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Dr Kerry Chant is on the front line in the fight against Covid-19. She is described by colleagues as someone who abhors small talk and will give advice regardless of the impact on her career. By Rick Morton.

What drives Dr Kerry Chant?

The chief health officer of NSW, Dr Kerry Chant.
Credit: AAP / Mick Tsikas

In 2009, as the swine flu pandemic arrived in Australia, the then New South Wales minister for Health, John Della Bosca, began working closely with the state’s relatively new chief health officer. Her name was Kerry Chant.

“She showed up to a Sunday afternoon media conference straight from her office,” he tells The Saturday Paper.

“I later found out in general conversation that she had worked all Saturday as well. That would be nothing compared to what she has done over the last 18 months.

“In many ways, swine flu was a dress rehearsal for the catastrophe the world has been living with in this Covid pandemic.”

Chant has been with NSW Health since the early 1990s and was a director of the public health unit at the Sydney South West Area Health Service prior to being promoted to chief health officer (CHO) in 2008. Those who have worked with her say she does not shift gear. She has no time for small talk, is efficient without being prickly, and has never showed the slightest concern for the political interests of her masters, nor the office politics of the bureaucracy.

By the time NSW had recorded its first Covid-19 death, in early March last year, Chant was back to her old habits during crisis.

“So on this one Sunday night, Kerry brings her family in to have dinner across the road from her office and she ducks down to see them at 8pm and eat and when she’s done she goes straight back to the office,” one official who worked closely with Chant last year says.

“She has this ability to just keep going and going, and not in a manic or wired kind of way, but with long, focused energy about what is important and what needs to be done.”

Everyone who spoke to The Saturday Paper for this piece made one overarching observation: Kerry Chant is exactly the same in private as she is while addressing the state at the daily Covid-19 press conferences.

Occasionally, however, she has joked with her colleagues and the other chief health and medical officers from across the country about the mind-boggling incompetence of some in power. The stories would make your eyes water, she says. But Chant is such a professional she will never tell them. At least, not for a while.

Monash University professor of infectious diseases epidemiology Allen Cheng, who served as deputy chief health officer in Victoria during its killer second wave, says Chant was a constant sounding-board.

“She’s one of the most hardworking people I’ve ever met,” he says. “And very open to discussing ideas, thoughts, feedback. I’ve had discussions with her at all hours.”

What stands out about the NSW system is its depth, Cheng says. “I assume she was responsible for this. They probably have a dozen senior people who could easily be CHO, and a very strong training program for public health specialists.”

After an initial mistake with the Ruby Princess, this team had successfully traced the infections in NSW and stamped out the virus. So, too, with the Covid-19 spot fires in Avalon and the northern beaches, which required a short lockdown, and the Crossroads Hotel cluster last year, which was dealt with by the public health units without a lockdown.

Perhaps it was this combination of experience and confidence that led to the miscalculation with the Delta variant. Maybe it was hubris and political pride. More likely, it was a cocktail of all of these.

Greater Sydney has now entered its fifth week of lockdown. Victoria, dealing with the virus sent across the border, is in its second. Orange in regional NSW is locked down, too, as is all of South Australia.

There are some questions about how advice is being followed. As one former senior NSW government official tells The Saturday Paper: “I’m curious where the advice about shutting down construction came from.”

Having first closed the sector, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is now giving guarantees that by the end of this month construction will resume.

If that was based on the health advice, how could such a promise be made more than a week out? And why the delay in broader measures to stop people travelling to and from work when unnecessary?

Last Saturday, Chant dropped a few hints that advice was being put to the government in a broad sense – from which they were choosing preferred options.

“So certainly we’ve been flagging the fact that we need to look at a range of whole-of-government strategies to decrease mobility,” she said on July 17.

“And we know that there is a lag with the data. Those are some of the factors to take in place. There is also fatigue in the community and I think we needed to take much stronger action and I recommended that to the government today.”

