Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton signed off on furloughing staff at St Basil’s despite being unaware of an inadequate surge workforce, an inquest has heard.
During Melbourne's second wave of COVID-19, 50 residents died inside the Greek facility after all of its staff were stood down.
Of the 45 people who died after contracting the virus, five residents passed away as a result of neglect.
Sutton said that he did not inquire about any welfare concerns for the residents prior to approving the takeover.
“I wasn’t in a position where I knew if the surge workforce was inadequate,” he said.
“The specific request given to me was around the issue of persistent non-compliance with the direction given by public health orders.
“The task as I saw it for me was the make sure that decision and that direction was to be put into effect.”
On July 21 last year, a Commonwealth sourced workforce was sent into St Basil’s to care for its 117 residents after an infected staff member had worked two shifts.
The shortage totalled almost half of its 66 workers on the following day.
In a hearing last week, council assisting to the coroner Peter Rozen said the needs of many “highly dependent residents were neglected to a point that a number presented at hospital dehydrated, malnourished, suffering from serious pressure sores and in very poor general health, in addition to being COVID-19 positive".
Sutton agreed that he never confirmed with the federal government whether the replacement workers would make up for the loss of staff.
“It’s an extraordinarily difficult set of risks to balance,” he said.
“It’s very clear there are these awful trade-offs in the provision in care and welfare against the risk of transmission.”
The court then heard that the St Basil’s manager at the time, Kon Kontis, told the health department that he would not vacate his staff unless he was ordered to.
Sutton upheld that if the facility had moved staff earlier further COVID-19 cases could have been prevented.
Kontis is expected to appear in court at a later date.
When asked who would ultimately be held responsible for what had happened at St Basil's, Sutton said that he did not know.
Former Victorian deputy chief health officer Dr Simon Crouch said he was given brief “assurances” from the Commonwealth that they would be able to make up for the loss of workers.
“I was aware that concerns had been raised, and to the best of my knowledge the Commonwealth were working to make sure they didn’t come to fruition,” he said.
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