The division of the fruits of the Victorian COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry into two parts – today’s interim report and the final report due 21 December – is aimed at making a timely contribution to the redesign of the quarantine systems that will remain key to Australia’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic for some time to come.
With a view to the expected influx of returnees at Christmas, National Cabinet is due to discuss necessary changes later this month.
And in clear recommendations, the head of the inquiry – the Honourable Jennifer Coate AO – outlined how to devise and operate a quarantine system that will surely be pivotal to these deliberations.
Coate’s primary message is that quarantine – in whatever form it might take – is a public health operation.
Any future quarantine system accordingly needs to be designed and performed in a manner that ensures the centrality of this public health imperative.
Although we must wait until the final report to find out what Coate has to say on the larger governance and accountability puzzles surrounding the ‘decision’ to contract-out the frontline of Victoria’s hotel quarantine operation to private security provision, her interim report already tells us a lot – if indirectly.
The report states that it “is clear from the evidence to date” that the majority of those involved in the hotel quarantine program who contracted the virus “were private security personnel engaged by way of contracting arrangements that carried with them a range of complexities”.
So, it is unsurprising that the issue of the appropriateness of contracting-out is the elephant in the room across a number of its key recommendations.
In particular, the recommendations record that the expertise of those involved in future quarantine operations will be crucial. They go on to say that every effort should be made to ensure that personnel working at quarantine facilities are “salaried employees” who are “not working in other forms of employment”.
It takes little effort to surmise that contracted-out service delivery is unlikely to meet any of these demands.
As I have discussed elsewhere, contracting-out a statutory function in whole or in part requires that it be translated into a ‘service’ capable of being delivered by private sector providers.
In the Victorian case, this meant that the frontline of the hotel quarantine operation was performed by an entirely casualised workforce with little infection control training and no lawful powers of enforcement.
Many or most of this workforce worked in other jobs at the same time.
Alongside the recommendation of the “embedded” presence of expert infection control personnel, there’s also the direction to establish a 24/7 police presence at every future facility-based quarantine operation. This clearly also points to the failure of contracting-out from an enforcement perspective.
So, by implication or otherwise, the interim report confirms that too little thought was given to whether the contracted service could possibly meet the dual public health and detention demands of the function at issue.
Coate’s conclusions on how a facility-based quarantine program should work make the multiple dimensions of this mismatch plain.
Indeed, the final report of the Victorian COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry may well prove to be the most sustained critique of contracting-out – from the perspective of public expectations of government action – that Australia has seen.
This would be a welcome shift from what has prevailed so far – a situation where much more effort has been dedicated to refining and expanding contracting-out than challenging it.
As for where the interim report fits with the ‘whodunit’ exercise that has dominated so much of the interest in the Inquiry’s work so far, Coate makes clear that we must wait until the final report to find out more.
Whether Victoria ended up with private security at the frontline of its hotel quarantine program as the result of a ‘decision’ of one or more individuals, or a “creeping assumption that became a reality” is something that ultimately might never be clear.
Either way, the question of accountability will remain, and providing a clear answer stands to remain every bit as complicated as it has been so far.
This necessarily follows from how the interface between contracting-out and our existing mechanisms of political accountability is anything but coherent. Substantial reform in both directions is needed to make it otherwise.
We are yet to see how Coate’s final report will guide that much-needed conversation. Again, however, we can already take a lot from the interim report about where – minimally – we need to be.
Any future Victorian quarantine program must be operated “by one Cabinet-approved department”, in accordance with a “clear line of command vesting ultimate responsibility in the approved department and Minister”.
That ‘one Cabinet-approved department’ must in turn be “the sole agency responsible for any necessary contracts” and, amongst other things, its responsible Minister must ensure that the senior members of its governance structure “maintain records … of all decisions reached”.
Such is the vision for the future.
But it also highlights why it is so important to not lose sight of the ‘why’ questions when the question of accountability for what actually happened in Victoria’s disastrous hotel quarantine issue is again upon us.
If the frontline of the hotel quarantine system was simply too important to be outsourced, it’s time to get to the bottom of why this was the case, and why it might also be the case for other high stakes government functions that carry serious consequences for public health and safety.
Providing sensible answers to those questions needs to be the goal. But what matters above all else is that we actually start asking them.
A version of this article was co-published with The Conversation.
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