On April 3, Kym Peake received a letter from Premier Daniel Andrews confirming her place among the chosen few of the Victorian public service.
The COVID-19 crisis had prompted Mr Andrews to reorganise his government and the bureaucracy supporting it. He wanted Ms Peake to lead the most important of seven newly created "missions" – the impending health emergency.
Ms Peake, a career public servant renowned for her voracious work ethic, would continue to support her minister, Jenny Mikakos, but the Premier’s letter left no doubt who was in charge.
Chosen few: Health emergency mission leader Kym Peake.
"In this role you are accountable to me," Mr Andrews wrote.
The idea was the brainchild of Chris Eccles, secretary of Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet and one of Australia’s most experienced bureaucrats. In his evidence to the hotel quarantine inquiry, Mr Eccles explained that the aim was to make good decisions more quickly by focusing the sharpest minds solely on the pandemic.
Where some political leaders would have baulked at making wholesale changes in the middle of a crisis, the plan appealed to Mr Andrews’ ambition for Victoria to not just respond to COVID-19, but shine as exemplar. As a source close to the Premier told The Age: "He wanted to be the Jacinda Ardern of Australia."
Instead, the hotel quarantine inquiry exposed a disconnect between parliamentarians and the bureaucrats who serve them and a creeping culture of compliance within a public service unwilling to call out ill-conceived ideas and unrealistic timetables.
Lawyers assisting the inquiry this week asked retired judge Jennifer Coate to hold the "hastily assembled" program responsible for all lives lost in Victoria's second wave epidemic, submitting that problems in its design and implementation were not brought to the attention of ministers responsible for its governance.
The public service culture that enabled the hotel quarantine fiasco was best summed up by Noel Cleaves, the Health Department compliance manager who worked for three-and-a-half months inside quarantine hotels. Mr Cleaves told the Coate inquiry he was repeatedly advised by his boss to "stay in our lane".
DHHS manager Noel Cleaves appears before the inquiry into hotel quarantine.
"There has been a collusion between the culture that Daniel operates in and the willingness of the public service to do what they are told," a former cabinet minister said. This particularly applies to programs like hotel quarantine or the housing commission tower lockdowns which require rapid deployment of a specialist workforce that doesn’t exist in the modern bureaucracy.
Highly regarded, career civil servants have watched the inquiry hearings with a mixture of dismay and resignation. One pointed out that since the election of the Andrews government, the executive ranks of the Victorian public service had become swollen with senior, generalist bureaucrats, most with little to no private sector experience, while ground level "doers" remained in short supply.
This imbalance is evident in the most recent Victorian Public Sector Commission report and the testimony before the Coate inquiry of Deputy Chief Health Officer Annaliese van Diemen.
Deputy Chief Health officer Annaliese van Diemen.Credit:The Age
Between 2014, the year the Andrews government was first elected, and 2019, Victoria's public service – not to be confused with the broader public sector which includes nurses and paramedics and police – grew from 36,000 to 50,000 people. Over the same period, the number of public service executives doubled from 691 to 1259.
Contrast this with what Dr van Diemen told the inquiry. She testified that on the day Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Mr Andrews announced the mandatory quarantine of returned travellers, there was one infection prevention and control consultant employed by Victoria’s Health Department.
The public health response to the pandemic is, in one way or another, about the prevention and control of infections. Yet, across the department, only one person was employed to do this job. Inquiry chair Jennifer Coate made sure she hadn’t misheard.
"So just to be really clear about this, as at 27 March of this year, the Victorian Department of Health had one person fulfilling the role of infection prevention and control, one full-time position?" Ms Coate asked.
"Yes," Dr van Diemen responded. As the Deputy Chief Health Officer remarked in her statement to the inquiry: "I think we all could have treated the hotel quarantine program more as a health program than a logistics or compliance exercise."
This was a common refrain.
Counsel assisting Tony Neal, QC, submitted to Ms Coate that the "superordinate goal" of the hotel quarantine program – infection control – was not honoured in its implementation. He submitted that the program failed, in part, because the people who designed it didn’t understand its primary purpose.
