7 March 2023

Government slams suggestion Garran Surge Centre was ever designed to be emergency ward

| Claire Fenwicke
Join the conversation
Nurses inside the Garran Surge Centre

The Garran Surge Centre was used for many purposes, including a testing centre and vaccination hub. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

The ACT health minister has labelled claims the Garran Surge Centre was never fit for purpose “absolutely ridiculous” because it was never meant to be an emergency ward for COVID-19 patients.

Rachel Stephen-Smith’s argument comes in the wake of documents released under a freedom of information request which showed an October 2021 review found there were issues with fire safety, the appropriate distancing of beds and ventilation and that, in some cases, it didn’t meet national health standards.

The Garran Surge Centre was announced in April 2020 as a temporary emergency COVID-19 department, but only if it was needed.

The $14 million ‘insurance policy’ (originally costed at $23 million) ended up being used as a testing clinic, vaccination hub and walk-in clinic.

READ ALSO Corruption watchdog clears John Barilaro of wrongdoing over top trade role

The October 2021 report recommended Canberra Health Services (CHS) spend $60,000 to $75,000 on improvements, including upgrading the exhaust and air filtration, to ensure the centre could be a viable COVID ward, but the money was never spent.

Shadow Health Minister Leanne Castley said in early 2020 the government was “doing the best they could in an emergency situation” based on information at the time.

But this review raised questions about what the real story around the centre’s use actually was, and whether the public had been kept in the dark.

“The Surge Centre was supposed to handle patients overnight to keep them out of the emergency departments, and now they’re telling us it wasn’t built for that – so what was it for and why are they changing their mind?” Ms Castley said.

She said the community had the right to know why this information was never made public.

“I think we definitely need to look into the fact that there was a report that said there were issues that needed to be addressed that [weren’t],” Ms Castley said.

“We trusted that there was this centre for Canberrans to go to when there was a surge in COVID … it is completely unacceptable this government has been so non-transparent during a public health emergency.

“What was going on with the Surge Centre back then?”

The front of the Garran Surge Centre

The Garran Surge Centre was built in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Ms Stephen-Smith fired back, arguing it was “never intended” for the Garran Surge Centre to be used as a ward or intensive care unit.

She said this purpose was an option when the $75,000 upgrades were suggested, but it was decided they weren’t needed at the time.

“To suggest that something was wrong because the design wasn’t appropriate for a ward or intensive care unit is absolutely ridiculous,” Ms Stephen-Smith said.

“It was only ever intended, in its initial construction, to be a supplement for the emergency department, and it was built at a time – in April 2020 – when the understanding of COVID was that it was primarily spread through droplet transmission.

“To then go back in some kind of revisionist way and say, ‘well, when it was built in 37 days in April 2020, we should have taken notice of some standards that were subsequently implemented somewhere else down the line when we knew COVID was airborne’ is absolutely ridiculous.”

READ ALSO IGA will be supermarket tenant at Giralang Shops after 17 year wait for action

Ms Stephen-Smith said she wasn’t aware of the review, and that it was CHS that decided not to pursue making the centre a ward – a decision she was “quite comfortable” with.

“What this whole process demonstrates is that every step of the way, Canberra Health Services was undertaking due diligence to ensure that they were using that facility appropriately. They understood what needed to be done should they make a recommendation to use that facility differently,” she said.

“It was built to supplement our emergency department capability – not to be a ward, not to be an intensive care unit.”

When pushed that the name ‘Garran Surge Centre’ implied to the general public that it was built to be used as an extra emergency department, Ms Stephen-Smith argued the name was chosen “very, very early on”.

“It was named at a particular period and it served different purposes over time,” she said.

“[There were times when I suggested to CHS] this was the original intention of the surge centre, would it be helpful to set it up in some way that could help to take pressure off the emergency departments … as a specific COVID-19 emergency department?” Ms Stephen-Smith said.

“At that time, [it was concluded] in fact, our two emergency departments could cope, and trying to spread those resources over three emergency departments was actually not going to be the most helpful response.”

