If there’s one question all Australians want answered, it’s how our hotel quarantine program failed so badly that it allowed the coronavirus back into the community, sending Melbourne into another lockdown and spreading fear to the rest of the country.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews wasted no time announcing an inquiry into the botched Victorian scheme earlier this month. And on Friday, Scott Morrison launched a nationwide review of all hotel quarantine arrangements, led by the former health department secretary Jane Halton.
Halton seems like an obvious choice to lead the nationwide inquiry — an experienced bureaucrat and public servant who was already on the government’s National COVID-19 Coordination Commission and has weathered such storms as the children overboard scandal when she was head of John Howard’s people smuggling task force.
She is also the chair of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a group leading the global race to find and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine.
But among Halton’s many hats is a glaring, potential conflict of interest.
Halton sits on the board of Crown Resorts, which owns several hotels being used in quarantine schemes, including two in Victoria. At least one of these hotels has reportedly used the same security firm at the centre of state’s latest and biggest outbreak.
While much of the behaviour that led to the recent surge has been traced back to containment breaches by guards at the Rydges on Swanston and Stamford Plaza hotels, the crisis has turned the spotlight on the security industry in general. Why was it allowed to be a part of the hotel quarantine scheme, given its record of shady operators, dodgy practices and sham contracting?
Crown became part of that story last week, with reports claiming guards employed to work at Crown Promenade while it quarantined travellers were subcontracted out by Unified Security and paid $22-an-hour cash-in-hand, with no superannuation or even pay slips. One guard claimed he had $8000 put into his account and was asked to distribute it to nine other guards.
Speaking on ABC’s 7.30 on Monday, Halton defended the use of security guards at Victoria’s quarantine hotels, saying it was more important that whoever was in charge was well trained.
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“Look, I think it’s not a question of what kind of uniform you wear. I think the issue is either people providing security or other services are well trained in managing hygiene and infection control. That’s the issue I’m focused on,” she said.
Asked by host Michael Rowland how big a bungle the Victorian scheme had been, she said: “Ultimately lots of people who aren’t necessarily wearing uniform or indeed have medical qualifications work in situations where they have to practice inspection control procedures. [And] they do it really well. I want to look to see how well we are doing that in hotel quarantine.”
As one of the country’s biggest tourism and gambling operators, Crown is fighting for survival. In April it revealed it had progressively stood down around 95% of its direct employees and acquired more than $1 billion in fresh debt as it endured enforced shutdowns. Its two biggest hotels are based in Melbourne, which is now under a second lockdown.
The James Packer-backed company would likely benefit from a reopening of Australia’s borders given its reliance on tourism. It’s not clear to what extent Halton’s review will focus on getting quarantine hotels to work efficiently enough that the country can start welcoming back tourists.
The Andrews’ inquiry into the scheme is being led by former judge Jennifer Coate, and was announced after breaches by guards at the hotels were identified as the source of the latest outbreaks.
Speaking on ABC radio on Monday, the state’s chief health officer Brett Sutton said it was “conceivable” that most, if not all, the active COVID-19 cases in Victoria had stemmed from the problem quarantine program.
Scott Morrison announced a national review into hotel quarantine arrangements after a meeting with the national cabinet on Friday. He said Halton’s inquiry would look at, among other things, the training of hotel and security staff, infection prevention and control, and the management of suspected and confirmed cases.
Halton declined to respond to questions from Crikey about her position on the board of Crown, and whether it posed a potential conflict of interest as she led a review into the quarantine schemes.
Crown confirmed its Melbourne hotels — Crown Metropol and Crown Promenade — are still being used as part of Victoria’s quarantine program. Its Crown Promenade hotel in Perth had also been part of the Western Australian scheme but was no longer being used to house returned travellers.
Without knowing how potential conflicts are managed, it leaves us with the question, will the inquiry turn the blowtorch equally to all hotels in the scheme, including Crown’s?