Local News - Victoria

Brett Sutton tells hotel inquiry he did not know security guards had a key role

“My team and I did not have oversight in relation to infection prevention and control personnel and processes in place at each hotel,” he said.

Professor Sutton’s deputy, Annaliese van Diemen, said in her evidence that “everybody has responsibility in some way, shape or form”, prompting a query from Arthur Moses, QC, the counsel for security guard company Unified: “Are you trying to blame others?”

Former deputy chief health officer Annaliese van Diemen.

Former deputy chief health officer Annaliese van Diemen.Credit:The Age

Dr van Diemen had earlier warned that the hotel quarantine program was being run as a “logistics or compliance exercise” rather than a health program, meaning she “lost the opportunity” to know if infection control measures, including the use of protective gear, were adhered to in the hotels.

Private security guards, many working as casual subcontractors at the Rydges on Swanston hotel in Carlton and the CBD’s Stamford Plaza, spread the virus from returned travellers into the wider community. Professor Sutton told the inquiry that, “with the benefit of hindsight”, the use of such an insecure workforce was unfortunate.

“I can see that using a highly casualised workforce, generally from a lower socio-economic background, where that means that poor leave provisions, limit how one can care for and financially support one’s family if unwell,” he said.


Many of the staff guarding the hotels combined multiple jobs “across different industries to maintain an adequate income, creating transmission risk”, Professor Sutton said. Guards also often came from relatively larger families and larger networks of friends, “which creates additional transmission risks should they become unwell”.

The evidence came as Premier Daniel Andrews, who set up the $3 million inquiry, once again declined to comment on accusations that he lied to Parliament by saying in August that soldiers working in hotel quarantine in other states had not been offered to Victoria. Mr Andrews will appear before the inquiry next week.

Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos was also quizzed in State Parliament on Wednesday about whether she was aware of the offer by Canberra to deploy the army in quarantine hotels.

“I was not aware of any offers of Australian Defence Force support when hotel quarantine was established,” she said. “I’ve not been involved in approving the structures or the operational plan of this program.”

Professor Sutton told the inquiry that there had been instances where security staff in hotels did not appear to trust the information provided to them about infection control. “In particular about how to wear PPE gear, and the use of hand sanitiser, in particular … concerns about using an alcohol-based sanitiser”.

This hand sanitiser concern was also included in notes from the manager of Your Nursing Agency, the company employed to supply nursing staff to quarantine hotels. In mid-June, the company’s manager noted that security guards had informed the agency “they were concerned about using hand sanitiser because it is against their religion”.

The same notes said the registered nurse working at one hotel “raised a complaint of a lack of infection control awareness and [the] sense that security were disinterested in use of PPE”.

The nurse reported “security staff had masks under their noses, were not removing gloves and even going to the bathroom with gloves on”. The nurse told the nursing agency that “something needs to be done with security to keep everyone safe”.

The inquiry heard that an email sent by Deputy Public Health Commander Dr Finn Romanes, a former deputy chief health officer, warned on April 9 of “a lack of a unified plan for this program”. This warning, made just two weeks after the hotel program began, said there was “considerable risk” that unless issues were addressed there would be a risk to the health and safety of detainees.

Dr Romanes requested an urgent governance review of the program and said it needed a clear leader and direct line of accountability. Professor Sutton said he backed Dr Romanes’ email. “Dr Romanes was acting on behalf of me,” he said.

It also emerged at the inquiry that the deputy state controller Chris Eagle – who was coordinating information between the agencies involved in hotel quarantine – was warned the day after the hotels program began that there needed to be a proper police presence.

The Department of Jobs Precincts and Region’s executive director of Priority Projects, Claire Febey, warned Mr Eagle after a highly agitated guest quarantining at the Crown Metropole left his room and went to the ground floor foyer for a cigarette that better security was needed.


“We strongly recommend that private security is not adequate given they have no powers to exercise. Can you please escalate our request for a permanent police presence at each hotel,” she wrote.

Chief Commissioner Shane Patton and his predecessor, Graham Ashton, will appear before the inquiry on Thursday.

Dr van Diemen said that, before the hotels program began in March, health officials considered quarantining returned travellers at home using electronic surveillance to keep them secure.

