National

Sutton had ‘no oversight’ of Vic hotels

By AAP Newswire

Victoria's Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton was unaware private security guards were being used in hotel quarantine until the coronavirus outbreaks that sparked the state's second wave.

About 99 per cent of second-wave cases can be traced back to outbreaks among hotel staff and security at the Rydges on Swanston and Stamford Plaza in May and June.

Professor Sutton told Victoria's hotel quarantine inquiry on Wednesday his team were not involved in the planning or running of the hotel quarantine program.

He said he had "no oversight" in relation to infection control procedures, the use of PPE and cleaning processes at hotels.

Just two weeks into the program, his public health team complained about the lack of a "unified plan".

On April 9, Deputy Public Health Commander Finn Romanes wrote to senior Department of Health and Human Services officials on behalf of Prof Sutton and his deputy Annaliese van Diemen, to urge a review into the structure of the program.

"Unless governance and plan issues are addressed, there will be a risk to health and safety of detainees," the email stated.

A public health command liaison position was created to give the public health team a "line of sight" into the program, but there remained a lack of direct involvement.

With the "benefit of hindsight", Prof Sutton said the highly casualised nature of the security workforce, as well as cultural and language barriers led to "significant risks of transmission within the community".

"We've got good training and supervision but the workforce is the wrong cohort," he emailed Australia's then-chief medical officer Brendan Murphy on June 20.

Prof Murphy replied: "If you need a short term surge in workforce in the meantime, aspen or even ADF could help at very short notice."

The inquiry heard under the state's plan for an influenza pandemic, the chief health officer is supposed to assume the role of a state controller and the "overall responsibility for emergency response operations".

But the role was jointly allocated to Department of Health and Human Services bureaucrats Jason Helps and Andrea Spiteri. Neither have a medical background.

Prof Sutton told the inquiry that he should have been given the role.

"It's not just about my training and experience, it's about the position that the state controller sits in within the emergency management arrangements and the oversight of certain operational activities that I think it's important as chief health officer to be across," he said.

DHHS secretary Kym Peake eventually stepped into the role in late July, which Prof Sutton said was appropriate.

Dr van Diemen's written submission to the inquiry said the program was treated like "a logistics or compliance exercise", and blamed the second wave on "hundreds of micro-decisions and actions".

"I don't believe that any one individual is responsible for what occurred," she told the inquiry.

Both Prof Sutton and Dr van Diemen conceded COVID-positive guests were able to leave hotel quarantine after their 14-day stay.

The inquiry heard a returned traveller was released while infected, but unaware they had the virus, and passed it on to the person who drove them home.

At the time, COVID-19 testing was voluntary and available only to returned travellers with symptoms.

It wasn't until July 1 that a new measure was introduced to detain returned travellers for a further 10 days if they refused a test.

By that time, international flights into Melbourne had been suspended.

Mr Helps and Ms Spitieri were due to give evidence to the inquiry on Wednesday but will instead appear on Thursday.