Victoria’s chief health officer, Brett Sutton, says there were moments during his time as the face of the state’s Covid-19 response that would have “crushed” him were it not for the support of his family, as he announced his resignation on Friday.
Sutton said he would be leaving the Department of Health after 12 years to take up a position as director of health and biosecurity at the CSIRO from September.
Appointed as chief health officer in 2019, he was responsible for overseeing the Victoria’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which included one of the world’s longest lockdowns and restrictions such as a curfew and five-kilometre travel limit.
His position garnered him celebrity status, but also made him the target of conspiracy theories and death threats.
Sutton said the pressure of the public role, including fronting near-daily press conferences and inquiries, took a toll on him and his family.
“I accept in a crisis that that has to sit on your shoulders, there’s no escaping that and I was … in the midst of that beast for a long time. Victoria carried the heavy load in that regard,” he told reporters on Friday.
“On the one hand, it’s helped me to grow personally and professionally. On the other hand, it nearly crushed me and it certainly weighed upon my family life, and I don’t want them to have to carry that in the same way ever again.”
A visibly emotional Sutton described his family as his “rock” and thanked them, alongside his colleagues at the health department for their support.
“It’s the cumulative 16-hour days, sprinting for six months without a day off and you know, you can throw in the vitriol and the death threats and the intrusions and the kind of barrage of lies that you see especially in social media,” he said.
“Critiques are totally fine, accountability is appropriate for any public office holder. But the BS that is sometimes spouted out there is quite extraordinary.
“As much as you can set it aside, it still weighs on you because it’s directed so vociferously in your direction.”
In December 2021, new laws stripped the chief health officer of the power to declare a pandemic and enforce restrictions during a health crisis, with the responsibility handed to the premier and health minister.
From this time, Sutton’s visibility began to fade, leading to reports of a clash with the premier, Daniel Andrews, which both have denied.
“I have a great relationship the premier,” Sutton said on Friday, though he acknowledged “tensions” would always exist between public health advice and politics.
“I come with my view and my filter, [and] they have broader considerations and they have constituents that they’re accountable to. But we talked it through and we came to decisions collectively.”
He said knowing what he knows now, he has some regrets about the pandemic response but maintains he always put protecting the health and wellbeing of Victorians first.
“There shouldn’t be a person in the world who’s been part of the public health response who wouldn’t reflect on things they would do differently,” Sutton said.
He said the world came to act on the threat of Covid-19 “slowly”, including accepting the evidence of the airborne transmission of the virus.
“I wish the world had come to that earlier,” Sutton said.
The Department of Health secretary, Euan Wallace, said details of Sutton’s resignation were yet to be finalised, including a departure date and replacement details.
He thanked Sutton for “keeping the community safe and informed” during the pandemic.
The premier took to social media to also wish Sutton “all the very best” for his next role.
“As CHO, Brett helped keep us informed, and above all, safe,” he wrote.
Former health minister Martin Foley said Sutton “always spoke truth to power” and by putting the public health response first, he “unequivocally saved lives”.