The decision not to appoint Professor Brett Sutton as state controller during the pandemic is one of the most baffling decisions made, says Ellen Whinnett.
The decision not to appoint Professor Brett Sutton as state controller during the pandemic is one of the most baffling decisions made, says Ellen Whinnett.

'Burning questions hotel quarantine inquiry needs to answer'

OPINION

The decision by senior Department of Health and Human Services bureaucrats not to appoint their top health expert to run the fight against COVID-19 is one of the most baffling of all the decisions made by Victorian officials in the response to the global pandemic.

Plans drawn up years before spelled out that the Chief Health Officer - in this case Professor Brett Sutton - should be appointed as state controller in the event of a pandemic outbreak just like this.

Yet DHHS secretary Kym Peake took the advice of one of her deputy secretaries, Melissa Skilbeck, and instead appointed a revolving cast of others, some who appear to have had no health experience at all, to the top job.

In a blizzard of acronyms and public-service speak, Ms Skilbeck explained the decision at the hotel quarantine inquiry.

In Ms Skilbeck's own words: "I developed advice to the secretary to that end, yes. Given the - as both the SHERP (State Health Emergency Response Plan) and concept of operations, a document operationalised in the SHERP describes - it's my role to make that appointment consistent with the emergency - the nature of the emergency and the response - and that was the driving determination for me making a recommendation for an appointment contrary to the presumption in the SHERP.''

 

Victorian Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton was initially unhappy in the decision to not appoint him as state controller during the pandemic.Picture: NCA NewsWire / Daniel Pockett
Victorian Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton was initially unhappy in the decision to not appoint him as state controller during the pandemic.Picture: NCA NewsWire / Daniel Pockett

 

She said she was concerned about the demands on Prof Sutton's time, given that he was already a member of the peak federal body of health experts advising premiers and prime ministers.

She also believed he should focus his time on "communications.''

By communications, are we to assume that includes the almost-daily press conferences Prof Sutton has done alongside Premier Daniel Andrews, which have won him a legion of lock-down female fans who have started Facebook accounts in his honour and ordered bedspreads and cushions emblazoned with his face?

Ms Skilbeck also confirmed that Prof Sutton was not happy with her decision.

"Would it be fair to say that he was against that decision?'' asked Ben Ihle, the counsel assisting the inquiry.

"He was, initially. He referred to the presumption in the (emergency plan),'' Ms Skilbeck said.

The evidence confirms a long-held belief in Victorian political circles that Prof Sutton had been unhappy with at least some aspects of the decision-making surrounding the COVID-19 response.

 

Victoria has reported more than 19,500 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. Picture : NCA NewsWire / Ian Currie
Victoria has reported more than 19,500 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. Picture : NCA NewsWire / Ian Currie

 

In the battle between bureaucrats and doctors, the bureaucrats won that round, at least.

Another senior DHHS official, Finn Romanes, also raised alarm about the direction of the response, in a polite statement to the inquiry, saying appointing Prof Sutton may have allowed public health principles to be better embedded in the program. Instead, Dr Romanes - yes, he's a doctor - noted the hotel quarantine program seemed more focused on logistics and accommodation.

The inquiry also delved into a new area of examination yesterday when Mr Ihle began questioning Ms Skilbeck about what information she had about the possibility of using the Australian Defence Force as an alternative to private security guards.

The inquiry has already established the disastrous consequence of using the private guards, many of them poorly-trained, and some ill-disciplined, with at least 29 of them contracting COVID-19 from guests at two hotels, which sparked Victoria's deadly second wave.

Mr Ihle asked Ms Skilbeck if she knew that the then-Commonwealth Chief Health Office Professor Brendan Murphy had offered the use of ADF personnel "in lieu'' of private security guards.

He said this had happened in June, a few days before the DHHS had written to Victoria's most powerful bureaucrat, department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles, suggesting ADF support in the hotel quarantine program - although not to replace private security.

Ms Skilbeck said she did not know this.

The chair of the board of inquiry, retired judge Jennifer Coate, also probed Ms Skilbeck as to why officials hadn't decided to send people home to finish their quarantine if they tested negative. Ms Coate has asked several questions along these lines in recent weeks and you can't help but think this could end up in her findings.

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The inquiry has not yet found owners for several of the most controversial decisions in Victoria's pandemic response - the decision to use private security guards instead of police or other law enforcement.

We still don't know why the ADF were not used in Victoria for security in the hotels, as they were in other states.

And we don't know who first settled on the idea of using hotels as quarantine facilities.

But we're getting closer.

The inquiry continues today.

Originally published as Burning questions hotel quarantine inquiry needs to answer


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