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Chief health officer saw ‘considerable risk’ to health and safety from hotel quarantine

The email was addressed to state controller Andrea Spiteri and the deputy state controller. Professor Sutton and his deputy Annaliese van Diemen were copied into the email along with Health Department commanders Pam Williams and Merrin Bamert, and department deputy secretary Jacinda de Witts.

Dr Romanes requested an urgent governance review of the program and said the program needed a clear leader and direct line of accountability to the deputy chief health officer.

Professor Sutton said Dr Romanes talked to him about his views before he sent the email, and that: “I did support this as being called out as something that required urgent review”.

“Absolutely, Dr Romanes was acting on behalf of me in highlighting concerns that he had.”

Sutton wanted to be chief controller

Mr Sutton also confirmed evidence to the inquiry from last week that Health Department deputy secretary Melissa Skilbeck advised her department secretary that Professor Sutton would be too busy to be the state controller of the pandemic. He told the inquiry that he would have preferred being in charge of the state’s COVID-19 response.


Under the state emergency plan, the Chief Health Officer is technically supposed to be the state controller. He confirmed in the inquiry that he did not agree with Ms Skilbeck’s decision.

“The position [of state controller] has line of sight of operational elements that I as chief health officer and accountable with all the powers that I’m exercising under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act that it’s important for me to have line of sight of the application of those controls and to be appropriately aware, to have situational awareness of those operational activities,” Professor Sutton said.

No endorsement from the chief health officers

The inquiry has also heard that chief health officers from across the country did not formally endorse the hotel quarantine program before Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced it.

Mr Sutton said the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which includes all state and territory chief health officers and was chaired by then-chief medical officer Brendan Murphy, was not wholly convinced the quarantine measure was necessary.

“As discussed, prior to national cabinet’s [announcement] on March 26, 2020, the AHPPC did not endorse the idea of quarantining travellers at hotels (or other designated facilities),” Professor Sutton’s statement reads.

Professor Sutton is giving evidence to the $3 million inquiry which is investigating how virus outbreaks among staff and private security guards at two Melbourne quarantine hotels – the Rydges on Swanston and Stamford Plaza – seeded Victoria’s catastrophic second coronavirus wave.

A transcript of Mr Morrison’s announcement of the quarantine program was shown to the inquiry on Wednesday.

Mr Morrison said: “The decision that I communicate from this podium [is] the decision of all premiers, chief ministers, and myself. This is not some personal view of mine, these are the decisions of the national cabinet based on the medical expert advice that we receive in terms of the restrictions that are necessary to deal with the management of the outbreak of the virus in Australia.”

The inquiry heard the AHPPC met following the announcement, but there was “still no agreement or resolution to advise to that effect”.

Counsel assisting the inquiry Ben Ihle asked Professor Sutton: “Do you agree with that?”

Professor Sutton replied: “Yes.”

Returned traveller with COVID-19 released from quarantine


The inquiry also heard that at least one returned traveller left hotel quarantine while infected with COVID-19 and passed it on to the person who drove them home.

The person who was quarantined at the Stamford Plaza was unknowingly carrying the virus, but at the time COVID-19 testing was not mandatory for all returned travellers.

Even those who did test positive to the virus could not be held in hotel quarantine longer than 14 days and were instructed to self-isolate at home, the inquiry heard.

Genomics testing later linked the traveller’s virus back to the outbreak at the Stamford Plaza.

Professor Sutton acknowledged other returned travellers could have left quarantine without knowing they were carrying the virus.

“They would have been questioned as to whether they had any symptoms and would have been released on the basis they were symptom-free,” he said.

Counsel assisting the inquiry Ben Ihle asked: “There was no power though was there to keep them in hotel quarantine if they were merely demonstrating some symptoms but refusing a test?”

Professor Sutton replied: “No, other than the issue being escalated to me for consideration for an individual public health order for the purpose of testing or for the purpose of isolation for example … That did not happen.”

Under new laws introduced in June, returned travellers who refused a COVID-19 test on the 11th day of their initial quarantine period could be detained for a further 10 days.

The Rydges on Swanston hotel - the main source of Victoria's second coronavirus wave.

The Rydges on Swanston hotel – the main source of Victoria’s second coronavirus wave. Credit:Justin McManus

Professor Sutton said he had no control of how crucial COVID-19 infection prevention advice was disseminated beyond his office.

He said he and his team provided advice on infection control measures to the Department of Health and Human Services.

How that was implemented across the quarantine program was beyond his remit, he said.

Mr Ihle suggested the advice was disseminated across the system at large, “but your team doesn’t have oversight into how those policies are being proliferated and whether and how they’re being complied with”.


“I think that’s a fair statement,” Professor Sutton replied.

The Chief Health Officer was the first to reveal in July that genomic sequencing carried out by Melbourne’s Doherty Institute showed that nearly all of Victoria’s second-wave COVID-19 cases could be traced back to quarantine breaches at hotels.

He has previously said he first learnt about major problems with security contractors employed to guard the quarantine hotels when he read it in newspapers.

However, The Age has previously revealed that key players in the hotel quarantine system warned Professor Sutton of major problems with the scheme in April, more than a month before the first infection at Rydges on Swanston was diagnosed on May 26. The Stamford outbreak started on June 17.

Sutton was warned about risk to travellers

A Victorian public health official has also claimed he warned senior government figures, including Professor Sutton, that there was considerable risk to the health and safety of people detained in hotel quarantine.

The email, released by the inquiry on Wednesday, was from Public Health Commander Dr Finn Romanes and was sent on April 9, within two weeks of the quarantine program starting.

Dr Romanes, a former deputy chief health officer, wrote there was “a lack of a unified plan for this program” and the people running the program were not “satisfied there is a policy and set processes to manage the healthcare and welfare of detainees, for whom this program is accountable”.


“There are now considerable complexity and considerable risk that unless governance and plans issues are addressed there will be a risk to the health and safety of detainees,” Dr Romanes wrote.

The email was addressed to state controller Andrea Spiteri and the deputy state controller. Professor Sutton and his deputy Annaliese van Diemen were copied into the email along with Health Department commanders Pam Williams and Merrin Bamert, and department deputy secretary Jacinda de Witts.

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