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Brett Sutton to face hotel inquiry as commander says she didn’t know who was in charge

Confusion about who was in charge has emerged as one of the critical issues identified by the inquiry, with multiple departments and agencies muddying lines of command and responsibilities.

It meant there were inconsistencies among the hotels in relation to the use of protective gear, infection control and in the treatment of returned travellers and expats detained in quarantine.

Ms Bamert said she understood who was responsible and for what, but staff who were not privy to “higher level conversations” did not clearly understand their roles.

Counsel assisting the inquiry, Ben Ihle, showed Ms Bamert an email she had written on May 21 containing the line: “This operation was being managed out of a range of sites with no clear operational structure.”

Ms Bamert was replying to Safer Care Victoria, which was investigating the death of a detainee in hotel quarantine in April, and had alerted department bosses to the lack of clarity.

“In hindsight, I am quite clear what the structures were … clearly I had concerns about the escalation points,” she told the inquiry.

Merrin Bamert, who became a commander of Operation Soteria for the Health Department.

Merrin Bamert, who became a commander of Operation Soteria for the Health Department.Credit:Hotel Quarantine Inquiry.

Her offsider in the department, Pam Williams, also told the inquiry on Friday: “I think the terminology ‘in charge’ is somewhat loaded in the context of this inquiry. I think the person who was co-ordinating and our representative on site was the team leader and we were working as a team.”

It follows other evidence to the inquiry this week that the Health Department blocked Professor Sutton from taking control of the state’s coronavirus response against his wishes and in contradiction of Victoria’s pandemic plan.

Health Department deputy secretary Melissa Skilbeck said Professor Sutton would be too busy in his lead advisory role and as the public face of the pandemic response to also serve as state controller.

Emergency management experts within the department, Andrea Spiteri and Jason Helps, took the role. Both will be called to the inquiry next week.

Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp.

Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp.Credit:Luis Ascui

Mr Crisp is expected to be pressed on two vexed issues – why defence force personnel weren’t deployed in the first few months of the program and when defence force assistance was offered, as well as who decided to use private security instead of police.

The role of police is a key difference between hotel quarantine in Victoria and NSW. In Victoria, police supported private security and authorised officers, but did not have a 24/7 presence inside the hotels.


In NSW, police are responsible for overseeing the hotel quarantine operation, with assistance from the Australian Defence Force, NSW Health and a private security contractor, according to NSW Health.

Mr Ashton recommended private security be the “first line of security”, according to evidence to the inquiry, but it is not yet clear who made the decision to use the guards.

The inquiry has been told 32 guards contracted COVID-19 while working in the hotels. Victoria’s devastating second wave of the virus has been genomically linked back to seven returned travellers who were quarantined in three different rooms at two hotels, the Rydges on Swanston and the Stamford Plaza.

One per cent of more than 20,000 people who went through the program from the end of March until July tested positive to coronavirus, the inquiry heard. International flights landing in Victoria were later suspended due to the rise in COVID-19 cases.

Ms Williams confirmed during Friday’s evidence that some people who had tested positive and had reached the end of their mandatory 14-day detention were allowed to be released and told to isolate at home.

She said it could have been possible to allow people to leave quarantine earlier if they had tested negative.

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Ben Simmons’ Philadelphia 76ers fire coach Brett Brown after NBA playoffs sweep, but more major decisions loom

An injured Ben Simmons just watched his Philadelphia 76ers get rolled in four straight games in the playoffs, and now his coach has been fired.

Brett Brown, the coach who was rehired last year by the Boomers because of his close relationship with Simmons, was the victim of a first-round sweep at the hands of the Boston Celtics.

“The job of an NBA coach is to take the team that you have and try to maximise it and get the most out of it. I did not do that,” Brown said.

He could be just the first domino to fall for the Sixers, who have a history of being unable to sit still for long.

So how did we get here and what could happen next?

Brown led them through a tank job

In a classy farewell statement, Brown described his seven years in Philly as “one of the most dramatic rebuilds in professional sports history”, and it’s hard to argue.

Brown was hired to lead the Sixers back in 2013 when the team was in the middle of a historic tank job, finishing with win-loss records of 19-63, 18-64 and 10-72 in his first three seasons.

