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Jeroen Weimar: From ‘trainspotter’ to Victoria’s COVID-19 commander

At the same time, Weimar and several others were headhunted to help turn things around.

With an initial goal of improving testing rates and engaging across communities, Weimar worked with Euan Wallace, who had been seconded as deputy secretary to the Department of Health (he has since been promoted to department secretary).

Sandy Pitcher stepped in to help rebuild Victoria's contact management capacity at the height of the second wave.

Sandy Pitcher stepped in to help rebuild Victoria’s contact management capacity at the height of the second wave.Credit:Simon Schluter

Another central figure was Sandy Pitcher, who was brought over to be deputy secretary for case, contact and outbreak management (she has now been promoted to secretary of the new Department of Families, Fairness and Housing Management).

The system changes they and their teams introduced are credited with transforming Victoria’s efforts into a new “gold standard” of contact tracing. They got rid of the old manual data-entry systems and reliance on case interviewing, and the highly centralised public health response that sat within the Department of Health and Human Services.

In their place they introduced an end-to-end contact tracing system provided by cloud computing company Salesforce, operational performance targets and new rapid-response testing units that can be deployed at short notice around the state.

Another important improvement was capturing basic biographical data at the time people present for a COVID-19 test, to better track the trends of who is getting tested and in what parts of the state, and who needs to be targeted and encouraged to get tested.

Weimar has worked hard to overcome social roadblocks to our COVID-19 response, making unpublicised visits to locked-down towers and apartment blocks and attending regular online meetings with diverse communities (including a panel discussion hosted by the Islamic Museum of Australia this week, and al-Taqwa College last week).

His decisiveness was on display last week when he found himself in what threatened to erupt into a major media storm.

Attempting to describe the diversity of cases in St Kilda and surrounding suburbs, Weimar had said during a lengthy press conference: “We have accountants, we have architects, we have a sex worker, we have members of the Orthodox Jewish community, and we have a pizza guy who worked in a pizza shop in Glen Eira.”

Some community leaders accused Weimar of inviting criticism of the Orthodox Jewish community, while several opposition politicians said he should never have mentioned people’s faith.

Weimar swiftly apologised to Melbourne’s Jewish community, denounced the “twisted dark knot” of anti-semitism and held a lengthy conversation with Dr Dvir Abramovich, chairman of the Anti-Defamation Commission, who said he fully accepted Weimar’s apology and considered the matter closed.

Weimar is clearly an effective communicator, but broadcaster and Sunday Age columnist Jon Faine – who regularly brought Weimar onto his ABC morning show to discuss public transport for Melburnians until he retired in 2019, and counts himself a fan – says it wasn’t always this way.

“When he started out, he was a bit of a trainspotter,” Faine recalls. “You know, he was a bit nerdy. They call them ‘anoraks’ in England.

“Jeroen when he started was nothing like what he eventually learned to become. He acquired the skills pretty much by doing it.”

As Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton could attest, Melburnians come to form strong attachments to the public servants tasked with getting our society out of crisis.

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As Weimar made more and more appearances at the daily press conferences held during outbreaks, more and more people took note of this bearded numbers man.

Artist Ashley Ellis, who designed Brett Sutton paraphernalia that was wildly successful in niche Melbourne circles during last year’s second wave, this year added Weimar’s image to her online collection because “competent public servants” were “still thirst traps [eye candy] in the eyes of many”.

Why are we like this?

Denis Muller, a retired journalist and senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, says amid our isolation people seek human connection.

“I think we do it because we’re living in an age where people are making human connections through technology,” he says. “Technology’s great, but just on its own it’s not enough, so people I think are trying to – especially through the pandemic – are trying to humanise their connections as much as they can.”

Muller says there is another reason Weimar and Sutton have cut through the noise of the daily press conferences.

“I think people want to believe in these two men in particular, who have very high credibility, because they tell it straight. They don’t use weasel words, they don’t muck around.

“They answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’, as the first word of their answers to questions, which is quite unusual for officials, and then they go on to qualify them or expand on them. But I think that cut-through comes from their candour. And Weimar is all over his brief.”

Not everyone is a fan. Opposition transport spokesman David Davis has been an outspoken critic, saying Weimar “failed at PTV and he failed at V/Line”.

“Weimar couldn’t get the trains to run on time, so they put him in charge of the pandemic – God help us!” he said. “Weimar is a spin merchant for the Andrews Labor government rather than a credible public servant.”

However Rail Projects Victoria chief executive Evan Tattersall, who worked closely with Weimar during his time at PTV, says he is “very disciplined”.

“He doesn’t muck around,” Tattersall says. “He’s a very clear thinker, and quite decisive … He won’t sit around and wait for others to tell him what to do, he’ll get on the front foot and make a call, which are probably attributes that have served him well in this current role.”

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The team around Weimar reflects his approach, which is based on logistics and execution. When he moved from transport into health, Weimar brought 10 people with him.

One deputy secretary of the COVID-19 response, Kate Matson, was director of regional rail and Southern Cross Station at the Department of Transport until July 2020 (the same month Weimar moved across to Health).

Another deputy secretary, Naomi Bromley, worked as an associate director of accounting giant KPMG for almost four years before joining the COVID-19 response team, although she also has extensive experience in health planning and strategy and as a paramedic.

Weimar is a private person, sharing little on social media (he declined requests to be interviewed for this article).

But those who know him personally hold him in high regard. A keen road cyclist, until July he was vice-president of the Sandringham Life Saving Club, where his family are also active members.

Club president Vicky McKay said Weimar had contributed “significantly” to the community club, where he somehow manages to find time to conduct at least 100 patrol hours a year.

“To have someone with such calmness – he’s a very strategic thinker and very logical and very calm, measured in his approach, so we’re very lucky to have him in the club.”

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