Professor Sutton has been firm in his view that hotel quarantine was to be a blanket 14-day mandatory quarantine with no allowances to let people leave early if they were negative to coronavirus.
« In large part that’s because testing cannot tell you that you won’t develop symptoms in that 14-day period, » Professor Sutton said.
« Going the entire 14 days is the only absolute, or relatively strong assurance, you can have that someone isn’t infectious. »
Here’s a little more from Tammy Mills about the mystery document we touched on earlier:
An internal email between key decision-makers revealed they considered only « high-risk » returned travellers to be quarantined in hotels, the inquiry heard.
The email, sent late in the evening of March 27, two days before the quarantine program began, talked about multiple individuals editing a document, including Professor Sutton, then Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy and Health Department head Kym Peake.
The email, read to the inquiry, said: « In addition to the existing enforced quarantine arrangements…for international travellers arriving in Australia, it is recommended that in high-risk cases, monitored placement in a facility such as a hotel is enforced for those who would normally reside with others at home. »
« Was that reflective of your preferred position? » Counsel assisting the inquiry Ben Ihle asked Professor Sutton.
« I was supportive of the National Cabinet’s determination that all returning travellers should be in hotel quarantine. »
Chief health officers from across the country did not formally endorse the hotel quarantine program before Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced it.
Professor Sutton’s statement to the inquiry reads: « As discussed, prior to National Cabinet’s announced on 26 March 2020, the AHPPC did not endorse the idea of quarantining travellers at hotels (or other designated facilities). »
Then-Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy chairing a meeting with state and territory Chief Health Officers on March 16, when Australia was still figuring out the virus.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
The AHPPC is the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which is made up of all state and territory chief health officers and chaired by the Chief Medical Officer. At the time that was Professor Brendan Murphy.
A transcript of the press conference that Prime Minister Scott Morrison gave to announce the hotel quarantine program was shown to the inquiry.
Mr Morrison said: « The decision that I communicate from this podium are 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 AHPPC met following the announcement and, the inquiry heard today, there was « still no agreement or resolution to advise to that effect. »
Professor Sutton has been asked about edits in a document that suggest only « high risk » returned travellers be made to quarantine.
Professor Sutton said he could not recall if those edits were his, but insisted his view at the outset was for all returned travellers to be quarantined in hotels.
Although it was a constraint on individual liberties, it was « necessary and proportionate » to do so, he said.
Counsel assisting the inquiry Ben Ihle cited an example of a person who completed quarantine at the Stamford Plaza and then tested positive for COVID-19.
The genomics traced their version of the virus back to the hotel, where there had been an outbreak of coronavirus among returned travellers and security guards working there in June.
« That person, unaware they were COVID positive, actually transmitted COVID to the person who drove them away from hotel quarantine, » Mr Ihle said.
Professor Sutton said « that is potentially the case, they would have been questioned as to whether they had any symptoms and would have been released. »
« I think that has become part of the reflections on strengthening the testing regiment in hotel quarantine for that very purpose, » he said.
The inquiry has just heard people were released from hotel quarantine without knowing if they were positive for COVID-19 or not.
In the first stages of the program, which began on March 29, testing was voluntary and only given to those with symptoms.
Two sets of tests were then introduced, on day three and day 11 of the fortnight that international arrivals were in quarantine.
Still, the testing was voluntary, at least until a new law was introduced so that people who refused to be tested on day 11 could be held for a further 10 days.
But even if someone agreed to a day 11 test and returned a positive sample, they couldn’t be held for longer than the 14-day period.
The inquiry heard these people who were positive and released were then subjected to isolation orders are home.
We heard this morning Professor Sutton and his team gave advice about infection control such as cleaning and personal protective equipment.
After that, they were hands off. Remember this story about how Professor Sutton first learnt of hotel quarantine problems through the media?
Professor Sutton was asked on August 7 when he first became aware of serious problems in the quarantine program.
« Well obviously we were aware of outbreaks at the Stamford [Plaza] hotel and the Rydges [on Swanston] hotel â but my public health team responded to those outbreaks so we were aware of the transmission that occurred.
« But in terms of other rumours and reporting around deficiencies with the workforce, in those settings, the first I heard [about it] was when I read it in the newspapers. »
We heard this morning that Professor Sutton is not only the state’s Chief Health Officer, but also human biosecurity officer.
There are two pieces of legislation that can be used in the pandemic, the first is the state Public Health and Wellbeing Act and the Commonwealth Biosecurity Act.
The inquiry heard the biosecurity powers are not well-tailored when making orders with respect to a lot of people.
Professor Sutton said the intention of the biosecurity powers is to manage the risk of the importation of human diseases at ports of entry into Australia.
The Victorian Public Health and Wellbeing Act has been used the most in the pandemic and it’s responsible for those restrictions that we know all too well â staying home, the curfew and wearing masks.
Professor Sutton said the legal advice to him was that these powers, under the state Act, « were more appropriate in this setting ».
Professor Sutton said his job was to provide advice, such as advice on infection control, to the Health Department.
The lawyer leading questioning for the inquiry today, Ben Ihle, put to him that the public health command’s advice was deployed into 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. »
He agreed with Mr Ihle that his team was not aware of how sufficient the infection control measures, such as cleaning, were in hotel quarantine until the outbreaks.
His team’s advice would go to « innumerable settings across the state » such as public transport settings and residential settings so oversight of how that guidance or policy direction was implemented was not part of his remit, the inquiry heard.
One of the issues Professor Sutton is expected to be questioned on is why he wasn’t given the role of state controller, which technically under Victoria’s emergency plan, is supposed to be the Chief Health Officer.
Health Department deputy secretary Melissa Skilbeck previously told the inquiry she recommended Professor Sutton did not take on the role because he would be too busy in his lead advisory role and as the public face of the pandemic response to also serve as state controller.
Sitting in front of Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton at the moment is his 48-page statement to the inquiry, dated August 13. We have learnt he is also Victoria’s chief biosecurity officer.
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