Brett Sutton has ‘enough to get on with’ without state controller role, Andrews says

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has responded to revelations Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton was denied the role of “state controller” during the pandemic, saying Professor Sutton had “enough to get on with”.

Professor Sutton has been the public face of the state’s pandemic response.

The state controller is responsible for logistics, planning and communications during a public health crisis. Under Victoria’s Health Emergency Response Plan, it should be performed by the Chief Health Officer.

This week, the state’s hotel quarantine inquiry heard that Professor Sutton disagreed with a decision not to appoint him to the role.

But asked about the decision, Mr Andrews said: “Dr Sutton has got enough to get on with, providing detailed, expert epidemiological and public health advice.

“That is where his focus is and needs to be.

“And in my judgement, I think if you had a different arrangement and you were asking someone to provide both expert advice in their primary field, as well as coordination of many things that are well away from medicine and science and public health, I don’t think that’s the best use of the best skills.”

On Thursday, Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) deputy secretary Melissa Skilbeck told Victoria’s hotel quarantine inquiry that Professor Sutton wanted to take on the state controller position — but she thought the job should be given to someone with more logistics experience and more time.

She told the inquiry that Professor Sutton was against the decision.

The state controller role was initially shared between Andrea Spiteri and Jason Helps from Emergency Management Victoria, who were appointed in early February. 

DHHS secretary Kym Peake took on the role of state controller in late July, during Victoria’s surging second wave.

The ABC approached the DHHS seeking a response from Professor Sutton, but the department said the issue was addressed at Mr Andrews’s press conference today and they would not be adding anything further.

Current strategy is ‘working well’

Under the State Health Emergency Response Plan, the state controller reports to the Emergency Management Commissioner, Andrew Crisp.

The document says the Public Health Commander (a function performed by the Chief Health Officer) should also fulfil the role of state controller in a public health emergency.

“The Public Health Commander will be appointed State Controller for identified public health emergencies (most likely to occur in circumstances where a public health emergency is anticipated),” the document says.

A graph showing the chain of command during a public health emergency.
The plan says the Public Health Commander, who is also the Chief Health Officer, should be appointed state controller.(Supplied)

In a statement to the hotel quarantine inquiry, Deputy Public Health Commander Finn Romanes said if Professor Sutton had been appointed state controller, “public health expertise may have been more embedded in the governance of the hotel quarantine program”.

Mr Andrews said the current arrangements in place were “working well”.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews at a press conference on Friday, September 11, speaking at a podium with a purple backgound.
Mr Andrews says Professor Sutton never raised the matter with him.(ABC News: Dylan Anderson)

“There’ll always be debates and discussions about whether they could be otherwise. I don’t have the luxury of having those debates,” he said.

“These arrangements make sense. They’re working.”

Mr Andrews was asked if he and Professor Sutton were not on the same page.

“I wouldn’t say that at all. You can have differences of opinion,” he said.

“He’s just getting on and doing his job. I’m getting on, doing mine. We work very well together. Very closely together. And I think the arrangements we have got in place are exactly the right ones.”

Mr Andrews then said he wasn’t conceding the point that there were differences of opinion, adding that he hadn’t heard Ms Skilbeck’s evidence concerning Professor Sutton’s view.

Sutton says rumours of tensions are ‘incorrect’

Professor Sutton has been absent from the daily press conferences for the past few days, but is expected to be present at tomorrow’s briefing.

On Tuesday, he told radio station 3AW Melbourne’s contentious curfew was not his idea, but he was consulted on it and he wasn’t against it.

He also put a question mark over a rule, published by DHHS, that people in a social bubble arrangement would need to wear masks during visits.

“That’s obviously the policy advice from my team … I want to go back to them on that because I’m not sure about the practicality or feasibility of that, so that’s one to explore, put that in the to-be-determined basket,” he said.

The Premier, however, later said single bubble visits were different to intimate partner visits and masks should be worn.

In the radio interview, Professor Sutton was asked about alleged “tensions” between him and the Premier, and said they were “incorrect”.

“I get along pretty well with all sorts … my gig is to provide straight-up, robust advice,” Professor Sutton said.

“I think we’ve worked very well together.”