Victoria’s chief health officer, Brett Sutton, personally endorsed a decision to furlough staff at a Melbourne aged-care home hit by a COVID-19 outbreak, an inquest has heard.
During Victoria’s second wave of the virus in July 2020, 45 residents at St Basil’s Home for the Aged died of COVID-19, after regular workers at the home were declared close contacts and replaced by inexperienced agency staff.
Professor Sutton has given evidence at the inquest into the deaths that he was personally asked to endorse an order to furlough staff in writing, after the chairman of St Basil’s refused to follow health directions and send staff away.
He agreed he was aware this would mean replacing the entire workforce, which would result in losing the clinical governance framework for the home.
Professor Sutton testified this was not unheard of in emergencies, but agreed it would be challenging without enough workers with adequate experience.
There were at least 50 positive cases connected to the home at the time.
“This ongoing outbreak represents a significant and serious threat to public health,” Professor Sutton wrote to the home’s chairman.
Also on Friday, the inquest was told state health authorities knew St Basil’s would be at least 30 staff short the day before it furloughed the home’s workforce.
The shortage represented almost half of the 66 workers needed to cover shifts at St Basil’s on July 22 last year, the day its workforce was sent home.
The inquest has been shown an email from the federal health department on July 21, stating that the number of replacement staff available had “dwindled”, with a shortfall of at least 15 registered nurses and 15 personal care assistants.
“Standing up a full workforce by tomorrow from our resources is increasingly unlikely,” reads the email from Neil Callagher, who headed up the commonwealth’s Aged Care COVID-19 Implementation Branch.
Last week, the inquest heard Mr Callagher didn’t support the Victorian government’s decision to replace all of the staff.
Victoria’s health department has provided another 2000 pages of evidence to the inquest as it concludes its second week of witness testimony, with one lawyer telling state coroner John Cain that there had been no time to review the documents.
The hearing continues.