Department of Health

The Department of Health is the government department responsible for health planning, policy development, funding and regulation of health service providers, and activities that promote and protect Victoria’s health.1 In an emergency, the Department of Health’s role is defined in the Emergency Management Manual Victoria. The Department of Health’s level of response to an emergency depends on the impact of the emergency on the health system and whether control of the emergency is exercised at an incident, local or state level. At each level of response, an Emergency Management Team is responsible for developing an incident strategy that addresses the risks and consequences of the incident.2

The State Health Emergency Response Plan provides a framework for planning a coordinated health approach during emergencies, regardless of whether the emergency has local, state or national implications. Under this Plan, the Department of Health is responsible for monitoring the demand on health resources that arise from an emergency incident, and coordinates and directs the deployment of health resources as required. This is undertaken through the State Health and Medical Commander, the State Health Commander and the State Health Coordinator.3 Figure 4.45 summarises the reporting lines for health command and health coordination during an emergency.

Figure 4.45 Reporting lines under the State Health Emergency Response Plan during
an emergency4

4.45-Reporting-lines-w_opt

CHIEF HEALTH OFFICER

The responsibilities and powers of the Chief Health Officer are outlined in s. 20 of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 (Vic) (Public Health and Wellbeing Act). The Chief Health Officer is responsible for developing and implementing strategies around public health, and providing advice to the Government about public health issues. The Chief Health Officer has the power to order that people are examined, tested or quarantined if they pose a risk to public health. The Health Protection Branch of the Department of Health supports the Chief Health Officer.5

Part 2 of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act outlines the key principles that must be applied in decisions made pursuant to the Act. The key relevant principles include:

  • Evidence based decision-making–decisions about the most effective use of resources to promote and protect public health and interventions should be based on evidence available that is relevant and reliable.6
  • Precautionary principle–if a public health risk poses a serious threat, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent or control the public health risk.7
  • Proportionality–decisions made must be proportionate to the public health risk.8

Accordingly, the Chief Health Officer is required to balance a number of different principles and roles in an emergency. However, the Chief Health Officer is not the final decision–maker in an emergency–this responsibility and authority remains with the Incident Controller.9

The Chief Health Officer is also the Government’s spokesperson in relation to health issues during an emergency, such as the Hazelwood mine fire.10

DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH RESPONSE TO THE HAZELWOOD MINE FIRE

The Department of Health was one of a number of agencies supporting the Country Fire Authority (CFA) during the Hazelwood mine fire.11 The Department of Health provided the CFA with resources and personnel as required, provided advice to the Incident Controller in relation to the public health consequences of the fire, ensured coordination of health resources, and was responsible for the strategic oversight of health coordination.12 The Department of Health was also responsible for monitoring the demand for health services during the mine fire, coordinating and directing the deployment of health system resources, providing support to responding agencies, and providing information to the public about health issues arising from the fire.13

Dr Christopher Brook, State Health and Medical Commander, was responsible for directing medical and health resources during the Hazelwood mine fire. Dr Rosemary Lester, Chief Health Officer, provided advice and support to the responsible control agencies in relation to the public health consequences of the fire. Dr Brook and Dr Lester were also members of the State Emergency Management Team, which liaised with the State Incident Controller.14