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Top bureaucrat resigns over Melbourne hotel quarantine scandal

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SA’s former top bureaucrat has resigned as head of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrew’s office after phone records revealed he spoke to the head of police as the state’s hotel quarantine program – held responsible for a second wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths and forcing Melbourne into months-long shutdown – was hastily set up.

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Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) secretary Chris Eccles, who was chief executive of SA’s Department of Premier and Cabinet from 2009-11 under Premier Mike Rann, resigned on Monday after his phone records were handed to the hotel quarantine inquiry at the weekend.

In a statement, Eccles conceded the records show he spoke to former Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton at 1.17pm on March 27, the day it was decided private security guards would staff quarantine hotels.

“The telephone records do not in any way demonstrate that I, or indeed anyone else in DPC made a decision that private security be used in the hotel quarantine program,” Eccles said.

“I am absolutely certain I did not convey to Mr Ashton any decision regarding the use of private security as I was unaware any such decision had been made, and I most certainly had not made such a decision myself.”

He had previously told the inquiry he did not recall speaking to Ashton at that time.

The two-minute phone call between the two men occurred in a critical six-minute window in which, according to Ashton’s messages tendered to the inquiry, the decision to use guards was made.

“Mate. Question. Why wouldn’t AFP Guard people At The hotel??” Ashton wrote to the Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw at 1.12pm on March 27.

At 1.16pm, Ashton also messaged Eccles: “Chris I am getting word from Canberra for a plan whereby arrivals from overseas are to be subjected to enforced isolation from tomorrow. The suggestion is Victorian arrivals are conveyed to a hotel Somewhere where they are guarded by police for 14 days. Are you aware of anything in this regard?? Graham”.

The phone records reveal Eccles called Ashton a minute after receiving his message.

Six minutes later, at 1.22pm, Ashton sent another message to Kershaw: “Mate. My advise (sic) is the ADF do passenger transfer and private security will be used.”

“Ok that’s new,” Kershaw replied.

“I think that’s the deal set up by our DPC. I understand NSW will be a different arrangement,” Ashton said.

The decision to use private security guards in the program is believed to be responsible for the state’s second devastating wave of coronavirus, prompting Australia’s harshest lockdown.

Eccles said it would be a “distraction” if he remain in his position.

“Ultimately the board will make its conclusions regarding the matters before it,” he said.

“However, in the circumstances, and with the heightened level of focus on this issue, I do not want a focus on me to in any way undermine the extraordinary work of the public sector as it continues to respond to unprecedented challenges of 2020.”

Health Minister Jenny Mikakos resigned last month over her department’s role in the hotel quarantine program.

In her response to the inquiry’s closing submissions, Ms Mikakos said it was “implausible” to suggest no one made the decision to use private security guards in the program.

The inquiry, led by retired judge Jennifer Coate, is due to hand down its final report on November 6.

-with AAP

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