After 17 months, grieving relatives of those who died in Australia’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak were hoping for some answers on Wednesday.
- Kon Kontis and Vicky Kos managed St Basil’s aged care facility when 50 elderly residents died from COVID-19
- St Basil’s was thrown into disarray during the outbreak last July
- The pair’s lawyer said they would be “exposed to prejudice” if they testified
Instead, they left the Coroner’s Court in Melbourne disappointed and angry.
Key evidence from two witnesses was set to be the climax to weeks of hearings into 50 deaths at St Basil’s Home for the Aged.
That evidence lasted all of a minute.
“On legal advice, I object to giving evidence on the ground that it may tend to incriminate me in relation to an offence under Australian law,” former St Basil’s chairman Kon Kontis said.
The centre’s former nursing director, Vicky Kos, gave the same answer.
The pair refused to even confirm their job titles.
During the inquest, Coroner John Cain heard evidence about deteriorating conditions and the disarray the centre was thrown into during the outbreak last July.
As COVID-19 infections spread, the entire workforce was stood down at the direction of Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton.
The inquest heard allegations Ms Kos was less than fully cooperative when the replacement team took over.
Mr Cain said he would make a decision before Christmas as to whether he would use his coercive powers to compel Mr Kontis and Ms Kos to give evidence, after hearing four hours of legal argument on Wednesday.
Questions remain as relatives demand truth
Coroner Cain said the pair had their “hands on the wheel” at St Basil’s, and “gaps” remained in the story about how events unfolded at the Fawkner aged care centre.
Outside court, relatives of former St Basil’s residents were furious that Mr Kontis and Ms Kos had refused to give evidence.
“How did my mother and 49 others lose their lives? What were they doing to try to protect them?” Spiro Vasilakis said.
At the start of proceedings, Mr Cain offered Mr Kontis and Ms Kos the opportunity to testify with a legal guarantee that the evidence could not be used against them in criminal proceedings.
However their barrister, Ian Hill QC, said they would be “exposed to prejudice” if they gave evidence, and noted it could help prosecutors build a case against them in a criminal investigation.
“The prejudice to them by forcing them to testify may be very substantial,” Mr Hill said.
He said any evidence from Mr Kontis or Ms Kos would “operate as a dress rehearsal or test run for the criminal trial”.
Mr Hill said his clients had exercised their legal right not to provide witness statements to WorkSafe investigators or to speak publicly about the events in the nursing home.
Mr Hill said other evidence provided to the inquest was sufficient for the coroner to make findings, without his clients needing to take the stand.
That was disputed by counsel assisting the inquiry and lawyers for the family.
Counsel assisting Peter Rozen QC said many questions remained unanswered, including whether Ms Kos had received vital health updates from authorities about COVID-19 prior to the outbreak, and what information was provided to staff about social distancing.
The matter will return to the Coroner’s Court on Thursday, when family members are expected to read out impact statements.
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