Brendan Murphy coronavirus covid
Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) has been hailed by Health Minister Greg Hunt as the “paramount source of medical advice to the nation”.

But little is known about the committee in charge of advising chief medical officer Brendan Murphy. While it’s public knowledge the team consists of the chief health officer from each state and territory, the government has not publicly listed names of those at the table.

The Department of Health initially declined to provide names of people on the committee. The department backtracked, however, when Crikey spoke to members and sent the Department of Health a list of names, which were confirmed as correct.

Crikey takes a look inside the AHPPC.

How does it work? 

The role of the AHPPC is to advise the Australian government on health protection matters.

Previously, it made up one of four committees which advised the Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council (AHMAC) — part of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). Now, the team reports to Murphy, who reports to the national cabinet.

The AHPPC is supported by the National Incident Room (NIR) and the Communicable Diseases Network of Australia (CDNA). These are the only committees that advise the government on health matters; separate commissions, including the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission, the Coronavirus Business Liaison Unit, and National Coordination Mechanism coordinate everything outside of health. 

(Image: Barton Deakin)

In the COVID-19 era, the team advises Murphy on policies, standards and protections for the general public, including social distancing measures, public gathering rules, travel restrictions and testing criteria. 

Armed with reports from the NIR, advice from the CDNA and its own research, the team meets via teleconference daily for around two hours to discuss issues and measures. 

Reports are then compiled and sent back and forth amongst the team until a general consensus is reached, which is then put forward to the national cabinet by Murphy.

Murphy and the National Cabinet make the final decisions.

Who’s at the virtual table?

There are 25 people on the committee: 20 government officials and five invited experts, supported by an unknown number of public servants. A full list of committee members is listed at the bottom of this article.

The committee is chaired by Murphy, who is supported by four deputy chief medical officers: Paul Kelly, Nick Coatsworth, Michael Kidd and Jenny Firman. 

Along with eight chief health officers from the states and territories, there are also medical representatives from the Australian Defence Force, the New Zealand Ministry of Health, Communicable Diseases Network Australia, Public Health Laboratories Network, Darwin’s National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre, and the chief nursing and midwifery officer.

The five invited experts are: 

Allan Cheng, a professor of infectious diseases epidemiology at Monash University and director of the Infection Prevention and Healthcare Epidemiology Unit at Alfred Health. 

Jodie McVernon, director of epidemiology at Melbourne University’s Doherty Institute, who is an expert at clinical vaccine trials, epidemiologic studies and mathematical modelling of infectious diseases. 

James McCaw, a professor in mathematical biology and infectious diseases epidemiologist at the University of Melbourne. 

Lyn Gilbert, an infectious disease physician, clinical microbiologist and senior researcher at the Marie Bashir Institute for Emerging Infections and Biosecurity, and at Sydney Health Ethics at the University of Sydney. 

Martyn Kirk, an epidemiologist at the Australian National University with experience in state, territory and federal health departments. 

The insider’s perspective

Cheng sought permission from the government to speak to Crikey. He was invited to the AHPPC on January 20 by chief medical officer Brendan Murphy.

The pair go way back — Cheng was an intern at St Vincent’s hospital when Murphy worked as a kidney specialist during the ‘90s.

Cheng has been involved in public health for years, as a chair of the Advisory Committee for Vaccines, and as a member of the expert advisory group revising the Australian Infection Control Guidelines for NHMRC. 

“We meet pretty much every day and have met pretty much every day since January … People get heated and put their opinions quite forthrightly,” he told Crikey, adding the team always respects each others’ opinions.

Neither Cheng, or the hospital or universities he is employed by are reimbursed for his time on the committee (though other experts with higher workloads are paid). 

Despite the department’s reluctance to release names — or provide an explanation as to why the names of invited experts weren’t public — Cheng said the committee “is not secretive”.

“We can’t say who said what, but I can speak publicly as a doctor. There’s no party line in that sense,” he said. 

McVernon told Crikey that the decision-making response had been “well documented”.

“Those committees have met regularly throughout the COVID-19 response and reviewed evidence from many sources, including solicited expert advice.”

McCaw told Crikey the team shouldered an enormous responsibility.

“It’s high stakes and high pressure… Along with everyone in the community the coronavirus situation is weighing heavily on me,” he said. “There are long hours and it’s challenging, but I feel a sense of responsibility more than anything else.”

Cheng says there was significant pressure for the committee to make the right calls. “Primarily I’m a doctor, so I’m used to making decisions which may affect one person — but not millions,” he said. 

While Good Friday was the first day he’d had off since January, Cheng said what the committee was doing was important. “I’m doing my best to steer the country in the right direction.”

The committee in full

Chair, Commonwealth Chief Medical OfficerBrendan Murphy
Deputy Commonwealth Chief Medical OfficersPaul Kelly 
Nick Coatsworth
Michael Kidd
Jenny Firman
Chief Nursing and Midwifery OfficerAlison McMillan
Chief Health Officer, Western AustraliaAndrew Robertson
Chief Health Officer, South AustraliaNicola Spurrier
Chief Health Officer, VictoriaBrett Sutton 
Chief Health Officer, New South WalesKerry Chant
Chief Health Officer, QueenslandJeannette Young
Chief Health Officer, TasmaniaMark Veitch
Chief Health Officer, ACTKerryn Coleman
Chief Health Officer, Northern TerritoryHugh Heggie
Commander Joint Health and Surgeon General, Australian Defence ForceSarah Sharkey
Emergency Management Australia Rob Cameron
NZ Ministry of HealthDirector of Public Health Dr Caroline McElnay
Chair, Communicable Diseases Network AustraliaSonya Bennett
Chair, Public Health Laboratories NetworkBenjamin Howden
National Critical Care and Trauma Response CentreLen Notaras
Invited Experts 
The Doherty University through the University of MelbourneJodie McVernon
James Mccaw 
Prevention and Healthcare Epidemiology Unit, Alfred HealthAllen Cheng
Infection Prevention and Control, Institute of Clinical Pathology, University of SydneyLyn Gilbert
National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) / Australian National University Martyn Kirk

Next, Crikey examines the independence of this committee.

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