Philly had traded away star swingman and future Finals MVP Andre Iguodala before the 2012/13 season and traded away their only other All Star, Jrue Holiday, on draft night in 2013 for sixth pick Nerlens Noel and a couple of other picks.

In just a couple of moves, the Sixers had all but confirmed they were tanking (intentionally creating a bad team with lots of draft picks to try and rebuild) under new general manager Sam Hinkie.

What came to be known as “The Process” worked to a degree. They nabbed rookie of the year Michael Carter-Williams with the 11th pick in 2013, then picked third (Joel Embiid) and 10th (Elfrid Payton traded for Dario Saric) in 2014, had number three in 2015 (Jahlil Okafor), and number one in 2016 (Ben Simmons) and 2017 (Markelle Fultz).

The tanking was so blatant that the NBA tried to put a stop to it, reportedly pushing the team to get rid of Hinkie after the 10-win 2015/16 season and install Bryan Colangelo to try to force the team to compete.

Bryan Colangelo new owner of Hawks NBL team
Bryan Colangelo was brought in to make the Sixers compete again.(AP)

Meanwhile, Brown was tasked with guiding these teams, filled mostly by a rotating cast of young players with a few mediocre veterans sprinkled in, through the formative years of their basketball careers.

And drafting is such an inexact science that he barely even got to put most of those high draft picks on the court.

Noel and Carter-Williams, who was selected four picks before current MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo back in 2013, were both traded away in their second seasons. Embiid lost what should have been his first two seasons to injury, and only played 31 of a possible 82 games in his rookie year. Saric didn’t come over from Europe until 2016, two years after he was drafted. Okafor just didn’t pan out. Simmons missed a year with a foot injury, and Fultz had a bizarre saga with a shoulder injury that was either caused by a change in the mechanics of his jump shot or prompted him to change his shot (either way, he couldn’t score and played 14 and 18 games before being traded away).

Simmons united with Embiid, then Fultz, then Butler, then Harris

After all that drama, with Simmons and top pick Fultz suiting up for the 2017/18 season, The Process was over and, for better or worse, the Sixers had their team.

Point guard Simmons, centre Embiid and new top pick Fultz would be the lynchpins, with complementary pieces like Saric, Robert Covington, Ersan Ilyasova, JJ Redick and Marco Belinelli.

Ben Simmons holds a basketball in one hand with a grimace on his face
Simmons would rather be shooting from close to the hoop, despite the fact it’s worth fewer points.(AP: Ashley Landis)

While Fultz’s drama was an unwanted distraction, they finished third in the Eastern Conference with 52 wins and won their first playoff series for six years, beating Miami 4-1.

In the 2018/19 season they traded for superstar Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, won 51 games and made a push to the conference finals, where they were beaten by eventual champions Toronto in game seven by Kawhi Leonard’s game-winner after the buzzer.

So after being four miraculous bounces away from an NBA Finals berth in 2019, expectations were reasonably elevated for 2020, but the first major warning sign came when Butler left because the Sixers felt they couldn’t afford to pay him a hefty contract.

That meant they had Simmons, Embiid, Harris, Josh Richardson from Miami and Al Horford (another centre) from Boston, as their centrepieces for 2019/20 and it just didn’t work, ending in 43 wins, sixth place in their conference and the aforementioned demolition by Boston.

Why hasn’t it worked?

Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid converse on the court. Simmons points to something.
Can a team led by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons ever be great?(Reuters/USA Today: Bill Streicher)

It comes down to the geometry of an NBA court.

Simmons is a superstar-level talent in the NBA but he won’t shoot unless he can smell the metal on the hoop. We’ve heard that he can’t shoot, but that’s not really true. He has the ability to shoot three-pointers, or at the very least long two-pointers, but he just doesn’t do it.

He knocked one down in the preseason and made two early in the regular season this year, signalling to people that maybe he was ready to start playing the way a three-point-centric NBA demands of a point guard, but no.

Those two shots in November and December were his only made threes, and he only attempted five others all season.

Now, by itself this is not the end of the world. But Simmons’ best teammate, Embiid, is a lumbering centre who also likes to spend most of his time under the rim.

