This created an unintended burden on Professor Sutton, who by no means contemplated wielding emergency powers for such a protracted time frame. It additionally pissed off senior figures inside the state authorities who privately questioned why a public well being bureaucrat, by refusing to signal a public well being order, might successfully veto authorities choices.
It led to confusion about who was accountable for Victoria’s pandemic response.
Victoria’s new pandemic laws, which got here into impact simply because the Omicron wave was constructing, ended the Chief Well being Officer’s twin position and far of the confusion. By enabling the Well being Minister to situation pandemic orders, it returned government energy to the chief and the Professor Sutton to his day job of offering public well being recommendation.
In flip, Well being Minister Martin Foley, whereas lawfully required to contemplate Professor Sutton’s recommendation, has a wider remit than the Chief Well being Officer did to contemplate the social, financial, psychological well being and different impacts of any proposed pandemic orders.
Mr Foley and Professor Sutton, in response to questions from The Age, agreed that the brand new pandemic legal guidelines – now working inside a COVID-19 panorama vastly altered by excessive vaccination charges and a extra infectious, much less virulent virus – enable for a extra nuanced authorities response.
Professor Sutton’s simplified position means he has better freedom to supply unfiltered public well being recommendation and, in some instances, no recommendation if he believes it falls outdoors his space of experience.
For instance, when Tennis Australia petitioned the federal government final week to extend the group restrict for Ashleigh Barty’s Australian Open remaining, Professor Sutton stated his public well being recommendation was unchanged from a number of days earlier and some other concerns had been for others to make. The federal government increased the cap to 80 per cent.
“I don’t need to do the tough, broader consideration that’s now explicitly the minister’s process,” Professor Sutton stated.
Mr Foley stated pandemic decision-making, though nonetheless advanced, now adopted a extra clear course of.
“Brett is now unburdened from a few of that,” he stated. “He can put the general public well being recommendation in writing, it’s revealed, I’ve to contemplate it. That may be a course of that was occurring anyway, however now it’s taking place in a way more clear and procedurally rigorous means.”
Fiona Patten, an unbiased MP whose help was vital to the passage of the brand new pandemic legal guidelines regardless of a vocal public protest, stated clarifying the chief well being officer position was a key consideration.
“In an emergency, you may perceive why the chief well being officer would step up,” she stated. “However when an emergency lasts for 2 years, it’s inappropriate for a public servant to be making these government choices.”
The pandemic orders governing residential aged care are an excellent case research of how choices are made. In his revealed causes explaining the orders, Mr Foley famous his determination was based mostly on the recommendation of the Chief Well being Officer and likewise discussions he had with Commissioner for Senior Victorians Gerard Mansour.
Professor Sutton’s recommendation was knowledgeable partly by Victorian Division of Well being information exhibiting that whereas aged care residents contaminated with COVID-19 earlier than mass vaccination had a one in three likelihood of dying, the present dying fee is about 1 per cent of instances. A current vaccine booster additional reduces by sevenfold the danger of dying in older individuals.
This makes for a really completely different public well being equation.
“It has turn out to be simpler to contemplate what the unfavourable results of isolation from household and family members and carers means for these residents,” Professor Sutton stated. “That’s not to say we will’t proceed to attempt to shield them as finest we will from transmission, however we have to discover that applicable steadiness.”
Not all public well being consultants are satisfied that the adjustments to Victoria’s pandemic administration are for the higher. An infectious illness clinician unauthorised to talk publicly stated the shift of energy from the Chief Well being Officer to the Well being Minister had politicised what should be medical choices and led to dangerous outcomes.
The clinician cited the introduction of the brand new pandemic legal guidelines on December 15.
“To alter the pandemic legal guidelines 10 days earlier than the most important household occasion of the yr [Christmas] was insane,” the clinician stated. “To disregard Brett’s recommendation about indoor gatherings, solely to overturn it after the Boxing Day Take a look at, has led to the blowout in numbers.”
A advantage of the brand new legal guidelines is that, regardless of the shortcomings of Victoria’s response to the Omicron epidemic and future COVID-19 outbreaks, the reckoning will probably be with individuals elected to make choices, not public servants employed to offer recommendation.
“Now, fairly rightly, the people who find themselves being criticised are the politicians,” Ms Patten stated. “It’s not being directed on the Chief Well being Officer.”
The Morning Version publication is our information to the day’s most vital and fascinating tales, evaluation and insights. Sign up here.