On Monday, Chant suggested the ban on construction did not come from her advice. “To some extent we can define the problems of what we are trying to achieve from a public health objective and then it’s a matter for how the whole-of-government puts input into it,” she said. “I mean, clearly we are not the experts in logistic chains and other things.”

There was tension, also, in her response about shutting workplaces. “There has been seeding of workplaces and that includes workplaces that we could never close down, so we just need to accept that, and then workplaces that potentially are open to the decisions of government to close or impact on.”

Chant is urging behaviour change from the public and facing sometimes infuriating resistance from governments.

Take the following example. Last Sunday, July 18, a day after Chant’s press conference plea, a call centre worker doing outsourced work for a federal government agency tested positive to Covid-19. Three days earlier they had returned an initial negative test. The employee, at a call centre in Sydney’s North Ryde, was not rostered to work during this time. Five staff at the office who had worked together with the employee earlier in the week were sent home to isolate for 14 days. The remaining 100 staff on that floor were told to return to the office once they had tested negative. So far, more than three-quarters have returned tests, all negative.

“I think this is a massive scandal,” one person familiar with the working arrangements tells The Saturday Paper.

“The federal government by proxy has been breaking the Covid restrictions. All call centres can easily organise their staff to work from home. It just requires some money being spent on laptops and headsets.

“All the staff at this centre have been working in the office during the lockdown in defiance of the state government mandate.”

The Saturday Paper can reveal that Datacom Connect repeatedly asked Services Australia, the agency they were subcontracted by, for arrangements that would allow its staff to work from home – but these were rebuffed, citing information security. Services Australia said it was “currently working through this with Datacom in Sydney”.

By all accounts, Chant is not meeting much resistance from Gladys Berejiklian herself. But the premier is fighting an anti-lockdown faction within her own cabinet, led by Treasurer Dom Perrottet, who has reportedly called for Chant’s salary to be docked by 5 per cent if the state heads into lockdowns “unnecessarily”. Both he and Chant deny this.

“The thing you need to understand about Gladys is that, in a crisis, she finds the person she can trust and she holds on to them,” one former NSW government official says.

“It was Shane Fitzsimmons [former Rural Fire Service commissioner] during the bushfires, and [state emergency operations controller] Mick Fuller during the early pandemic. Now it is Kerry Chant. And Kerry Chant has a status all her own.”

Others dispel bizarre rumours that Chant is somehow an unwilling hostage of the state’s apparatus. “She doesn’t spin or bullshit like a lot of public servants,” a former political adviser says. “Her bedside manner is very matter-of-fact. Always straight to the point and doesn’t waste words. She is very highly regarded.” And she is unafraid to push forcefully for matters of principle. During the early phase of the pandemic, it was Chant who was a “very strong advocate of keeping schools open”.

A former state official says: “I think this came out of her early career work in south-west Sydney and a very strong belief that school was the safest place to be for many kids. And she fought for that as long as she could, always wrestling with the evidence.”

Professor Gregory Dore, a prominent infectious diseases physician who studied with Chant at the University of NSW, says she is everything you might want in a chief health officer. “Particularly in the current context. She is smart, a good communicator, action-orientated and passionate about public health, in particular for vulnerable populations.”

John Della Bosca admires her enormously. “Kerry has the brain of Marie Curie happily residing alongside the heart of a characteristically Australian suburban mum,” he says. “She shares the concerns and anxieties of all of us, but she has the knowledge and experience to alleviate our concerns and give us answers in an uncertain world. It’s her job.”

During those months working together on the H1N1 swine flu virus, Chant taught Della Bosca how contact tracing works.

“Supervising contact tracing is like a cross between solving a really complicated detective story, a chess game and weather forecasting,” he says. “Part science, part instinct, rooted in lots of theory, but most importantly based on understanding garnered through experience.”

As cases climbed above 120 in NSW on Thursday, there was no doubt this was Chant’s greatest test. Many believe she is up to the task.

“Kerry is relentlessly focused on the job at hand,” Della Bosca says, “finding the answers and providing the advice regardless of its impact on her career.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 24, 2021 as "A status all her own".

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Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.