A wild theory has emerged that the Victorian chief health officer Brett Sutton was “gagged” by Victorian Premier Dan Andrews, resulting in a two-month disappearance from the media.
After becoming a familiar face to millions of Australians during the Covid pandemic, Prof Sutton drastically reduced his media appearances in 2022.
Analysing a year of media appearances by the popular professor, The Australian’s Media Diary found that compared to nearly 1800 mentions in August 2021 alone, Prof Sutton has this year averaged 250 mentions across Australian media a month, according to research by media monitoring service Streem.
The Australian’s associate editor Nick Tabakoff wrote that Prof Sutton’s media presence had “collapsed in recent months to about 15 per cent of its levels of a year ago”.
The CHO’s reduced media presence has led journalists to raise questions over whether he has been “gagged”, with Mr Andrews copping a grilling in a press conference last week, The Australian reported.
However when asked about the suspected gagging, Mr Andrews rubbished the claims.
At the time, the state government had also received criticism for rejecting health advice for indoor mask mandates in schools, retail and hospitality.
“I’m not his press secretary. He’s perfectly capable of answering your questions,” the Premier said.
“He’s got quite a bit on, and talking to the media is a critically important part of his role, but it’s not the only part of his role.
“I’m happy to follow it up for you.”
Just a few days earlier on July 22, Prof Sutton announced he would be returning to Twitter after taking a month of leave on June 13.
“Good to be back on this platform to talk public health. I’ll tweet some (longish) threads in coming days on COVID (of course!), MPX/monkeypox, vaping, climate and more,” he wrote.
Appearing on 3AW’s Drive program later last week on July 29, Prof Sutton was firm in his answer that he was not muzzled or gagged by the Premier, or any other government department.
“I have not had any approach from the Premier or his office not to speak to media – I’m very keen to engage on this topic, and any other public health topic, for that matter,” he told host, Tom Elliott.
“I don’t turn down invitations that come through to me.
“I’ve been away for the last several weeks and only been back about a week and a half.”
The queries about Prof Sutton’s media absence comes as Victoria battles another Covid wave, fuelled by the more transmissible Omicron BA. 4 and BA. 5 subvariants.
On Sunday the state reported a total of 63,802 active cases, and a seven-day average of 10,557 new cases. It’s a sharp increase from mid-June, when the seven-day average was in the 6000s.
Hospitalisations and deaths have also increased, with 768 people currently in hospital, including 43 patients in ICU and seven patients on ventilators.
Still, not all commentators were convinced. 3AW presenter Neil Mitchell said he was still unable to secure an interview with the health expert.
“I’m told he is quite happy to do it (but) the Department of Health won’t allow it because Brett Sutton has this unfortunate habit of telling the truth,” Mitchell said on air.
“They won’t let him do it because he is too honest and he embarrasses government by telling the truth – heaven knows – we’ve got the truth in the middle of a dangerous pandemic!”
Later speaking to The Australian, he said Prof Sutton’s reappearance “had the smell of a government panicking”.
“I believe he has been in a form of witness protection for some time: he has witnessed things and the government wants to protect itself.”