Basketballer leans back to shoot for a basket as several opponents try to block him.
Simmons and Embiid are often surrounded by defenders at the rim.(AP: Chris Szagola)

So in the simplest terms, if the man on Simmons doesn’t have to worry about defending anywhere but under the rim, he can double team Embiid and wait for Simmons at the hoop, meaning there just isn’t enough room for anyone to operate properly because most defenders can defend one-and-a-half players if they’re close together.

And Brown knew his enormous team was likely going to struggle going into the season.

“I came in and we talked about smash-mouth, bully ball, that we’re built for the playoffs and we’re big. Really, all of those kinds of phrases equal, ‘Man, we have a huge team, we have a big team,'” he said.

‘We’ve just got to start from scratch’

Embiid is over seven feet (213 centimetres) tall and built like a boulder. Despite the fact he can hit threes, having him out there regularly is a waste of his size and skill in the post.

Harris and Richardson are also middle-of-the-road outside shooters, and the club spent too much money on the ageing Horford, who still has years left on his contract, meaning moving him in a trade is going to be very difficult.

Ben Simmons chases for the ball under pressure from LeBron James
Being compared to LeBron James from such a young age put Simmons under intense pressure.(USA Today Sports: Bill Streicher)

Unless the Sixers want to take the risk of trading away a superstar like Embiid or Simmons, this is the bones of the team that the next coach is going to be stuck with for a little while at least.

“There’s always gotta be a day one. We’ve just got to start from scratch,” Richardson said.

He also said the team’s best players need to be held accountable for what they do and don’t do, effectively hinting that Simmons and Embiid haven’t been called out for their shortcomings (an inability/unwillingness to shoot and tendency to not be very fit, respectively).

“Guys not doing their job on or off the court, there’s gotta be some kind of consequence, not consequence, but we’ve gotta be able to talk to each other and listen,” Richardson said.

So, can they make it work? It’s hard to see how this version of the team can.

Unless Simmons somehow becomes better at shooting and more willing to do it, the team likely needs to choose who it wants to keep and who it wants to trade out of Simmons and Embiid.

Having both on the team seems a recipe for being good, but not great.

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Drop in cases a ‘good sign’ Brett Sutton says

The chief medical officer says Victoria is on a “downslope” of coronavirus cases as the state recorded 216 new infections overnight, the lowest daily figure in a month.

Professor Brett Sutton said Wednesdays were typically “spike days” for Victoria, but 216 new cases was a “good sign” that trend had been bucked.

“We are trending down and that is a very good sign,” he said.

“We‘re going in the right direction. Numbers will never fall fast enough for me. Community transmission is also trending down as we expect.”

Prof Sutton said cases were also stabilising in aged care and ICU.

“To be on a downslope is a very good sign – Victoria is doing well with a very challenging situation. This is very different from the first wave – we’ve had complex outbreaks in aged care, disability and other complex workplaces.”

Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters all 12 deaths in the past 24 hours were linked to aged care.

Three men in their 70s, four women and one man in their 80s and three women and one man in their 90s died.

The state’s death toll is now at 363.

There are 2050 active cases in Victorian aged-care facilities, with 3337 infections in homes since January 1.

There are 675 Victorians in hospital and 45 in intensive care, while 1065 active cases have been detected in healthcare workers.

There has been an increase of 82 mystery cases overnight, taking that total to 3751.

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Pyrmont stabbing, Brett Halcro: Teen withdraws bail application

The private schoolboy who allegedly “carved up” the face of a defenceless stranger in a horrific Pyrmont attack will remain behind bars after he withdrew a bail application on Monday.

The teenager, who police allege was wearing a mask and gloves as he slashed at the man‘s face in a “sadistic” torture, was expected to make his second bid for release after being refused bail at his first appearance last Monday.

The ex-student of Barker College in Hornsby faces a maximum 25 years in jail if found guilty of a charge of wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. He is also charged with affray.

The boy will remain at Cobham Youth Justice Centre and is due back in Surry Hills Children’s Court on September 29.

His alleged victim Brett Halcro, 39, is showing signs of recovery at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

“Nurses/doctors have gradually lightened Brett’s sedation and he now breathes on his own,” a family member said on a GoFundMe page set up to help with his rehabilitation.

“He has also begun moving his head and body and shows brief responses to verbal cues.

