Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton questioned in court about St. Basil’s outbreak

Victoria’s health official has taken the stand to testify about decisions made around a nursing home where 45 residents died from Covid-19.

Victoria’s health official expressed his “sincere sadness” to families who lost their loved ones to the devastating coronavirus outbreak at St Basil’s.

“I want to express my sincere sadness for the suffering they have gone through,” Professor Brett Sutton said during an inquest on Friday.

Five residents of St Basil’s died of neglect, while 45 died of Covid-19 at the Fawkner facility in July and August 2020 during the state’s deadly second wave.

He was questioned about his decisions to lay off staff, whether he was aware of the concerns of other doctors and whether he blamed the management of the Fawkner retirement home in north Melbourne.

The top health official ordered St Basil’s staff to resign and go into isolation because he appeared to be in close contact with Covid-19 on July 21 last year.

The federal government organized a wave of workers to replace it the next day, but many failed to show up, others never returned for new shifts, and some contracted the virus.

In his statement, Professor Sutton said that if St. Basil’s had followed the public health response, as the department requested on July 19, it would not have had to write to the chairman.

“It’s also likely that it would have resulted in fewer cases,” he said.

He told the inquest that residents, staff and others in the community were unlikely to have contracted the virus.

Counsel assisting Peter Rozen QC wondered if he was blaming the facility’s management.

‘And you shouldn’t make too much of a point blaming the board of Saint Basil for that?’ asked Mr. Rozen.

“Yes,” Professor Sutton replied.

If management had agreed to withdraw the affected staff on July 19, work could have continued to have the replacement staff in place earlier.

However, he also told the court in the days before making the decision to fire the facility’s staff, which he did not know doctors were against the plan.

He would have benefited from knowing that information so he could have incorporated it into his decision making, Professor Sutton said.

Mr Rozen said he would say this was a “very large gap” in Professor Sutton’s knowledge base for making the decision to resign from staff.

He also explained to the court that there was a “qualification” to his decision to order the staff to resign and be replaced.

“My management had the reservation that the leave would only take place if sufficient staff were present,” Professor Sutton told the court.

The health chief was asked if it was a “conditional instruction” that existing St. Basil’s staff could only leave if there were enough replacement staff to take over.

“Everyone understands I wouldn’t send any staff home if there was no sign of replacement staff,” said Professor Sutton.

His evidence came after Dr Simon Crouch was questioned about whether Professor Sutton had been told that other doctors were concerned about patient care if replacement staff were to be called in.

“I suspect he was probably aware, but again apologies, I can’t recall a specific conversation about that,” Dr Crouch told the court on Friday morning.

He described the second wave of coronavirus as the most difficult period of work he had ever experienced.

Dr Crouch said he worked up to 16 hours a day and the St Basil’s outbreak was very significant but one of many outbreaks involving hundreds of cases, with processes changing “all the time”.

“Having the time and the ability to record everything that was going on really wasn’t available,” Dr Crouch said of his note-taking ability.

The inquest will resume Monday in the presence of state coroner John Cain.

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