Exactly what Brett Sutton knew about the use of private security guards in Victoria’s bungled hotel quarantine program, and when he knew it, will be the subject of an extraordinary meeting this afternoon.
Victoria’s Chief Health Officer will be at the centre of a special sitting of the hotel quarantine inquiry at 2pm but it is not clear whether he will be called to give new evidence.
Prof Sutton maintains he did not know that private security guards were stationed outside CBD hotel rooms from March until a cluster of cases were linked to the program months later.
His claims have been contradicted by sources within the Department of Health and Human Services who say they are “surprised” by his evidence and that it is their belief he knew about the arrangement much earlier.
The Age reports that Mr Sutton actively authorised an email in March about the set-up of the state’s hotel quarantine program.
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Victorian Chief health Officer Brett Sutton. Picture: NCA NewsWire / David GeraghtySource:News Corp Australia
On Sunday, as Victorians learned about the easing of some restrictions, the focus turned to Prof Sutton. A reporter asked him whether he can be trusted given the seemingly conflicting stories.
“In relation to the emails, I’ve probably had 20-30,000 emails on coronavirus since this (pandemic) began,” he said.
“I get up to 150 a day … many of them run to several pages. If I’ve missed a reference to security … when the program was established, I’m sorry. It hasn’t registered. So when I’ve spoken to the inquiry to say just that, that was the case.
“I was never involved in the decision making around private security, I didn’t get asked my opinion on it, I wasn’t involved in the set up of the program and I didn’t have a command or control role.
“My public health team were trying to make a case for stronger oversight, so I was keen.”
The inquiry wrapped up public hearings earlier this month and has been expected to deliver its findings on November 6.
But the announcement of today’s extraordinary sitting puts a cloud over the reporting date.
Inquiry chair, former judge Jennifer Coate, is expected to speak about the evidence provided by Prof Sutton and other members of the DHHS team who are under pressure to reveal all correspondence around the establishment of the hotel quarantine program.
Professor Sutton leaves a press conference in Melbourne on Sunday. Picture: NCA NewsWire / David GeraghtySource:News Corp Australia
The news about Prof Sutton comes after Mr Andrews’ right-hand man, department secretary Chris Eccles, resigned after evidence provided to the inquiry turned out to be false.
Mr Eccles gave evidence that he did not phone Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton on the day that a decision was made to use private security in hotel quarantine.
A closer look at his phone records revealed he did in fact make that phone call.
The Premier said Mr Eccles’ resignation was the “right thing” given his evidence to the inquiry was so clearly contradicted.
During Prof Sutton’s evidence in September, he said: “I have not been involved in giving directions, instructions or guidance to private security contractors.
“As explained, prior to the outbreaks I was not aware that security guards were being used.
“There are a number of vulnerabilities with respect to transmission risk because of that workforce. The demographics of that workforce cohort provide for significant risks of transmission within the community.”
But, as The Age reports, Ms Mikakos told the inquiry Prof Sutton was copied in on an email to DHHS officials on March 27, months before the outbreak.
The email referred to the National Cabinet meeting that was the starting point for Australia’s mandatory hotel quarantine rules.
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The virus escaped from the Rydges on Swanston hotel in the Melbourne CBD. Picture: David Geraghty/NCA NewsWireSource:News Corp Australia
Prof Sutton said in September he feels “awful” that coronavirus escaped from hotel quarantine, sparking Victoria’s second wave.
“Who knows exactly what’s allowed this virus to escape hotel quarantine and get to the broader community beyond those who we knew were close contacts,” Prof Sutton told 3AW’s Neil Mitchell.
“I know the cases were interviewed, I know that their close contacts were all followed up and requested to quarantine, but it’s escaped, and it’s gone to places that are linked with genetics by those original cases, but we don’t have an epidemiological link.
“It clearly escaped from hotel quarantine, that’s been awful for me, it’s been awful for everyone, including reflecting on what we’re going through now is a consequence of that.”
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