“Brett’s facial injuries (including those to his right eye) are significant, but the surgeons have done a fantastic job and he is healing well.”

Nine teenagers have been arrested following the attack on July 31, with eight of them facing the serious charge of wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.

At least one of the boys allegedly stomped on his head.

Court documents revealed the boy allegedly texted a friend, saying: “I put the shattered bottle in his stomach and then (another boy) slit his face like 15 times and stabbed him in the eye.

“He stuck it in his eye. Put it in deeper. And swivelled the knife around. So funny.”

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Brett Sutton says COVID-19 case numbers ‘not good enough’

Victoria’s chief medical officer Brett Sutton has delivered a blunt assessment of Victoria’s numbers, saying 400 to 500 new daily cases is “not good enough”.

The state today recorded 466 COVID-19 cases and 12 deaths, with a man in his 30s among the dead.

Speaking to reporters Mr Sutton said that while there was “some stabilisation” in the numbers but Victoria is still recording similar cases to last week.

“We are at 400 to 500 cases each day, more or less the average over the last week,” he said.

“That is not good enough, but it’s a positive that we have averted an exponential increase through the last couple of weeks.”

However Mr Sutton estimated lockdown measures had stopped new case numbers from being thousands higher.

RELATED: Follow the latest coronavirus updates

“If we hadn’t stabilised these numbers, we would have seen thousands of cases per day and there are estimates that we’ve averted 20,000 or more cases by virtue of the stage three restrictions,” he said.
“But that hasn’t been enough, it’s been able to stabilise the numbers, but we can’t have 500 cases every single day and the associated morbidity, hospitalisation, intensive care requirements and debts that are associated with that number every day.”

It would take at least another week to see if stage four restrictions in Melbourne had reduced transmission.

“Stage four restrictions will make a difference but we won’t see them for another week or more,” Mr Sutton said.

“We can drive numbers down and we will drive numbers down.”

Mr Sutton also said it was “tricky” to predict how Victoria’s mandatory mask rules would impact case numbers.

RELATED: Victoria’s new lockdown rules explained

“It can reduce the reproduction number anecdotally by 15 per cent,” he said.

“If that happens in Victoria, that is a good thing, there are many more thousands of cases that have been averted then.”

While it seemed most people had embraced face coverings “really well” it was crucial that social distancing was being followed in high transmission areas.

“You can see lots of people wearing masks in lots of settings but (are) people in the workplace, in high-risk transmission areas, at all times wearing those masks, are they taking masks off at tea time, at a break, and then sitting very close to workmates?” he said.

“The numbers will let us make some estimates about how well masks have been used but it’s a critical thing.”

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Brett Sutton says next week is crucial in

Victoria’s chief health officer has said the sacrifices the state’s residents have made will be reflected in the number of new coronavirus cases in the next week and that new restrictions introduced on Sunday will have an even greater impact.

Professor Brett Sutton made the comments at a daily press conference updating the state’s coronavirus situation alongside Premier Dan Andrews.

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He said: “We will see the effect of universal mask wearing in the numbers in the week ahead” and that if people follow the directions that have been laid out, “we will see the effect of these restrictions in the following week.

“But they will be ongoing and they will continue right through the six week period where we will see a reduction in numbers week on week”.

“We should reflect on the fact that stage three restrictions did make a difference,” Prof Sutton said.

“They genuinely flattened the curve, but they flattened the curve to a point where we got to a plateau.”

He said case numbers had stabilised but if nothing changed “that would have continued indefinitely”.

“If you are really only driving transmission down to a level where one person infects one other individual, then you have 400, 500 cases every day ongoing.

“That means you have hundreds of cases going into next month and the month after and the month after.”

The state previously mandated masks for people leaving the house, beginning on July 23 and with $200 fines for those who didn’t comply.

Victoria introduced new stage four restrictions on Sunday night as part of a state of disaster declaration.

Among the new restrictions are limits on movement for the residents of 31 council areas in Melbourne who can now only leave the house to buy groceries or exercise, and must do it within a five kilometre radius of their home, in groups of less than two.

Residents are no longer allowed visitors in their home, with exceptions for couples who live apart.

Most restrictive has been the introduction of an 8pm to 5am curfew.

