 9 warning of "significant risks'' posed to detainees;
EXPRESSED surprise she hadn't been told about a suicide in a hotel and the rushed hospitalisation of another detainee;
WAS unable to say how much the whole program cost; and
DENIED knowledge of any Australian Defence Force offers which were not taken up.
Counsel assisting the inquiry, Ben Ihle, asked Ms Mikakos whether she knew "why the department was given overall responsibility for the structure of the program".
The Minister said she didn't "accept that premise''. While the term "control agency" had been "bandied about quite a lot … it doesn't mean that DHHS had control as such. I think the best way to understand it is a co-ordination role."
She said she had no involvement in the decision to hire private security guards, and was unaware of it and of related infection-control problems until after being told guards had contracted COVID-19 from guests at the Rydges hotel on Swanston Hotel in late May.
She said she had taken "strong steps'' to replace the security guards once the second outbreak occurred at the Stamford Plaza in June.
Ms Mikakos said DHHS deputy secretary Melissa Skilbeck had worked up an options paper which suggested a new security workforce comprising Victoria Police, Corrections Victoria, Sherriff's office staff and a small number of ADF.
However, she said the June 24 proposal was not supported by "other parts of government'' and did not go ahead.
She said she was "profoundly saddened" the state's second wave, which can be traced almost entirely to the hotel quarantine breaches, had resulted in 18,374 infections and the deaths of 752 people.
Ms Mikakos' witness statement also revealed startling figures given to her by Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton on March 15, which warned modelling suggested "at the peak of a moderate-severity epidemic, over 120,000 infections will be occurring in the Victorian community daily".
The modelling also predicted that about 13,000 people would seek healthcare daily with 580 requiring hospitalisation, she said.
Originally published as Still no answers after Mikakos appears at hotel inquiry