19 Aug ADF support was offered from the beginning
Olivia Caisley – The Australian – Wednesday 19 August 2020
There were 100 troops on standby in March to help Victoria with its hotel quarantine program, an inquiry has heard, contradicting claims by Premier Daniel Andrews that he did not believe the federal government had offered ADF assistance.
Lieutenant General John Frewen told the Senate inquiry scrutinising the government’s response to COVID-19 that army personnel were ready to assist with hotel quarantine across the nation following Scott Morrison’s announcement that all returned travellers must isolate.
Mr Andrews told an inquiry last week the ADF never offered to guard quarantine hotels, but Defence Minister Linda Reynolds also disputed the claim, saying offers of support were extended multiple times.
General Frewen said the Prime Minister had “made it plain” the ADF would help, with 100 personnel on standby in each major state. The inquiry also heard smaller states and territories had access to 50 troops, with NSW and Queensland opting to take up the support within days.
In NSW, troops worked alongside police to patrol hotels and escort travellers.
General John Frewen said any quarantine breaches were reported to NSW Police.
In Victoria the Andrews government instead used private security companies to monitor quarantine hotels.
Subsequent breaches have been blamed for sparking the state’s second coronavirus wave, with a separate judicial inquiry into the scheme hearing that 99 per cent of Victoria’s active cases could be linked to two hotels. On Tuesday Victoria reported 222 new cases and 17 deaths.
The COVID-19 inquiry heard that Victoria’s Emergency Management Commissioner, Andrew Crisp, made a request for 850 troops in mid-June, but withdrew it the next day.
“We received the request and then we received the cancellation of the request that cited change in operational and resourcing requirements,” General Frewen said. “I’ve not had any conversations with the Victorian government about that request.” Of the 14 requests made by Victoria for ADF support, 11 were accepted, two withdrawn and one knocked back.
Asked by Liberal senator James Paterson about the declined request, General Frewen said “it was very specific” and “around aerial surveillance . which we didn’t think was the right thing for us to be supporting at the time”.
It was also heard the ADF has bolstered the federal response to the aged-care crisis in Victoria, with personnel called in to fill staffing gaps at nursing homes affected by outbreaks, sometimes “within hours”.
Surgeon-General Sarah Sharkey told the inquiry that ADF responders were being confronted with difficult situations at the homes.
“I genuinely think ADF members and defence health staff feel privileged to be able to contribute to the community and provide that support,” Dr Sharkey said.
“But there is no doubt these are very challenging circumstances, not just for our ADF clinicians, but all of those who are needing to support and provide care for these residents in very difficult circumstances.”