19 Aug General pulls rank on hotel quarantine claim by Premier
Chip Le Grand – The Age – Wednesday 19 August 2020
The commander of the Defence response to the pandemic has confirmed an ADF offer to make troops available to strengthen Victoria’s hotel quarantine scheme was not taken up by the state government.
Lieutenant-General John Frewen, head of the Defence COVID-19 Taskforce, told a Senate inquiry the same support offered to NSW and Queensland to establish and maintain their hotel quarantine regimes was available to Victoria.
The general’s testimony made clear that had Victoria sought Australian Defence Force help on the same scale as NSW, hundreds of personnel could have been mobilised to bolster the state’s quarantine arrangements.
It prompted the state opposition to renew its call for Premier Daniel Andrews to resign for misleading the public about a crucial element of the deadly hotel quarantine debacle.
Breakouts from two quarantine hotels in Melbourne were identified in scientific evidence presented to the Coate inquiry yesterday as the source of nearly all cases in Victoria’s second wave epidemic, now responsible for more than 300 deaths.
Dr Charles Alpren, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health and Human Services, told the hotel quarantine inquiry that 90 per cent of infections since late May could be traced to the Rydges Hotel on Swanston.
Subsequent outbreaks at the Stamford Plaza Hotel were Continued Page 8 General pulls rank on hotel quarantine claim by Premier From Page 1 responsible for the remainder of second wave cases, Dr Alpren said.
General Frewen’s testimony confirmed a timeline of events published last week by The Age setting out the ADF’s standing offer to help with hotel quarantine from March 27, the day the national cabinet agreed to back the mandatory quarantine program.
It contradicted what Mr Andrews said last week when he told a Victorian parliamentary hearing that “ADF support was not on offer” for hotel quarantine. Mr Andrews told the hearing it was “fundamentally incorrect to assert that there were hundreds of ADF staff on offer and somehow, someone said no”.
State Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien said the general’s account showed Mr Andrews gave “false evidence” to the parliamentary hearing. “A decorated officer has confirmed that the ADF did offer Victoria support including for security in hotel quarantine,” Mr O’Brien said.
“This proves that the Premier gave false evidence to the Parliament when he claimed this did not occur. A Premier willing to lie to Victorians can’t be trusted to lead us through this pandemic. It’s time for him to go.”
Mr Andrews said he stood by his previous comments.
General Frewen was questioned about the ADF’s willingness to support Victoria’s quarantine regime by Liberal senator James Paterson.
Senator Paterson: “To be very clear here, ADF assistance was available to Victoria on an equal basis as every other state throughout this crisis, was it not?” General Frewen: “Yes senator.”
Senator Paterson: “And if the Victorian government did not take up that assistance in the same way that the NSW government did or the Queensland government did or indeed, the West Australian government did, that is a matter for the Victorian government, isn’t it?” General Frewen: “Yes senator.”
The general’s testimony also conflicts with a statement last week by Emergency Management Victoria Commissioner Andrew Crisp.
On the day of Mr Andrews’ appearance before the parliamentary committee, Mr Crisp said: “Representatives of the ADF participated in the Operation Soteria planning and co-ordination meetings on 27 and 28 March 2020. During these discussions I did not seek, nor did representatives of the ADF offer, assistance as part of the hotel quarantine program.”
General Frewen told the Senate that on March 27, the ADF “stood to” 100 personnel (put them on standby) in Victoria to help establish the mandatory hotel quarantine regime announced that day by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
“In the PM’s offer, the ADF, it was made plain, would be available to all of the states and territories to help with whatever arrangements were put in place for quarantine and quarantine enforcement,” he said.
Mr Crisp referred The Age to his previous statement. “My position has not changed,” he said.
Mr Andrews told the parliamentary committee that ADF support in NSW was limited to transporting returned travellers from airports to quarantine hotels. General Frewen said ADF personnel were used in transport, baggage handling, hotel concierge work, enforcement of hotel quarantine and room service.
He said there had been 14 requests by Victoria for ADF help since the COVID-19 crisis began. Of these, only a request for aerial surveillance had been refused. Two requests were withdrawn and 11 approved. General Frewen said one of the withdrawn requests was a June 24 request by Mr Crisp for 850 ADF personnel to help with hotel quarantine. He said the ADF was not told why the request was rescinded.