The chief medical officer has been credited with helping Australia remain relatively unscathed by the global coronavirus pandemic. An Instagram fan account describes him as “the man who saved Australia”.
But, as the Victorian government battles an escalating outbreak in Melbourne that authorities fear could become a second wave, Professor Murphy says he never believed COVID-19 had been defeated.
“We’ve always expected that it was unrealistic to completely eliminate the virus,” he said.
“There were a million new cases last week across the world and it’s still escalating. None of our quarantine systems can never be 100 per cent perfect, so we have to be ready for more little outbreaks over coming months, or really until we get a vaccine.”
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews this week brought back social restrictions that were being gradually eased after weeks of stable COVID-19 case numbers, and the state is now battling to bring its growing outbreak under control.
When Professor Murphy chairs his final meeting of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee – the medical expert panel made up of federal, state and territory chief health officers and advises the national cabinet – on Friday, hotel quarantine will be high on the agenda.
“We’ll be having a bit of a chat about lessons learned,” he said.
“It’s not only Melbourne … some other states have had near misses, too.”
He said “vastly greater numbers” of returned travellers had been quarantined in Victoria and NSW compared with other states, with almost 20,000 having undergone their 14-day quarantine in Melbourne hotels.
Before taking up his new position as federal Health Department Secretary, the former nephrologist and hospital administrator hopes to take a couple of weeks off – but is unsure if that will happen.
“We’re all a little bit anxious about the Victorian situation at the moment,” he said.
Professor Murphy’s young grand-daughters live in Melbourne, but he is unsure whether he will be travelling down to see them in the coming weeks, as residents of states with low case number have been advised not to travel to the city.
He was confident at leaving the pandemic response in good hands, having bulked up the CMO office with a string of new deputies, including Professor Paul Kelly who will be acting chief medical officer until a permanent replacement is selected.
While the pandemic would continue to dominate “until we’ve got a vaccine,” he said, the health department had plenty of unrelated work to catch up on, with multiple inquiries – including the Medicare Benefits Schedule review – having been sidelined during the crisis.
“The real challenge in the health space now is … we’ve got to focus on other parts of the health system,” he said.
“We’ve got to look at the mental health of what’s happened to people over the last few months, make sure that people aren’t neglecting their other health conditions, keep going and having their cancer screening tests, getting their checkups and not being frightened to get medical attention.
“You could end up with more deaths due to people neglecting other conditions than COVID, if you’re not careful.”
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.