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"There is no rationale": SA Health boss in the dark about Port Adelaide exemptions

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SA Health’s chief executive says he doesn’t know why exemptions were swiftly granted for 11 Victorian relatives of Port Adelaide Football Club players to travel into South Australia for an AFL game while others seeking permission on compassionate grounds were rejected, as the Opposition calls for an independent inquiry into the scandal.

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Labor claims there has not been a “proper independent investigation” into last month’s SA Health bungle, which resulted in deputy chief public health officer Dr Evan Everest’s electronic signature being used without his consent to approve the exemptions for the players’ families ahead of the AFL finals.

A Department of the Premier and Cabinet report into the incident – released publicly yesterday – found there were “no documented reasons as to why the footballer family applications were approved”, nor was there “any record of approval by the deputy chief public health officer”.

The report found Events SA executive director and former Port Adelaide staffer Hitaf Rasheed emailed SA Health about the Victorian relatives seeking to travel to South Australia.

It stated a series of internal blunders resulted in Everest’s signature being used to approve the exemptions on September 15 – one day after he was forwarded Rasheed’s email.

Chief public health officer Professor Nicola Spurrier overturned the exemptions on September 23, after first learning about them.

But some of the relatives had already arrived in South Australia to start their self-funded 14-day hotel quarantine stay.

They were released from quarantine last week.

Asked on ABC Radio Adelaide this morning why the exemptions were granted to the family members, SA Health chief executive Chris McGowan said “that’s the very issue”.

“There is no rationale – they should not have been granted,” he said.

“What the report says is – and we think this is probably correct – Dr Everest was approached about this case, he thought when approached that it would be referred to the exemptions committee and he agreed that it should be.

“That was misinterpreted (as) they should be approved to come over so his electronic signature was attached to a letter and they were approved.

“It’s not a decision of I’ll just use your electronic signature for a decision that I make – she (the head of the exemptions committee) thought it was authorised.”

SA Health’s exemptions committee was forwarded Rasheed’s email on September 14, with the head of that committee forwarding the email to Everest on September 15.

The travel exemptions were granted by a letter electronically signed by Everest that day.

The report stated that the head of SA Health’s exemptions team, who is unnamed, “confirmed that she felt no pressure or outside influence in relation to the applications”.

I know Dr Everest very well and there is no way he would knowingly approve this group to come forward

McGowan said the exemptions committee reviewed “hundreds” of applications and it was usual practice for Everest’s electronic signature to be used on letters either granting or rejecting travel into South Australia.

“The use of electronic signatures is absolutely necessary,” he said.

“To have him (Everest) sitting down and signing 400 or 500 pieces of paper a day just for the sake of him being the one to put the wet ink on is not a good use of his time.

“Part of the recommendations (of the review) is to ensure that as we go through all these cases is that there is an initial, so that his electronic signature is only used for his initial, and that’s fine and an improvement – we welcome that.”

McGowan described the incident as an “error” and said he had sympathy for Victorians who had applied to come to South Australia on “heartbreaking” grounds but whose applications were rejected in the interests of public safety.

But he said neither Everest nor any other SA Health employee involved in the incident would be dismissed.

“In the private sector, if you had an employee like Dr Everest, you would be treasuring him immensely,” he said.

“I know Dr Everest very well and there is no way he would knowingly approve this group to come forward.

“I value him enormously.”

Premier Steven Marshall yesterday praised the release of the report, telling reporters that “unlike other jurisdictions we are actually owning up to that error”.

But Labor said the report failed to “get to the bottom of the matter” and an independent investigation conducted by someone outside the Government was necessary “to ensure something like this can never happen again”.

“Families who have missed saying goodbye to dying relatives because their applications to cross the border were rejected deserve answers as to how these exemptions were approved,” Opposition health spokesperson Chris Picton said.

“The answer we’re expected to accept is that nobody made the decision. It’s an appalling breakdown in process that demands more than the bureaucracy reviewing itself.”

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