Robyn Lawrence: pandemic policy advisor making a difference

Robyn Lawrence


Name: Dr Robyn Lawrence

Title: Deputy chief health officer

Role in responding to COVID-19
Incident controller, State Health Incident Coordination Centre (SHICC)

Previous role/seconded from?
Chief executive, North Metropolitan Health Service (NMHS)

Notable previous policy experience
Dr Lawrence has held a number of executive roles within WA Health. She has been the chief executive of NMHS for two years, managing two general hospitals, the state’s only tertiary women’s hospital and a mental health hospital. Before then, she was the chief executive of WA’s Child and Adolescent Health Service, where she led the successful move from the 108-year-old Princess Margaret Hospital to the new state-of-the-art Perth Children’s Hospital.

She has also headed up the Health Department’s Innovation Unit which, among other things, was responsible for introducing the Four-Hour Rule Program, stipulating that most patients presenting to emergency departments must be seen and either admitted, transferred, or discharged within four hours.

Notable achievements/contributions during this crisis
Dr Lawrence was central to standing up the SHICC – the engine room for the state government’s WA Health COVID-19 emergency response. At its peak, there were more than 100 staff from 18 state and commonwealth agencies working together to prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic and keep the community informed. As incident controller, she manages emergency response functions, including planning, operations, logistics, intelligence, liaison and public information.

As prime minister Scott Morrison was telling Australians around the world to come home, it was becoming very clear that, with 86% of WA’s confirmed COVID-19 cases were linked to overseas travel, quarantine measures would be required.

Via the SHICC, WA enforced its Public Health Act – compelling hotels (chosen because of their proximity to health facilities and ability to facilitate security, meal preparation and infection control training) to participate in managing travellers returning from overseas through hotel quarantine for 14 days. Quickly imposing these quarantine measures had a significant impact on the speed at which WA got the disease under control.

The SHICC successfully managed two significant COVID-19 outbreaks aboard ships that entered Fremantle Port – the German cruise ship Artania and the livestock carrier the Al Kuwait. These two vessels were responsible for 102 confirmed cases of COVID-19, which were managed by the SHICC through hotel quarantine and Perth hospitals and eventually repatriating them.

This strategic response involved coordinating multiple state and federal agencies who worked together to manage a potential health threat to the WA community. So far, more than 5,300 people have spent time in hotel quarantine in WA. Around 330 people are still arriving every week and being placed into hotel isolation.


“It was a hectic time for all of the people in my team, who were often pushed to the limit. It was a lot of work in a very, very short period of time.

Returning travellers who lived here in WA would have liked to have gone home which is completely understandable — being cooped up in a hotel room for 14 days is pretty tough. But in the main, people were really understanding and got that it was for the benefit of their community.

It was important to remember that cruise ship passengers were someone’s mother, grandfather, sister or brother – they weren’t people who intentionally set out to contract a serious infectious disease and bring it back to Australia.”

This article is part of the Team COVID-19 series, available here.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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