Rumours of Victoria’s health chief quitting causes a flurry

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Victoria chief health officer Dr Brett Sutton.

As the Victorian lockdown screws continue to tighten, the state’s health results on Wednesday were another bad landmark – a record 725 new cases and 15 deaths, writes political columnist MICHELLE GRATTAN

A RUMOUR that Victoria’s high profile chief health officer Brett Sutton was quitting caused a flurry in state government circles on Wednesday afternoon.

Sutton has been one of the medical hardliners during the pandemic, at times an irritant in the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee. According to Sky, the suggestion he was going came from a well-placed Victorian source.

The rumour followed the absence of Sutton – who’s on leave – from those marathon news conferences Premier Daniel Andrews gives.

At first Andrews’ office provided a less than watertight rejection of the story, before issuing a denial.

On Twitter someone said, “Might as well have said nickelback have broken up, same level of middle aged women would be upset”. This drew a tweet from Sutton himself. “What?! Nickelback have broken up??”

In Victoria Sutton has become something of a cult figure – you can get Brett Sutton masks, mugs, throw blankets and much else.

All this would be of only gossipy interest if it were not that there has been a deal of movement among Victorian health officers recently. Deputy chief health officer Annaliese van Diemen shifted to non-COVID duties and a new crew came in: Allen Cheng, from The Alfred hospital, Rhonda Stuart, from Monash Health, and Paul Johnson, from Austin Health became Sutton’s deputies.

Behind the scenes, there are wheels within wheels among the nation’s army of federal and state health officials, and professional differences.

For example the use of masks was, earlier on, a matter of debate among the experts, with at least one senior federal adviser very sceptical of them. Now they are mandatory in Victoria and their use is highly recommended in NSW.

But the mask debate continues on another front. This week an open letter signed by more than 2800 healthcare workers and sent to Health Minister Greg Hunt and federal officials called for high end masks for health workers and reform of the Infection Control Expert Group.

We don’t hear much of this group but it is influential, especially its chair, professor Lyn Gilbert. It provides advice on infection prevention and control in hospitals and other institutional settings.

The healthworkers’ letter said the ICEG needed broader representation including from the specialist medical colleges and experts with a scientific background in aerosol science, personal protective equipment and worker safety.

One plus in the COVID crisis has been that the politicians have turned to expert advice, but that can be complicated when the advisers, despite usually publicly presenting a “consensus” view, are in fact divided.

At the end of the day, both the experts and the politicians will be judged on results.

As the Victorian lockdown screws continue to tighten, the state’s health results on Wednesday were another bad landmark – a record 725 new cases and 15 deaths.

Second time round, the state’s lockdown is both harsher and more difficult to handle. Businesses are complaining of directions that are confusing and hard to implement. Many parents with small children won’t have access to child care. More people seem at the end of their tether.

The Victorian crisis continues to create wider contagion nationally.

On Wednesday NSW tightened existing border restrictions from Victoria.

Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced the state border would be closed from 1am Saturday to people from NSW and the ACT.

The Queensland border was already closed to Victorians and people from greater Sydney.

Facing an October election the premier, who has been angered by breaches from people trying to get around current controls, declared, “I say to Queenslanders, we’ve listened to you … today is the day we say we’re putting Queenslanders first.”

A frustrated Scott Morrison, who has argued the states should talk to his government when they plan to act on their borders, said “She’ll make her decisions and I’ll leave her to explain them and the medical advice upon which it’s based.”

But as he knows from his latest stoush with Western Australia premier Mark McGowan about that state’s closed border, the public is likely to be firmly behind Palaszczuk’s action.

Michelle Grattan is a professorial fellow at the University of Canberra. This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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Michelle Grattan
Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra, Michelle Grattan is one of Australia's most respected and awarded political journalists.

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