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Portrait of Brendan Murphy.

Former Chief Medical Officer
Australian Capital Territory | 2021 Australian of the Year

Professor Brendan Murphy was Australia’s Chief Medical Officer during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. He provided expert advice to government, recommending the early closure of international borders to control the spread of the disease.

As chair of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), a body comprised of all state and territory chief health officers, Brendan was able to garner consensus and provide clear advice to all levels of government on the actions required to prevent the virus spreading.

Among his recommendations were the introduction of physical distancing and shutting down business and community activities. This was in advance of advice from the World Health Organization. Thanks to Brendan’s calm leadership, Australia managed to restrict the spread of COVID-19 during the first wave of the pandemic, saving thousands of lives.

A respected kidney specialist and medical expert, Brendan chairs many national committees, represents Australia at the World Health Assembly and is the current Secretary of the Department of Health.

Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan for Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Brendan Murphy could teach a masterclass in consensus-driven, democratic decision making.

As the Australian Government’s Chief Medical Officer, it was he who advised governments to make difficult decisions and implement measures such as border closures and physical distancing requirements to curb the spread of COVID-19. But he always did so from a foundation built on the advice and knowledge of his colleagues.

Brendan sees himself as one among many rather than a singular expert. This well-thumbed plan represents the brilliant medical and public health community of Australia as much as it does Brendan.

An A4-sized booklet with plastic binding features a front cover with the logo for the Australian Government Department of Health and the text: ‘AUSTRALIAN HEALTH SECTOR / EMERGENCY RESPONSE PLAN FOR NOVEL CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19)’. Handwritten at the top is the text: ‘Brendan’s copy’.

COVID-19 Emergency Response Plan from Brendan Murphy

Finding our way

This pandemic doesn’t have a rule book. Every country is finding its way. The decisions we make, and the recommendations to governments who make the decisions, have been quite momentous and have impacted the lives of so many Australians.

A learning curve

It’s shown me ... the value of getting a diversity of opinions and seeking advice and being really honest about what you don’t know ... there have been lots of occasions during this pandemic when I had no idea. I’ve brought good people around me, sought advice … No one doctor can know everything. Just being humble enough to recognise this and to take the collective advice from others — this is the key message from me.

Close contact

The most rewarding thing in medicine for me is that patient contact. Particularly in nephrology, we would see dialysis and transplant patients for 10 to 15 years. That personal contact, seeing someone recover from a condition and do well, the joy of a dialysis patient with a successful transplant — I miss that a lot.

This exhibition was developed by the National Museum of Australia in collaboration with the National Australia Day Council. Portrait images supplied by the National Australia Day Council.

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