Professor Brendan Murphy said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon that while the dinner party hypothesis “had previously been mentioned to me following initial investigations, I am now informed that the contact tracing has not confirmed that such a dinner party occurred”.
He had told the committee that Australia “thought we were doing really well in the last week” in slowing the spread of the coronavirus, but had “a cluster of 49 cases in a hospital in Tasmania just over the weekend, most of them went to an illegal dinner party of medical workers”.
After the comments were widely reported on Tuesday, Ms Shepherd said Tasmanian nurses were hit with “inappropriate” messages on social media, including offensive and degrading images depicting nurses in a sexualised manner.
She said Professor Murphy’s decision to repeat the rumour, which had emerged on social media over the weekend, was especially damaging given nurses were putting themselves on the frontline in the fight against COVID-19.
“Our members are in a very vulnerable position,” Ms Shepherd said.
“Not only is their own personal health and wellbeing affected now, it’s also that of their families, given that their partners and other extended family have also had to go into isolation. That has meant some fairly significant financial strain.”
About 1200 healthcare workers and their close household contacts were placed in isolation on Monday after more than 40 tested positive at two hospitals in Tasmania’s north-west, with the Australian Defence Force and Australian Medical Assistance Teams called in to assist.
Ms Shepherd said nurses “should be thanked and celebrated for the efforts they’ve put in”.
Deputy chief medical officer Paul Kelly, when asked if he would apologise on behalf of Professor Murphy, said health authorities “absolutely appreciate the work all healthcare workers in
Tasmania and north-west Tasmania, around Australia, are doing”.
“The comments made by the chief medical officer I’m sure wasn’t meant to take anything away from that incredible appreciation we have of the work that all healthcare workers are doing,” he said.
Professor Kelly said the rumour “was something that was mentioned to him at some point, but that is an ongoing investigation.”
Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein on Tuesday morning said he had referred the dinner party rumour to police after hearing Professor Murphy’s earlier comments, but that health authorities’ contact tracing of the outbreak “has not identified a dinner party of health workers”.
Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie told the ABC on Tuesday evening that she was “not sure what to believe” but that she was “happy to leave it in the premier’s hands”, saying Mr Gutwein would “come down on them like a hammer” if the rumours were true.
“I guess that’s why the Tasmanian police are investigating,” Senator Lambie said.
Federal opposition leader Anthony Albanese said the blame for the outbreak in north-western Tasmania lay with those responsible for “the Ruby Princess debacle”, saying the spread of the coronavirus through the cruise ship’s passengers “should never have been allowed to happen”.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.