The cost of his blind spot continues to mount. As of Friday, 783 people had died from Victoria’s second wave epidemic, genomically traced to two quarantine hotels. The Coate inquiry this week launched fresh investigations into how workers at a third hotel became infected after the quarantine program was overhauled.
How did it happen?
The initial work to design and build a hotel quarantine program was done by bureaucrats from within the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions led by Simon Phemister. Mr Phemister is another rising star of the public service who received a letter from the Premer inviting him to lead one of the COVID-19 missions.
Mr Phemister, like Ms Peake, was hand-picked by Mr Eccles to serve as a deputy secretary inside the government’s central agency, the Department of Premier and Cabinet, after Mr Eccles arrived in Melbourne from NSW in late 2014 to take charge of the Victorian public service.
Both were candidates to replace Mr Eccles as the state’s stop bureaucrat. Now, all three careers are at the mercy of Ms Coate, who has been asked to consider whether the trio failed to discharge their obligation to brief their respective ministers and in doing so, "unsettled" traditional Westminster accountability.
The Victorian government, in its reply submissions, is likely to argue strongly against such a finding. Ms Coate is due to hand hers down on November 6, four days before the state budget. Mr Andrews has publicly backed the three bureaucrats.
Premier Daniel Andrews has backed three senior bureaucrats whose careers rest on the findings of the Coate inquiry.Credit:Getty Images
An adverse finding would almost certainly bring an ignominious end to the long career of Mr Eccles, who has previously run the South Australian and NSW public service. It would also put paid to any succession plan involving his two proteges. With her findings, Ms Coate could reshape the future of Victoria’s public service.
Mr Eccles stepped out of a national cabinet meeting about midday on March 27 to call Mr Phemister and tell him Victoria needed to quarantine returned travellers for 14 days. Mr Phemister was told he had 36 hours to find 5000 hotel rooms. He testified that from about 4.30pm, he knew he’d be using private security to guard them.
Mr Phemister thought he was in charge of the program. By the next morning, things had changed. Mr Phemister was told that although his department was still required to contract hotels and security companies and other services for the program, DHHS would take the lead.
This was sound in theory. In practice, it never really happened.
Kim Peake told the inquiry she did not accept her department had "command" of hotel quarantine, a program that became known as Operation Soteria. She said DHHS was there to co-ordinate a "joint operation on the ground".
Much has been made of whether accountability for Operation Soteria was shared or shirked. A bigger problem is that, within the design, implementation and oversight of the program, there was next to no involvement from the DHHS public health team. These were the people best qualified to ensure that hotel quarantine suppressed rather than spread the virus.
Three members of the public health team, Deputy Public Health commander Finn Romanes, Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton and his deputy Ms Van Diemen, raised concerns in the first two weeks of the program about the lack of oversight by anyone with clinical experience.
Although their intervention triggered a review of the governance of the program, it did not lead to meaningful involvement by public health officials. The DHHS bureaucrat put in charge of the COVID-19 public health division, Jacinda de Witts, provided evidence that public health advice was prepared for Operation Soteria but she didn't know whether it was implemented.
It is worth reflecting why Professor Sutton and Dr van Diemen, two highly qualified public health officials, were reporting to Ms de Witts, a department general counsel who manages the department's legal affairs. Like so many bureaucrats seconded into the COVID-19 response, she is a capable professional asked to do an unfamiliar job.
Under the health emergency mission plan, Ms de Witts was the senior bureaucrat responsible for pandemic containment. In her statement to the inquiry, she explained she didn’t have the expertise to say whether people working in quarantine hotels were given adequate information and training. She also declined to comment on what caused the outbreaks from the Rydges and Stamford Plaza hotels.
There is no evidence before the inquiry that Professor Sutton and Dr van Diemen, having expressed concerns about the lack of public health oversight in the hotel quarantine program, kept an ongoing interest in how it was run.
Professor Sutton testified that he didn’t have any "direct experience" with the program and wasn’t aware until after the outbreaks of any problems or that private security guards were being used. Dr van Diemen said she provided advice to the programs but took no steps to ensure it was properly followed.
"I understood that I had responsibility for the availability of IPC [infection prevention control] advice and guidance but did not have accountability for its appropriate implementation," she said.
It is apparent that no one did. Everyone, it seems, was staying in their lane.
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