It was the first time Morrison had spoken publicly about this little-known new virus. He told Sky viewers he’d been advised it was “not at the sort of extreme level” of SARS but it was “still early days”.
“There’s an incident response group that has already been stood up here nationally to monitor this very, very closely and I’m getting daily updates … to ensure that we’re all over this,” he said.
Two days later, with Chinese authorities reporting 571 cases of infections and 17 deaths, Morrison stood alongside Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy at a press conference. They declared that, despite no confirmed cases in Australia of what would become COVID-19, a national incident response room had been activated for “a human coronavirus with pandemic potential”.
Behind the scenes, a national network of public health officials, researchers and medical experts had been quickly assembled to plan for an outbreak should the virus take hold in Australia.
Over the coming weeks, the nation’s best and brightest would gather twice a day with the latest research, views and opinions in an attempt to form a consensus approach and bring it to the attention of the country’s decision makers and political leaders.
Murphy, his deputy Paul Kelly, Health Minister Greg Hunt and Alex Caroly, the head of policy in the Prime Minister’s office, make up the inner circle of Morrison’s frontline team forming the response to the current crisis.
Caroly has a history in health policy and formerly worked in Hunt’s office. Kelly has helped share Murphy’s public workload as he has been pushed to the limit with his responsibilities in the top role.
One senior government figure says Morrison has “put his full and absolute trust” in this team when it comes to his response to the unfolding health crisis. “He hasn’t taken one decision against expert health advice and while clearly he is worried about the effects his decisions have on the economy and the lives and livelihoods of Australians, he has never once compromised on the health front.”
While Murphy has been the public face of the battle against COVID-19, he is informed daily by his colleagues on the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC). Supporting him are deputy chief medical officers who are leading experts in epidemiology, respiratory and infectious diseases, and primary and intensive care.
Dr Jenny Firman, the principal medical adviser at the Department of Veterans Affairs and a former Surgeon General of the Australian Defence Force Reserve, has also been seconded to support Murphy. This week, Dr Nick Coatsworth, a Canberra-based respiratory and infectious diseases clinician who trained and prepared AusMAT clinicians during the Ebola outbreak, was appointed as another deputy to Murphy.
The “robust” meetings of chief medical officers from all jurisdictions and a group of specially invited experts last up to two hours. There are a wide range of views, but those in the meeting say Murphy brings the group to a consensus more often than not.
Some, like Victorian Chief Medical Officer Brett Sutton, seek more conservative measures. Sutton this week took to social media to register his view the state should move harder and faster than the rest of the nation. Others have disagreed.
Those in the room say Murphy promotes the airing of a wide range of views and opinions and quickly turns that around to brief Morrison, the federal cabinet and the new national cabinet, made up of the PM and all state and territory leaders.
Some in the group will privately concede the public communication of their decisions could have been clearer along the way, but insist both Morrison and Murphy should be “cut some slack” in “truly unprecedented times”.
At his Melbourne home in late December, Professor Allen Cheng, an infectious diseases physician, first learned of the novel coronavirus sweeping China’s Hubei province through a series of emailed clippings through his various professional networks. A professor of infectious diseases epidemiology at Monash University and director of the Infection Prevention and Healthcare Epidemiology unit at Alfred Health, Cheng is among the most respected in his field in Australia.
By early January, his social media feed had gone from warnings of the smoke-filled air to sharing the first informed medical reports about the virus out of China. “Huge news – a novel CoV reported to cause the Wuhan cluster,” he tweeted on January 9.
A few weeks later, Murphy invited Cheng to lend his voice to the team of leading medical experts helping guide the federal and state government in the early days of the virus.
“He may not have a background in infectious diseases – chief medical officers don’t necessarily need to be an expert in every area – but what is important is they take advice from people who are,” Cheng says of Murphy. “I’m not giving away state secrets – there is robust discussion and people have different opinions. It’s a difficult time – I think he has been trying to take a very sensible and balanced line.”
Cheng is just one of many of the leading Australian medical experts who form part of a COVID-19 Working Group that provides advice daily to the AHPPC. Between them they work 24 hours a day, joining teleconferences in the middle of the night with Chinese or Italian medics to bring the most up-to-date information to their panel’s attention.
While some medical commentators have been openly critical of the decisions to keep schools open or not implement a “go hard, go fast” policy soon enough, Shitij Kapur, dean of medicine at the University of Melbourne, this week praised the government for seeking a range of expert opinions. He said advice on “very complex, unprecedented circumstances” was not black and white, which was why the group he chaired had canvassed a diversity of views on how to escalate social distancing measures.
Professor Jodie McVernon, director of epidemiology at the Doherty Institute, is a pandemic modeller who also forms part of the expert committee.
“We are not coming to these questions naively or without prior thought. [We are] coming with tools we’ve prepared earlier,” she told the National Press Club this month. “We always knew, we knew on the 3rd of February, that there [would] come a point when it would be inevitable that our capacity could not completely put out every spark.”
We are not coming to these questions naively or without prior thought.
Professor Jodie McVernon
The working group is led by Dr Sonya Bennett, whose day job is executive director of communicable diseases at Queensland Health. She began her medical research career in the Royal Australian Navy before pursuing a career in public health. In June last year, she became chair of the Communicable Disease Network of Australia, a group that used to meet for an hour or so each fortnight to discuss the latest issues in their field.
Now she, like her colleagues, is sleep deprived and working on the adrenaline of a one-in-a-century global health pandemic. “This situation is like nothing we have seen before, there is no doubt about that,” Dr Bennett says. “I think Australians can be proud, and reassured about the way we have responded. It is fast moving and we are learning new things about the virus everyday.
“But we are in the best possible position to fight it.”
Rob Harris is the National Affairs Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra