World news – Victoria’s CHO Brett Sutton tells inquiry he was unaware private security used in hotel quarantine


Chief health officer had ‘no oversight’ of hotel quarantine and didn’t find out until Covid outbreaks in June that private guards were being used

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Victoria’s chief health officer, Prof Brett Sutton, had no idea private security guards were being used in hotel quarantine until the outbreaks in June that led to the state’s second wave of Covid-19 cases.

The inquiry investigating the state’s botched hotel quarantine program heard on Thursday Sutton and his team had “no oversight” of hotel quarantine, and expressed concerns as early as April of the risks the program posed to hotel guests.

“I did not have a view about the use of security companies in hotel quarantine. I did not know that security guards were used until after the outbreaks,” the chief health officer said in his written submission to the inquiry.

There was early concern among Sutton’s team that the operation, codenamed Operation Soteria, was mainly run as an accommodation program with not enough focus on public health.

In an email sent to the program’s commander on 9 April, Sutton and deputy chief medical officer Annaliese van Diemen requested an urgent review of the governance of the operation.

“Unless governance and plan issues are addressed, there will be a risk to health and safety of detainees,” the email stated.

Following the email, a public health command liaison position was connected to the operation to give Sutton’s team greater visibility into hotel quarantine.

The chief health officer maintains, however, that he was unaware private security had been used in hotel quarantine until outbreaks among security guards at the Rydges and Stamford Plaza hotels had occurred.

“There are a number of vulnerabilities with respect to transmission risk because of that workforce,” he said.

He said the casualised nature of the work and the dependency of employees on the program made it an incentive for staff to keep working in hotel quarantine, while still attending to other jobs potentially symptomatic or aware of their diagnosis.

“The casualised labour that was involved with a number of them [who] had other work that they needed to do … brought the risk of transmission to other workplaces and other individuals.”

Sutton said there were also potentially cultural and language issues in understanding social distancing rules and infection control, and identifying close contacts.

“It’s clear that there must have been close contacts who were not identified because we’re aware that this virus extended to the broader community without a clear epidemiological link back to the staff at hotel quarantine,” he said.

This meant, Sutton added, that “there are unidentified close contacts in that chain who were never raised as close contacts with the outbreak management team”.

In June, the then-federal chief medical officer, Prof Brendan Murphy, suggested in an email to Sutton that, given the issues with casualisation, casual staff should be paid their normal hourly rate for two weeks if required to isolate.

Murphy also offered to provide Aspen Medical staff as a surge workforce. Sutton replied security was the main issue.

“It is security staffing that is our main risk at the moment,” Sutton said in an email to Murphy on 21 June.

On Thursday, the inquiry will hear from Victoria police commissioner Shane Patton and former commissioner Graham Ashton. The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, is due to give evidence next week.


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