Regional Victoria will enter stage three restrictions on Wednesday.

Prof Sutton said the restrictions have been “very substantial” but that he “absolutely expect that we will see transmission driven down and cases to decrease over time”.

He said the new restrictions “will make a huge difference” by limiting the virus’ opportunity to spread in workplaces, indoors, and in homes.

“They are all downward pressure on transmission of this virus very broadly across society, and so we can expect the numbers will improve week on week, but they will improve to the extent that we follow the advice, because it is not just the opportunities for transmission, it is also what a potentially infected individual does.”

Prof Sutton reiterated that people should isolate the second they start having symptoms, and that getting tested and having close contacts quarantine themselves were also “really critical”.

“We need to keep on right through this period, but there is an absolute expectation that this will do the right thing, and will drive numbers down as people follow the directions,” Prof Sutton said.

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Brett Sutton’s boss Melissa Skilbeck removed over hotel quarantine failures

Pressure is mounting on Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton after he was warned about the failures in Melbourne’s hotel quarantine system more than a month before the first outbreak was detected.

Professor Sutton and other top public health officials were told in April about inadequate supply of masks and gloves, poor infection-control protocols, and breaches of physical-distancing guidelines by hotel staff, security and medical personnel, The Age reported.

Melissa Skilbeck, deputy secretary of Victoria’s Health Department, has subsequently been stripped of her responsibilities in the days after Premier Daniel Andrews announced a judicial inquiry into the quarantine program.

The failures have set off a chain of cases contributing to the lockdown of more than 300,000 Victorians across 10 Melbourne suburbs.

The Age reported Ms Skilbeck was responsible for regulation, health protection and emergency management of the COVID-19 pandemic and hotel quarantine system.

Deputy secretaries can earn as much as $340,000 a year. She will retain the position but have her responsibilities redrawn.

Professor Sutton sits directly below Ms Skilbeck in the department’s organisational structure.

But the public face of the COVID-19 pandemic in Victoria, is remaining tight-lipped about revelations he was aware of the hotel quarantine failings as early as April.

“The Victorian Government has called for an inquiry into the operation of Victoria‘s hotel quarantine program. The Department will provide all assistance necessary to the inquiry,” a Department of Health spokesperson said.

“It would be inappropriate to provide any further comment while the inquiry is underway.”

The Rydges outbreak, which infected more than 20 staff and their close contacts, was first identified on May 27, while the Stamford outbreak started on June 17 and has grown to 35 cases.

This week, Premier Daniel Andrews announced a judicial review into the system, confirming the cases caused by hotel outbreaks were the major contributor to Victoria’s recent spike in infections.

Victorian Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien said the review was not good enough.

“Victorians deserve answers. In fact, Victorians deserve an apology for what has gone wrong here. But the most important thing is for the government to be honest,” Mr O’Brien told the Today show.

“Other states did the right thing. They brought in the ADF (Australian Defence Force), they brought in their own police. Daniel Andrews decided to go with untrained, unprofessional security guards who allegedly were sleeping with the guests … It was just a bad decision.”

Opposition health spokeswoman Georgie Crozier said Ms Mikakos should resign after what Ms Crozier argued was deficient handling of the hotel clusters and the earlier Cedar Meats outbreak.

“If these reports are correct, it looks like a senior bureaucrat has been forced to take the fall for the Health Minister’s incompetence and continued pressure for her own resignation following the hotel quarantine bungle which has contributed to the continued increase of COVID-19 cases in Victoria,” she told The Age.

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Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton warned of hotel quarantine risks a month before first outbreak

Security guards and health workers at the Rydges on Swanston and the Stamford Plaza cited the same problems raised with Professor Sutton as the cause of coronavirus transmission at both hotels.

The Department of Health and Human Services on Friday moved to shake up the health bureaucracy amid the fallout from the hotels debacle, with deputy secretary Melissa Skilbeck stripped of responsibility for emergency management but maintaining her seniority.

Victoria recorded 66 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday as outbreaks that began in the state’s hotel quarantine system spread in the northern and western suburbs, where more than 300,000 residents are subject to renewed stage three lockdown rules.

