Former CMO Brendan Murphy on leading through a pandemic

Secretary of the Department of Health Professor Brendan Murphy.
Secretary of the Department of Health Professor Brendan Murphy.

Dealing with challenging situations and weighing up the best available evidence is a familiar scenario for medical professionals. But for Secretary of the federal Department of Health Professor Brendan Murphy, who led the health response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the scope of the challenge – and the evidence – changed constantly.

As Australia’s top COVID-19 spokesperson and Chief Medical Officer, Prof Murphy became a familiar face, fronting daily press conferences to relay the latest information and advice alongside the Prime Minister or Health Minister.

Behind the scenes, he worked with state and territory governments and health professionals as Chair of the Australian Health Principal Protection Committee (AHPPC). The AHPPC provided advice about restricting business and community activities, and introduced physical distancing measures.

This involved a delicate balancing act between protecting the health of the community, and being aware of the economic impact of some measures.

‘We were all mindful of the impact government restrictions were having on people’s livelihoods and wellbeing,’ Prof Murphy told Australian Pharmacist after his award last week as 2020 ACT Australian of the Year.

‘We took what we thought was a proportionate middle ground, and I think history has shown that that was largely correct. But in protecting the health of Australians, there have been unavoidable consequences for their livelihoods.’

While Australia had a pandemic influenza plan to work from in response to COVID-19, this was predicated on the idea that a vaccine would be available in 3 or 4 months. Ten months into this pandemic, however, drug companies are still working on developing an effective vaccine, although there are promising signs. 

‘This virus does not have a rule book,’ Prof Murphy said. 

‘At the start of the pandemic, we were relying on media reports and there wasn’t much scientific evidence at all.

‘The evidence of the virus kept changing so we have at all times been making the best possible balanced assessments as we went forward.’

A collective achievement

Victoria, the state most affected by the pandemic, today recorded its 12th ‘doughnut day’, with no new COVID-19 cases or deaths. Australia as a whole has recorded a total of 27,678 cases and 907 deaths

Prof Murphy said Australians should be ‘immensely proud’ of how they responded to the challenges of COVID-19, achieving relatively low case numbers and fatalities compared to almost any other country.

‘This crisis has brought people together in a spirit of collaboration the likes of which we’ve never seen before,’ he said.

‘One of the great legacies of this outbreak is how our federation has worked well and that has been a very strong feature of the Australian response.’

Prof Murphy, who finished his 4-year term as CMO in June, is now Secretary of the federal Department of Health. He described his ACT Australian of the Year award for his efforts during the pandemic as a ‘collective achievement’.

‘It was a privilege to be Chief Medical Officer during this global pandemic, in a community that has stuck together and achieved so much,’ he said.

‘The fact that we’ve been able to restart our economy is a credit to the hard work of all Australians and I wouldn’t swap being an Australian for any other nation in the world at the moment.’

This includes the country’s pharmacists, who kept their doors open through the pandemic.

‘We could not be more appreciative of our pharmacists and the staff that support them in communities across the country,’ Prof Murphy said.

‘Like many businesses, they have had to adapt and take steps to provide services safely, to ensure critical medicines and health advice is given to the people who need it.

‘Our pharmacists play a pivotal role as our most accessible health professionals and their contribution on the frontline during this pandemic is to be greatly appreciated and admired.’