WhatsApp messages about guards in hotel quarantine reveal concern over ‘cowboy industry’

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Messages between senior public servants responsible for finding private security firms for Victoria’s hotel quarantine program reveal officials were concerned they were dealing with a “cowboy industry”.

WhatsApp exchanges between Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions (DJPR) staffers discussed names of potential companies as well as the reputation of different security providers.

The messages were tendered as evidence at the state’s COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry on Tuesday.

The inquiry is looking into the decisions and actions of government agencies, hotel operators and private contractors to find out what went wrong with the hotel quarantine program.

Simon Phemister, the DJPR secretary, said the messages were between an engagement team charged with finding the best security firms to guard people in quarantine.

“We needed firms that were going to work with us that had a track record of working with government,” he told the inquiry.

But members of the message group expressed concerns over the use of private firms.

“Gotta be careful with a lot of security companies. Heaps of cash work [redacted],” one person wrote.

While another described security as a “cowboy industry”.

Another person in the chat said: “Needs to be reputable. Don’t want [redacted] rogue [redacted] prowling the corridors.”

Private security firms hired 36 hours before hotel quarantine program began

Mr Phemister was first told private security firms were the preferred method of guarding the hotels by senior DJPR official Claire Febey.

Ms Febey attended a meeting at the State Control Centre at 4:30pm on March 27, less than 36 hours before the program was due to start.

Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp was also at the meeting, along with senior members of Victoria Police and the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

“The critical component from the debrief (from the meeting) was that we had been asked to commission private security for the operation (hotel quarantine),” Mr Phemister said.

He added he did not ask who had made the decision to engage private companies.

“I didn’t ask who, I knew who was attending the meeting and I knew of the calibre of military officials and State Control Centre officials and leadership and the Victoria Police officials so I didn’t pause to ask who made those decisions,” Mr Phemister said.

The top bureaucrat said members of the meeting had the expertise and “authority” to determine how the hotels were guarded.

Mr Phemister said it was not possible the decision to engage private security firms had been made earlier in the day, which had been suggested in other witness evidence at the inquiry.

Men in navy blue police uniforms and khaki ADF gear wearing blue surgical masks checking cars at a roadblock.
A key issue being explored by the inquiry is why police or the ADF were not used as security in quarantine hotels.(ABC News: Daniel Fermer)

“My department did not put in any mechanisms to engage private security until after the debrief I received,” he said.

“The day was measured in minutes, not hours … every time a decision was banked and we were commissioned to act, we did so immediately.

Security firm not on Government’s preferred list paid more than others

Mr Phemister said his team spent valuable time searching for private security companies for the program, despite the Government having already listed preferred operators on a public website.

He said the team “could have saved time” had they known the list existed.

Mr Phermister was also asked why Unified Security Group, a company not on the Government’s preferred list, was paid more than the other providers.

The DJPR paid the contractor $49.95 an hour, per guard provided.

This is compared to Wilsons Security that was on the preferred list, and charged $45.21 an hour.

Unified Security Group also charged more on Sundays, added a daily meal allowance to the contract and charged the Government for personal protective equipment (PPE).

Despite being more expensive, the Government used more of Unified’s guards — 1,750 compared to Wilsons Security’s 650.

Mr Phemister said his team did take into account “value for money” as well as other safety factors.

“By the time we accepted those base rates, it came to more qualitative factors,” he told the hearing.

But counsel assisting Rachel Ellyard told the board Unified Security Group guards were not being paid more, despite the company charging higher rates.

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