The man who built the TGA

3 minute read

Professor John Skerritt retires on 18 April from his role as head of the Therapeutic Goods Administration. It’s been a busy time.

When Professor John Skerritt first joined the Department of Health he was tasked with setting up a joint regulatory framework between Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand.

“But then the government changed, and it was no, no, we don’t want to do that,” he told TMR in an exclusive podcast.

Instead, Professor Skerritt set about making the biggest regulatory reforms “in 30 to 50 years” via the establishment of the current Therapeutic Goods Administration. 

“We had to get on top of such issues as the use of strong opioids and so forth, things that were really important for patient safety and also a number of medical device reforms – gynaecological mesh, and hip joints,” he said.

“And just when the 70-hour weeks went back to 50-hour weeks a little thing called covid came along.”

That “little thing” turned into a response effort of which Professor Skerritt is justifiably proud.

“The whole staff pulled together and really went beyond the pale,” he said. “There was such a sense of mission. Most people were working from home, but we were essential workers. Many of us were working in here, coming in through a ghost town. The laboratory people had to come in – they couldn’t take their stuff and do it in the kitchen at home.

“They were here at all crazy hours, working damn hard. That has to be the crowning achievement.”

Along the way there have been moments of controversy, of course, but Professor Skerritt doesn’t shy away from them. Not the least of them is what will occupy him in his last few weeks in the job – the nicotine vaping regulatory framework.

“One of the biggest holes emerged because the previous government brought in controls on the border and then repealed it four or five days later,” says Professor Skerritt.

“In the absence of requiring input permits, pallet-loads of this stuff comes in without requirement for permits, ends up distributed to [convenience stores] and online sales and all sorts of things.

“Government has got to make a policy decision about whether they want to do something at the border.

“I’m not going to pre-empt any decisions of government, because those final decisions are still being discussed among Cabinet members.

“People [think] we make up the rules – we don’t. Our role is to identify what options could be feasible in law and in practice, the range of options out there, get feedback, and put it up to ministers. Sometimes they’re really big things like nicotine vaping, and it will involve all of Cabinet not just the health minister.

“When we implement what is decided, that’s the separation between the bureaucracy and the elected government. And that’s the way it should be in a democracy.”

You can listen and subscribe to the show by searching for “The Tea Room Medical Republic” in your favourite podcast player.

UPDATE: This copy has been updated to remove a reference to 7-Eleven selling vapes. 7-Eleven assures us that it does not sell vaping devices or products of any kind.

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