As the most visible health official in the Andrews government, Professor Sutton’s authority might have been enough to raise questions about the use of private security guards, as he later did, on the basis that a casual and ill-trained workforce was not equipped to work in the hazardous environment of hotel quarantine.
The potentially damaging revelations come as the Andrews government reels from the resignations of former health minister Jenny Mikakos and Victoria’s most senior public servant, former Premier’s Department secretary Chris Eccles, after their appearances before the inquiry.
Professor Sutton told the inquiry in September he was not aware of the use of security guards until after the COVID-19 outbreak because he did not set up or run Operation Soteria, the name given to Victoria’s hotel quarantine program.
“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,” the Chief Health Officer said in his written submission to the inquiry.
In hindsight, relying upon private security was a health risk, he said.
“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.”
Ms Mikakos first cast doubt on Professor Sutton’s statement in her final submission to the inquiry in which she referred to an email sent at 2.48pm on March 27 to DHHS officials, including Professor Sutton, about the outcome of the national cabinet meeting that authorised mandatory Australia-wide hotel quarantine for returning travellers.
This email was tendered to the inquiry, but neither Professor Sutton nor any other witness were questioned on its contents. March 27 was the crucial day in the program’s set-up, when the initial decision was made by the national cabinet and Victoria’s public servants were given 36 hours to make it operational.
The mid-afternoon email was sent by DHHS director national cabinet (health and public health), Nicole Lynch to department secretary Kym Peake, Professor Sutton and other members of the state’s public health team, and it specifically referred to private security.
“Enforcement by S&T [state and territory] governments keen for police not to babysit, but called in as needed (e.g. use private security),” Ms Lynch wrote.
Health Department sources have told The Age that other email correspondence within DHHS involving Professor Sutton in late March and early April also referred to the use of private security.
Virus outbreaks among security and hotel staff at Rydges and the Stamford Plaza have been blamed for 99 per cent of Melbourne’s COVID-19 cases since May, contributing to the deaths of almost 800 Victorians, keeping millions of people in severe lockdown and devastating the economy.
Despite the appearance of the Premier, his chief public servant, two chief commissioners of police, several ministers and key officials before the inquiry, no one has been able to say who made the decision to rely upon private security on March 27.
The inquiry heard evidence that senior Health Department officials overruled the state’s pandemic response plan by not appointing Professor Sutton as state controller on the basis he would be too busy in his public-facing role.
Instead, the role was split between a non-medical Health Department official and an official from Emergency Services Victoria. Professor Sutton told the inquiry he would have preferred to have been appointed state controller as per the pandemic response plan.
But Professor Sutton’s witness statement also reveals that he decided to delegate another senior role, that of public health commander, to his then deputy chief health officer, Annaliese van Diemen, before the hotel quarantine program became operational.
“While the Public Health Commander was involved in Operation Soteria, this role is not something I was involved in or can give specific detail about,” Professor Sutton stated.
Dr van Diemen was redeployed in the middle of the year and assumed responsibility for an outbreak of avian influenza in chicken farms west of Geelong.
Health Department sources have told The Age that Professor Sutton was at the top of the department’s command structure and had ample opportunities to be informed by members of the public health team about the use of private security.
By March 30, Professor Sutton had, according to his witness statement, used his powers under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act to appoint 70 authorised officers to exercise public health risk and emergency powers. These officers worked extremely closely with private security in quarantine hotels.
In an email to an Operation Soteria commander on April 9, Professor Sutton and his deputy Dr van Diemen, requested an urgent review of its governance owing to significant health risks to detainees. They complained that the program was being run as a “logistics” exercise by the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions.
A week later, on April 16, Victoria Police chaired a security forum on hotel quarantine attended by several senior DHHS officials, including representatives of the public health team. The performance of private security was discussed at the forum. Professor Sutton did not attend the forum, but one of members of the public health team reporting to him did.
Ms Mikakos resigned after Mr Andrews’ testimony to the inquiry. Mr Eccles’ resignation was announced on Monday after phone records showed the inquiry had been misled by his initial evidence, and Emergency Service Commissioner Andrew Crisp was also forced to correct his evidence to a Victorian parliamentary committee about the extent to which he had briefed his minister about the program.
Richard Baker is a multi-award winning investigative reporter for The Age.