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Former judge Jennifer Coate, who is heading the $3m probe into the failed program, said the ongoing inquiry didn’t stop any politician from answering questions.
For months Premier Daniel Andrews and his ministers have claimed they cannot answers questions about the hotel scandal, which triggered the state’s catastrophic coronavirus second wave, because it was subject to an inquiry.
But Ms Coate said on Wednesday: “This board of inquiry is not a court. Under law, unlike a court, there is no general restriction or prohibition which would prevent a person from commenting publicly or answering questions to which they know the answers on matters which are the subject of examination by this board of inquiry.”
Her declaration clears the way for Mr Andrews, ministers and bureaucrats to speak frankly when quizzed about the bungled quarantine program in press conferences.
Mr Andrews will also have no justification for avoiding scrutiny when he is called before a separate parliamentary committee probing the quarantine program next week.
Ms Coate also put all government ministers on notice for the first time that they would be hauled before her judicial inquiry if she deemed it necessary.
“It is anticipated that witnesses from private entities through to the most senior levels of government will be examined publicly in this inquiry,” she said.
“If relevant ministers are the source of information needed by the inquiry, then they will be requested to appear.”
The Premier, Ms Mikakos, Police and Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville, and Jobs Minister Martin Pakula are all tipped to be central figures to the inquiry.
Since it was established they have each refused to answer questions about their involvement in establishing and running the quarantine program.
On Tuesday, Ms Mikakos sparked controversy and calls for her resignation by attending parliament, contrary to the advice of Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton.
She then refused to answer any questions about the government’s coronavirus response, including the bungled hotel quarantine program.
In particular she was asked to release a genomic report that is understood to show the program caused Victoria’s second wave.
She was also asked when she first learned there were serious issues with the program, amid claims senior bureaucrats raised concerns within 24 hours of its March launch.
In written responses Ms Mikakos doubled down on her refusal to answer questions about the program, using the inquiry for justification.
Ms Mikakos defended her decision to attend parliament, blaming the opposition for forcing the upper house to sit.
The hotel quarantine inquiry was due to hear from its first witnesses on Thursday but has been postponed because of delays caused by stage 4 restrictions.
Ms Coate said many documents provided to the inquiry had been submitted late, with claims for confidentiality that would take time to assess.
It is understood serious concerns have been raised about documents filed by the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, which was central to establishing the quarantine program.
Opposition spokesman Ed O’Donohue said further comments from Ms Coate about the wide claims of privilege “beg the obvious question, what is Daniel Andrews hiding and why is he seeking to conceal the truth?”
“The hotel quarantine fiasco and the spread of COVID-19 it facilitated is costing lives, billions in lost economic activity and causing immeasurable angst and stress in the community. Daniel Andrews needs to recognise the loss his mismanagement has caused and come clean with the facts,” he said.
The Premier has approved a six-week extension for the inquiry’s reporting deadline, from September 25 to November 6.
“I have one aim in this inquiry: to conduct it with the forensic rigour and completeness that is expected of me and that is rightly deserved by the people of Victoria,” Ms Coate said.
WORKERS, PARENTS SCRAMBLE AS PERMIT SITE BUCKLES
Melbourne parents had just six hours to scramble for a childcare permit overnight, which came after workers were left waiting when a government website for vital employment passes crashed.
Premier Daniel Andrews announced about noon that eligible parents requiring childcare would need a specific permit but applications were not accessible until after 5pm.
It was just hours before new restrictions that allow only children of those permitted workers to go to childcare or kinder kicked in at 11.59pm.
It came after workers were left unable to fill in travel exemption permits on Wednesday morning after the government’s website crashed.
The Department of Justice web page could not be reached for about an hour as Melburnians scrambled to secure a pass before stage four work restrictions came into effect.
The department site and form page both read “Not Found” with employees unsuccessfully trying to gain access, before the mishap was rectified about 9am.
Unveiling the childcare permit scheme on Wednesday, Mr Andrews said permitted workers could only send their child to care if there was nobody else in their home who could look after them. He called for parents to be honest.
“If a permitted worker could not do their work because they have no-one else to care for their child, and if childcare was denied to them, they would not be able to do their work, then they can use childcare,” he said.
“I will leave it to individual parents to make that rather difficult judgment.”
Some centres confused over the arrangement told parents there would be a grace period before forms were demanded.
But Mr Andrews said he was “not announcing any grace periods” for parents battling the permit system, saying he knew it would be “challenging” but was “essential to limit movement and drive down the number of cases”.
Quizzed about why permitted workers needed both a working and childcare permit, he said it was “a simple second document”.
“It will simply be the person indicating that they are doing permitted work and attesting that there is no one in their home that can look after the kids,” he said.
This also applies for parents considered permitted workers wanting to send their children to kinder and school.
From Thursday, anyone who leaves home for work in Melbourne without a permit can be fined up to $1652.
Anyone found flouting the permitted worker permits scheme and childcare scheme will face a fine of $19,826 while businesses can be fined $99,132 for breaching the conditions.
Vulnerable children will still be permitted at childcare, kinder and school regardless of whether their parents are considered a permitted worker.
Mr Andrews predicted that if the measures worked in driving down numbers, more children could be allowed back at childcare.
He warned there would be penalties for anyone caught fudging the declaration.
WHO CAN GET A PERMIT?
Employers can issue one to their employee if the organisation is on the list of permitted activities, the employee is working in an approved category for on-site work, and the employee cannot work from home.
These workers, without anyone at home to care for their kids, can also apply for childcare permit.
WHERE CAN I GET A PERMIT?
TAKE IT WITH YOU
You must carry your permit and photo ID when travelling to and from work.
It can be shown as a photo or scanned copy on a mobile device.
You don’t need to carry your childcare permit.
VACCINE MAY BE A LONG SHOT SAYS HEALTH CHIEF
Australians have been warned not to expect a vaccine for COVID-19 soon.
Deputy chief medical officer Michael Kidd said it would be hard to open borders until one was found and widely administered across the globe.
“We are aware that we may all be living with COVID-19 for many more months,” Prof Kidd said. “This may even be years, until an effective and safe vaccine has been developed.”
He said Australia was working “closely” with other nations to ensure any vaccine developed would be made available locally.
World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus this week warned a vaccine might never be found, saying there was “no silver bullet … and there might never be”.