READ ALSO ACTPLA slammed for approving government’s non-compliant supportive housing project

She insisted it had been a safe place to work, which was continually assessed and monitored, plus extra protective measures were added, such as PPE, masks and physical distancing.

“If we had been intending to use it as an emergency department, if we had needed that capacity and thought it was an appropriate thing to do, of course, further work would have been done,” Ms Stephen-Smith said.

The hospital’s chief operating officer Cathie O’Neill had previously said in July 2022, that the centre didn’t have the right facilities to act as an emergency ward.

The centre is now being dismantled.

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments
Victor Bilow6:49 pm 07 Mar 23

Hmm! The brief provided by the client, Aspen Medical, called for the construction of a 17,000m2 medical facility, consisting of 51 patient beds, including patient services panels, treatment areas, administration and nurse stations and staffing facilities. The structure was to be built to cyclone standards to account for the helicopter landing deck near the hospital.

I understood its purpose was to make it seem like the government was doing something, regardless of how pointless. It was an exercise in optics, nothing more. Therefore, it was, by definition, fit for purpose.

Pretty expensive exercise in optics at $14 million.

It’s your money, not the government’s. So, that’s fairly typical too.

Have you got any details as to why you think this?

The overseas experience of many countries would suggest the opposite.

Even the Comfort was barely used in NYC, and the same pattern is everywhere if you look for it and not just the headlines.

The Silver,
That isn’t a reason.

And your example of the Comfort not being used adequately was far more around beauracracy rather than a lack of need. New York hospitals were overflowing and many unnecessary deaths were caused by a lack of adequate medical equipment and beds.

Many other countries similarly had overflowing hospitals and had to rely on completely unsuitable and piecemeal facilities during the early outbreaks.

I get that you have a continued dislike for government actions during the pandemic but this surge centre was one of the most reasonable things our local government did in planning for the potential health risks.

The reason we didn’t use it heavily is because of both the local and federal governments restrictions and lockdowns preventing those early surges.

Not using contingency plans is actual a good thing.

No. I’d agree that reporting that hospitals were at capacity was everywhere. However, the actual usage of hospitals was generally not that much different to a typical bad flu season. Indeed, in many cases, because people had been so terrified (by government), they didn’t turn up for standard preventative measures, and thus hospitals were actually well below capacity in other areas.

I know for a fact from FOI requests, the ACT government did not consider any negative repercussions of their actions. That didn’t interest them at all. In the past week, we’ve also seen the UK’s health secretary’s WhatsApp messages leaked. The quality of the people here is not higher than there, and it is clear from those messages they had no idea what they were doing and it was all short term politics.

Further, there remains zero correlation between lockdowns and “curve flattening” or preventing infections. Even within Australia, Sydney had a lower infection rate than Melbourne despite (or I’d argue, because of) the extreme lockdowns of the latter. Australia had one major advantage: We are an island and could close the borders. That’s really the only thing that made a difference, because by the time the virus really got hold here it was already less dangerous even to those actually at risk (the old and obese who had been vaccinated by that time).

Even then, we are still currently running at very high excess death rates (about 20% above the baseline, and only half of that is the virus). Public Health cannot be about a single virus. It has to be about the totality of health, as there are far more things that can kill or cripple you than just this virus. A myopic focus is incredibly dangerous, which is why we are generally seeing less long term damage in countries that trusted their population (and, of course, trust is a two way street).

It isn’t that I “dislike” government actions. My position is that they were morally wrong from to the very foundations, and acted completely antithetical to our system of government. This is not an argument that people don’t have duties to their community; we absolutely do have a duty to those around us. It’s an argument about what powers government has and should have. It doesn’t matter how popular the government’s position is either; three wolves and sheep voting on what to have for dinner is not democratic.

The Silver,
I’m not interested in your position on government Covid responses, this was solely about the additional hospital capacity to risk manage the potential early outbreaks.

Your claims about hospital utilisation in other countries is simply wrong, many were completely overwhelmed with the caseload. Planning to avoid that type of situation here was and is completely reasonable.

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.