Inquest told Sutton had big knowledge gap

Brett Sutton has appeared at the inquest into deaths of residents at St Basil's Home for the Aged.
Brett Sutton has appeared at the inquest into deaths of residents at St Basil's Home for the Aged.

Counsel assisting the inquest into a COVID-19 outbreak at a Melbourne aged care home will submit that Victoria's chief health officer had a big knowledge gap when he directed its workforce to furlough.

During Victoria's second wave of the virus in July 2020, 45 residents at St Basil's Home for the Aged died of COVID-19, after regular workers were sent home and replaced by inexperienced agency staff.

There were at least 50 positive cases connected to the home when St Basil's staff were declared close contacts, and state and federal health authorities began working on a plan to replace the entire workforce.

State health chief Brett Sutton has testified that in the days before he made the order to furlough staff, he was unaware several doctors had expressed strong opposition to the plan.

Counsel Assisting Peter Rozen QC told Professor Sutton he would make submissions to the coroner that this was a "very big gap in your knowledge base" in making the public health orders.

"I accept that there is additional evidence that could have been brought to my attention," Prof Sutton said on Friday.

But he defended the actions of health authorities, saying he believed almost all the residents and staff at St Basil's would have been infected, and more people would have died, if the health orders had not been given.

"A direction such as the one that was made gives the greatest chance at saving lives," he said in his witness statement.

But the inquest also heard that the day before the handover to the emergency workforce on July 22, almost half of the necessary workers could not be found.

Within hours of the transfer residents had missed meals and medications, and in the following days conditions at St Basil's were "shocking", other witnesses have testified.

Prof Sutton gave evidence that his orders to furlough staff were conditional, with an "overarching caveat" that a handover would only take place once appropriate replacement workers had been found.

"I think everyone understands that if there was no sign of replacement staff on the 22nd, the handover would not take place," he said.

Although he had not made any inquiries himself, he had not been told of any specific problems in finding an emergency workforce, he testified.

He also said the chairman of St Basils' initial refusal to follow health directions held up the health response and likely led to further cases.

Prof Sutton read a statement acknowledging the loss endured by relatives of St Basil's residents who had died.

"I want to express my heartfelt sorrow for the suffering that they have gone through," he said.

The inquest continues next week before Victorian State Coroner John Cain.

Australian Associated Press