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‘Awful trade-offs’: Brett Sutton ‘didn’t ask’ if furloughing St Basil’s staff would put residents at risk

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Luis Ascui/AAP</span>
Photograph: Luis Ascui/AAP

Victoria’s chief health officer tells coronial inquiry he wasn’t informed of serious concerns about resident safety before signing furlough order

Victoria’s chief health officer has told a coronial inquest he was not aware senior clinical staff at St Basil’s aged care home had raised serious concerns about the safety of residents if a direction from the state government to furlough all staff amid a Covid outbreak was followed.

In July and August 2020, 94 residents and 94 staff members at the home were infected with the virus. Forty-five residents died from Covid while a further five died from neglect as the workforce succumbed to the virus and gaps were revealed in infection management.

Victoria’s health department on 19 July ordered that anyone who worked at the home between 1-15 July be declared a close contact and quarantine. This led to the entire workforce needing to be replaced with agency staff by 22 July.

But the inquest heard the federal government struggled to source replacement workers due to outbreaks elsewhere.

Related: St Basil’s Covid tragedy: ‘We are still finding out things that we weren’t aware of and it makes us angry’

In the hours and days after the staff were replaced, the virus continued to spread through the home and residents missed meals, medications and washing, leading to neglect and deaths.

The inquest is exploring whether there were alternatives open to the state and federal governments other than furloughing and replacing all staff. It’s also examining the adequacy of the replacement workforce deployed at St Basil’s and whether the state and federal governments communicated with each other appropriately.

Victoria’s chief health officer, Prof Brett Sutton, said senior staff from his department never told him about concerns raised by commonwealth staff and doctors at the home that it would be nearly impossible to pull together a replacement workforce – and that they feared residents would be left without basic care including food and medications.

Counsel assisting the inquest Peter Rozen QC put it to Sutton on Friday that “you were not told that there was going to be any fundamental problem [replacing the staff] ... but equally you didn’t ask”.

“I didn’t ask,” Sutton replied. But he said he relied on senior department staff to communicate serious issues with him and hoped aged care staff could be mobilised from areas largely unaffected by the virus – including parts of regional Victoria.

He said knowing how infectious the virus was and how quickly it spread, he and other officials and managers were left with “an extraordinarily difficult set of risks to balance”.

There were “awful trade-offs in the provision of care and welfare against the risk of transmission,” Sutton said, adding he believed the risk of further spread was substantial if the original staff had been allowed to stay on site.

He said he could not say what proportion of the 94 staff ultimately infected were part of the original workforce or the replacement workforce.

Related: Aged care worker living with relatives who had Covid symptoms cleared to work at St Basil’s, inquest hears

Sutton said the refusal by the former management of St Basil’s aged care home to immediately accept the furlough direction from the Victorian health department may have led to more cases of the virus in the home.

The court heard the manager of St Basil’s, Kon Kontis, wrote a letter saying he was not going to direct his staff to vacate the facility without an official direction. Though the verbal order from the department of health carried legal weight, Sutton signed off on a letter ordering the furloughing to take place in order to give added authority to the direction.

“Our reading of Mr Kontis’s letter suggests that he was of the belief that his staff were no more at risk of becoming positive cases and transmitting within the facility as any replacement staff, when that is manifestly absurd,” Sutton said.

“So there was a refusal to furlough those staff who were regarded as close contacts. My understanding is that the refusal to accept the following direction that was given on the 19th means that there wasn’t accelerated planning and preparation for that surge workforce.”

Kontis is due to give evidence before the inquest at a later date.

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