Speaking at a media conference on Friday, Premier Daniel Andrews and Health Minister Jenny Mikakos both said the first they knew of problems in hotel quarantine system was when the first infection at Rydges on Swanston was diagnosed on May 26.

Mr Andrews told reporters: “Infection control is an issue that has been brought to my attention, and I think it’s fair to say that … the first infection-control breach that led to a positive case [was the first he had heard].”

The offices of Professor Sutton and Mr Andrews refused to answer questions about the April briefing. Both cited a judicial inquiry as the reason they could not discuss whether their offices were told of emerging problems. Ms Mikakos’ office asked that questions be directed to the Premier’s office.

Mr Andrews this week announced the inquiry into the running of the state’s hotel quarantine system. The government has appointed former family court judge Jennifer Coate to run the $3 million probe.

The Department of Health and Human Services on Friday confirmed to The Age there had been a restructure in the department’s senior ranks.

Health Department deputy secretary Melissa Skilbeck.

Health Department deputy secretary Melissa Skilbeck.

Those changes resulted in deputy secretary Melissa Skilbeck being moved out of the emergency management field. She retains her role as deputy secretary.

Professor Sutton, the public face of the state’s pandemic response, sits directly below Ms Skilbeck in the department’s organisational structure. Unlike his counterpart in NSW, Professor Sutton is not a deputy secretary, meaning he sits three operational tiers below Health Minister Mikakos.

Opposition health spokeswoman Georgie Crozier said Ms Mikakos should resign over the handling of the hotel clusters and an earlier Cedar Meats outbreak.

“If these reports are correct, it looks like a senior bureaucrat has been forced to take the fall for the health minister’s incompetence and continued pressure for her own resignation following the hotel quarantine bungle which has contributed to the continued increase of COVID-19 cases in Victoria,” Ms Crozier said.

More than 20,000 people have spent a mandatory two weeks in the hotels since the quarantine system began in late March.

Lax hygiene at Rydges on Swanston in Carlton has been blamed for infections among security staff and their contacts.

Lax hygiene at Rydges on Swanston in Carlton has been blamed for infections among security staff and their contacts.Credit:Getty Images

The Health Department instituted a review of hotel protocols in early June after poor hygiene practices, first reported by The Age, were blamed for the Rydges Hotel outbreak.

More than 20 Rydges on Swanston staff and their close contacts have been infected in the outbreak since it was identified on May 27. The Stamford outbreak started on June 17 and has grown to 35 cases.

Rydges on Swanston was initially a “hot” hotel to where people infected with COVID-19 were directed. In June, Rydges on Swanston stopped taking confirmed COVID-19 patients. The hotel’s first returned travellers were those who disembarked from the Greg Mortimer cruise ship from Uruguay.

Andrew Buntine, a supervising guard contracted to work at Rydges through security firm Elite Protection Services, said guards repeatedly raised concerns with Health Department officials in April and early May about substandard infection-control.

Guards, who Mr Buntine said received 10-minute inductions on hygiene protocols and worked 12-hour shifts, were asked to share elevators with infected returned travellers, some of whom were let out to communal areas including the swimming pool.

Elite’s contract was terminated on May 11. In the weeks before the termination, guards had also expressed concern about infected Cedar Meats workers who were allowed to leave their rooms because they were not subject to strict detention rules.

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Brett Sutton’s boss stripped of responsibility after hotel quarantine failures

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton’s boss in the Health Department has been suddenly removed from her position handling the emergency response to the pandemic amid the fallout from failures in the hotel quarantine system that has led to COVID-19 outbreaks.

Melissa Skilbeck, deputy secretary of the department, was stripped of her responsibilities in the days after Premier Daniel Andrews announced a judicial inquiry into the system which set off a chain of cases that have been largely responsible for forcing more than 300,000 Victorians back into lockdown.

Melissa Skilbeck


Ms Skilbeck was responsible for regulation, health protection and emergency management. Deputy secretaries can earn as much as $340,000 a year. She will retain the deputy secretary position but will have her responsibilities redrawn.

Professor Sutton, the public face of the state’s pandemic response, sits directly below Ms Skilbeck in the department’s organisational structure. Unlike his counterpart in NSW, Professor Sutton is not a deputy secretary, meaning he sits three operational tiers below Health Minister Jenny Mikakos.

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