Messages between bureaucrats tasked with 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 reputations of different security providers.

The messages have been tendered as evidence at the state’s COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry.

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.

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.

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.

‘Unwise’ to speculate on replacement program, Premier says

Premier Daniel Andrews will appear at the inquiry on Friday, after originally being slated to appear on Wednesday.

In a tense exchange with journalists at his press conference on Tuesday, Mr Andrews would not comment on previous evidence provided by senior members of his bureaucracy.

“You can make judgements on the memories of others,” he said. “When I appear before the inquiry I’ll answer questions as honestly, frankly, clearly as possible.”

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

Daniel Andrews declines to answer questions about the hotel quarantine inquiry.

He reiterated that unacceptable errors had been made in the program.

“Mistakes have been made in this program, they are not acceptable to me. I don’t think anyone … is in any doubt about my views on that matter. These mistakes are unacceptable.”

Mr Andrews said it would be “unwise” to speculate on what the new quarantine program would look like.

“We need to wait for the thing we don’t have yet, which is the report.”

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