“We’ve got it wrong – we need to shut everything down”: ex-RAH Trauma chief

Two former South Australian members of the committee steering the nation’s coronavirus response have broken ranks against Australia’s handling of the crisis, with a decorated emergency specialist warning “we’ve got a lot of things wrong”.

Mar 26, 2020, updated Mar 26, 2020
Dr Bill Griggs with then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell in tsunami-ravaged Banda Aceh in 2005. Photo: AAP

Dr Bill Griggs with then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell in tsunami-ravaged Banda Aceh in 2005. Photo: AAP

Dr Bill Griggs, the retired head of Trauma Services at the RAH and a former South Australian of the Year, has advocated for a blanket shutdown since the COVID-19 threat took hold in Australia, but  escalated his critique in a social media post yesterday, saying he was “firmly” in the “go hard, go early” group of medical practitioners.

He emphasised that he was speaking “as a former AHPPC [Australian Health Protection Principal Committee] member and as an experienced disaster responder”.

The AHPPC is the nation’s key decision making committee for health emergencies, with Premier Steven Marshall regularly citing its “very clear advice” on decisions such as keeping schools open.

Australia’s Deputy CMO Dr Paul Kelly just said there were two groups of medical opinion. “The Go early, go hard” group, and the “Proportional Response” group. He is in Group 2. As a former AHPPC member and as an experienced disaster responder I am firmly in Group 1. #ShutUsDown

— Dr Bill Griggs AM ASM (@drbillgriggs) March 25, 2020


Responding to Griggs’ post on LinkedIn, retired Air Vice Marshal Tracy Smart – who grew up and studied in SA – wrote: “I am also a former member of AHPPC and in Group 1. I have not met a medical colleague in Group 2.”

Smart is a physician and medical administrator who served as Surgeon-General of the Australian Defence Force before retiring in December.

Griggs, who has led medical retrieval and disaster response efforts in Aceh, Bali and Iraq, told InDaily he was “not trying to be a scaremonger [and] I don’t want to confuse people by having lots of voices” confuse the medical advice.

“But it’s got to the stage where it’s really important – and we’ve got a lot of things wrong,” he said, citing particularly Sydney’s Ruby Princess debacle.

He said the coronavirus pandemic threatens to be “an event that kills off more people than any other event in recorded history”, saying if 70 per cent of the world’s 7.8 billion population catch the virus, a one per cent mortality rate on those cases “is a lot of people”.

“We’ve got to shut these things down,” he said.

“Human being make mistakes, we get things wrong [and] we’ll get things wrong through this – but not slowing things down, for whatever reason, is just not right…

“The staggered response we’re doing is trying to be too nuanced.”

He said his view was formulated as an experienced disaster response coordinator “and a number of my colleagues who have done disaster response agree”.

“You need to go for the worst case scenario,” he said.

“We clearly have some issue around things like schools, where the chief medical officer has come out and said phrases like ‘we don’t have evidence that [children] are super-spreaders’… but that’s completely different to saying ‘we have evidence that putting people in schools is not bad’…

“We need to shut everything down.”

Griggs acknowledged “there are a lot of problems with shutting everything down, as we won’t get a response straight away”.

“If we shut everything down today, and there’s no other spread – which is pretty well impossible – everyone who’s already got it today, at some stage in the next two weeks will go positive and likely start showing symptoms,” he said.

“When you get the symptoms, stats suggest you might get seriously unwell after eight to ten days… so someone affected yesterday starts to show symptoms in 10 days, and 10 days later becomes seriously unwell – so that’s three weeks to get a look.”

He noted this was evident from Italy’s shutdown, which first saw positive cases and the death toll “rocket up… but over the last few days they plateaued”.

“It doesn’t work on the first day after you do it [so] the problem with the nuanced approach is you try something, you can’t see if it works… we can’t afford to do that because in three weeks time, people will be pretty bad.”

Griggs, who has a business degree and is on the board of Super SA, says he “understands the other economic and human cost of it”.

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“I understand the challenges, but we need to stop getting the mixed messages, the conflicting messages,” he said, arguing that the Government should impose an immediate shutdown for four to eight weeks “and then we’ll look at it again”.

“No-one’s suggesting this will be over in four weeks… but we need to start the process and until we can stop new cases spreading, the only way we can is to lock things down,” he said.

He contrasted Australia’s response with that of New Zealand, where “everyone knows [the measures], there’s no confusion and it’s absolutely black and white”.

“Whereas here people are spending time talking about how long our haircuts are going to be,” he said.

On school closures, he agreed “it would appear children are fairly resilient” to the virus, but “I’m concerned about their capacity to continue spreading”.

“To give a message, as the Chief Medical Officer did, that we don’t want children going down to the shopping centre, yet we’re happy to go to school and spread the virus to each other and take it home to all their parents – it just fails a basic test,” he said.

He said the medical advice was from people “good at strategies and stuff” but said: “When you build a building you get people who understand construction to make the building, but when the building catches fire they’re not the people you need.”

“It’s people who work in ICUs, responders – they’re the people who know how to deal with the things that are happening,” he said.

His own experience in disaster response was: “You just have to over-respond.”

“If you don’t, you’ll find yourself in a whole world of hurt.”

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Nick Coatsworth today hit out at critics urging a blanket lockdown, telling the ABC it was a “contested point”.

“I have to say, the experts around the table at the AHPPC do not think this will be over in a few weeks if you put in harder and faster measures,” he said.

“This is about degrees – we’ve gone in hard and fast… to say we’ve gone ‘light and slow’ would be completely inaccurate.

“The measures we’ve put in at the moment are unprecedented.”

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