Brendan Murphy, Caroline Edwards on what moved Australia through COVID-19

By Shannon Jenkins

Tuesday June 16, 2020

Brendan Murphy (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Chief medical officer Dr Brendan Murphy hopes to make the Department of Health the best workplace it can be when he commences in his new secretary role next month, he has revealed.

On the latest episode of Work with Purpose, acting secretary Caroline Edwards and Murphy reflected on the big choices they made to protect Australians from the coronavirus pandemic, what their partnership will look like in the future, and some of the rare rewarding moments that came out of the crisis.

The key decisions

One major pandemic response measure was essential in stopping Australia from going down the same path as Italy, the US, and the UK, according to Murphy.

“Probably one of the most significant things we did was on the 1st of February and I remember this well, sitting in my house in Melbourne looking at the data and I said to my spouse, ‘We’re going to have to shut the borders to China,’ … by that night the borders were closed,” he said.

The incoming Health secretary noted Australia’s decision to close its borders seemed strange to other countries.

“[The World Health Organisation] has never supported border closures in a pandemic, our colleagues in the UK and Canada, who we were talking with, really questioned [that] and said, ‘Why on earth are you doing that? It won’t help’,” he said.

Physical distancing measures which saw the closure of many businesses and resulted in various sectors coming to a halt was another key decision which had to be made to stop the spread of the virus, but it was a move which Murphy revealed “weighed on me very heavily”.

“We kept a lot of things going, but we still put a lot of Australians out of work and I remember driving to work four days after that, driving past a Centrelink office, and seeing the queue and realising the enormity of what we’d done,” he said.

For Edwards, who had recently been appointed deputy secretary at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and was only planning on returning to Health — at the request of the former secretary Glenys Beauchamp — “for a few weeks”, one memorable moment occurred during the Canberra Day long weekend.

A large chunk of the department spent the holiday putting together the federal government’s $2.4 billion stimulus package, announced on March 11.

“That was actually fundamental because we started working differently across teams and people were volunteering,” she said.

After that, the department did three key things:

  1. Repurposed almost every single team in the department within its existing structures.
  2. Implemented social distancing and remote working measures to protect staff but also to lead by example. The department had some “teething problems” with IT, but it “effectively rolled out a programme of IT that was a two-year plan over two weeks”.
  3. Suspended various rules and processes, forcing the department to “revert to what is APS core business”, Edwards said.

“Exercising judgement , taking care, assessing value for money, making sure things were safe and effective, and in a way that was a fantastic thing for the team to do so instead of ticking boxes and doing rules.”

The interactions between Health and its state and territory counterparts also changed. They set up a real time intensive care bed reporting system within two weeks.

“That’s the sort of thing that you’d think would be a five-year trajectory normally in commonwealth-state relations, and now we know exactly what intensive care beds there are out there and who’s in them,” Edwards said.

While Australia’s successful navigation of the pandemic had been aided by several quick, bold decisions, Murphy emphasised the importance of good preparation.

“We had a national medical stockpile, we had the plans, we had the Public Health Laboratory Network, we had the Infection Control Advisory Group, and if we hadn’t had all those sort of precedent conditions, we would have been in a lot of trouble,” he said.

Murphy’s law

Murphy recalled speaking to Health minister Greg Hunt in January, while he was holidaying in Rome. He had expected to be starting up in his new role as Health secretary when he returned to Australia at the end of the month.

“I remember saying to minister Hunt, ‘Look, I’ve been three years in the CMO role, fortunately I haven’t had a big public health crisis,’ and so he blames me for causing [the pandemic],” he revealed.

He had accepted the secretary role because he wanted to “assist the government’s health reform objectives”, lead the “reform journey”, and undertake extensive stakeholder engagement.

“The other thing I love doing is staff culture. I really want to work on making the department one of the best places to be,” he added.

Edwards will remain at Health as an associate secretary when Murphy takes over next month. He described her as the best public servant he has ever worked with.

“She knows government, the system, the connections so much better than I will ever know and we’re going to sort of share the secretary role in a way and as we have in the last few months,” he said.

“There will be somewhat differences in the role and the title, but I think it will be an ambiguous structure, but I never get caught up on structures when you’ve got really good relationships. It’s all about people and we will make it work.”

Edwards is also looking forward to continuing the partnership in a new capacity.

“It’s really great because actually Brendan’s vision of how the medical community works is one that can actually fit with the bureaucratic one so we can actually do things, see reform in a way that’s not too fast or too difficult for doctors so he’s absolutely fantastic. I think anybody who’s worked with me before will laugh when they hear that I’m the one who’s into the systems and the processes so we’ll have to make sure we do obey the rules,” she said.

“I’m very pleased to hand over the secretary role to Brendan on the 13th of July, but having been here and having gone through what was effectively a crisis and a trauma for the department as well as for the nation, I really want to stay and make sure we maintain those things we’ve learned and the relationships here now are just extraordinary and it would be a shame not to continue. So [I’m] very pleased and pretty humbled to be staying.”

Positives of a pandemic

Edwards said she was incredibly proud of how the people within her department supported each other through the COVID-19 crisis.

“I can’t think of a harsh word that was exchanged among the teams. People were kind with one another and helpful. We had a roster at one stage to try and give people three hours off a week and people were just jumping up and down to say no, so-and-so needs a break … I had to direct the head of the National Incident Room to have a day off with her small child one day,” she said.

“I mean, the whole place is feeling a bit weary, but [I’m] enormously proud and it’s really been an enormous privilege to be able to lead such a fantastic team through one of the greatest crises our country’s seen.”

She noted her fellow secretaries and staff from other departments have “gone out of their way to be supportive”, and have consistently reached out to see if Edwards needed any help, and in many cases have come over to assist Health.

“So, it’s broken down silos within Health absolutely, but also lots of partnership beyond,” she said.

While some aspects of Murphy’s role have been uncomfortable (he has taken to wearing sunglasses and a cap in public to avoid questions from strangers), he said one of the most rewarding aspects of the COVID-19 response was the sense of unity across jurisdictions and through the national cabinet.

“I felt at all times that my ministers and the prime minister were listening and supporting, and they were prepared to co-own the decisions, but they were very keen that we had this collective advice from the Health Protection Principal Committee with all the chief health officers so that they knew that they were working on the best available advice,” he said.

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