Stevens faces challenge to Supreme Court vaccine mandate

SA Police Commissioner Grant Stevens was accompanied by a large escort of police officers when he arrived at the Supreme Court this morning to answer questions about a series of emails that led to him mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for health professionals.

More than 10 police officers outnumbered a handful of anti-vaccine protesters who gathered outside court to hear Stevens testify in AFLW player and nurse Deni Varnhagen’s ongoing legal effort to overturn the state’s health worker vaccination mandate.

Stevens’ entry was relatively quiet compared to the screams that chief public health officer Professor Nicola Spurrier greeted outside the court when she was called to testify at the trial earlier this month.

Ahead of today’s hearing, a protester filmed a contingent of about a dozen police officers stationed outside the court entrance, but the group remained silent before filling two courtrooms.

A police contingent outside the Supreme Court during the appearance of Commissioner Grant Stevens. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Stevens, who signed South Australia’s mandates under the Emergency Management Act in his role as state coordinator, has been absent from trial for the past two weeks while battling an Influenza A infection.

At a lengthy hearing this morning, Simon Owen, QC, who appeared before Varnhagen, wondered: Stevens on a decision to make COVID-19 booster vaccinations mandatory for health professionals on January 6.

He said he had several conversations with Spurrier about the need to impose the mandate but could not recall the dates of those talks, citing a “iterative” process of “continuous consultation”.

He said the only written advice he received was in an email he received the afternoon before the mandate was imposed.

“I’m pretty sure I would have had conversations with Professor Spurrier about the third dose of the vaccine,” he said.

“(There were) frequent conversations with Professor Spurrier and other members of SA Health about the Omicron variant and the impact it had on our COVID response, including the efficacy of the vaccine, as it was two doses compared to the required for a third dose.”

Owen read a portion of Spurrier’s email to the court in which the chief health officer claimed there was “solid scientific evidence that a booster or third dose significantly increases vaccine effectiveness against Omicron, therefore the third dose booster is recommended to increase protection”.

“It may increase the effectiveness of the vaccine against the severity of symptoms, but not, for example, increase the effectiveness of the vaccine against further transmission,” Owen said.

Stevens said he agreed there was “ambiguity” in the email, but reiterated that he had “ongoing talks” with Spurrier about the vaccine’s impact.

Owen also asked Stevens whether a decision to change vaccine mandates for police officers had also applied to health professionals.

Stevens said he felt comfortable making the decision, given the high vaccination rate among SA police officers.

It comes after Spurrier was forced to fight anti-vaccine protesters out of court earlier this month after Varnhang’s legal team subpoenaed her to appear in court.

Before appearing in court this morning, Stevens told FiveAA that the scenes greeting Spurrier were “utterly disgraceful.”

“Unfortunately, there are people with differing views,” he said.

“We certainly respect people’s right to have a different opinion, but there is a way to behave and what we saw with that mob’s behavior when Professor Spurrier went to and from court was utterly disgraceful.

“There is no excuse for it. I’ve heard other people say it’s disappointing and it’s not what we would like to see as part of our community, but I think these people should take a good look at themselves.”

Asked about his battle with Influenza A, Stevens said, “Notwithstanding some experts out there — Panadol just doesn’t cut it,” in an obvious reference to Lorretta Polson, Varnhagen’s counsel, who told Stevens last week to “take a Panadol.” and come to court”.

Varnhagen was placed on the Crows’ inactive list after refusing to follow the club’s vaccination policy. She told the court that she also lost services as a nurse at Flinders Medical Center and Glenelg Day Surgery and has worked as a laborer after she stepped down.

Varnhagen is one of two nurses who filed the lawsuit.

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