News Coronavirus Seven days to explain: Brett Sutton roasted under special inquiry spotlight

Seven days to explain: Brett Sutton roasted under special inquiry spotlight

Victoria's Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton is under pressure over emails linked to hotel quarantine. Photo: TND
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Thousands of Victorians have long joked about Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton being a heartthrob superhero during the COVID pandemic.

Their devotion even led to a new range of merchandise.

You can buy mugs featuring his face, a Brett Sutton bedspread, and you can join more than 12,000 “Suttonettes” by liking the Brett Sutton is HOT Facebook page.

But after a bruising special sitting of the hotel quarantine inquiry, his glossy image is starting to crack.

The Brett Sutton facemasks. Photo: Supplied

On Tuesday, Professor Sutton was the focus of an extraordinary hearing of the hotel quarantine inquiry over undisclosed emails revealing he was told private security guards were being used to monitor returned travellers.

The sitting ran for 15 minutes and featured the board of inquiry chair Jennifer Coate and senior counsel assisting the inquiry Tony Neal QC.

While the health department’s lawyers said they did not consider the emails critical or relevant, Mr Neal said the exchanges covered “matters that occupied a very considerable amount of the board’s time” during the inquiry.

“You may consider it adds some weight in one direction or another to your deliberations as to who was in charge for the detention regime,” he told Ms Coate, who is a retired judge.

Evidence in the emails

One email chain, which begins on March 30 and ends on July 2, involves a number of senior DHHS officials, including Finn Romanes, the then-Deputy Public Health Commander.

An email written by Dr Romanes titled “Information – Chain of Command – people in detention” was described by Mr Neal as “most significant”.

It lists Professor Sutton as the head of “all policy and oversight of people in detention”.

A second email chain on March 27 involves a number of DHHS staff, including Professor Sutton and a Commonwealth official.

The official asks what security arrangements will be in place at Victoria’s quarantine hotels.

Prof Sutton is copied into a reply which reads: “Private security has been contracted to provide security at the hotels with escalation arrangements to Vic Pol as needed”.

He acknowledges he has seen the email by replying “Thanks so much” to its author.

Professor Sutton has been given seven days to provide his explanation.

An honest mistake?

When asked about the emails at the weekend, Professor Sutton told reporters he had received up to 30,000 emails since the start of the pandemic.

“I get up to 150 a day… If I have missed a reference to security in late March when the program was established, I’m sorry,” he said.

Victoria’s hotel quarantine program was established within 36 hours of a national cabinet meeting on March 27.

Former Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton told the inquiry he learnt private security would be used in the program sometime between 1.16pm and 1.22pm on March 27, but couldn’t recall who told him.

Phone records established that the Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles spoke to Mr Ashton at 1.17pm.

Mr Eccles resigned after the revelation, though he emphatically denied he spoke to Mr Ashton about security.

The board did not say what it intended to do next but flagged re-examinations were likely, either by requiring witnesses to produce fresh statements or by recalling witnesses to the stand for further public hearings.

Professor Sutton may be called upon for further grilling, as well as other senior government figures such as Premier Daniel Andrews, former Health Minister Jenny Mikakos and former Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles.

Already Labor relationships have fractured over the whole affair, with Ms Mikakos sensationally resigning after giving evidence.

Now attention turns to November 6 when the board is expected to deliver its findings and recommendations (though it may seek an extension).
And time will tell whether the public’s admiration for Professor Sutton will last after that date.