Pandemic Code Brown in place to support Victorian hospitals 

January 19, 2022

The Victorian Government has declared a Code Brown emergency for multiple public health services in response to the rising number of people being hospitalised with COVID-19. 

All public hospitals in metropolitan Melbourne and six hospitals in regional Victoria have been requested to enact their code brown plans from 12pm Wednesday 19 January. The Pandemic Code Brown is expected to be in place for four to six weeks. 

The Victorian Healthcare Association (VHA) welcomes the declaration and calls for the Code Brown to be extended to all public hospitals across the state.  

Changes public health services can implement include configuring services to free up more staff, including the delivery of outpatient services outside the hospital, and the rapid offload of ambulance patients at emergency departments to get paramedics back on the road as soon as possible.  

Hospitals may also redeploy staff to work in areas of highest clinical priority, and they may ask staff to return from leave. Close engagement with staff is strongly recommended before progressing actions to recall staff from leave or redeploy staff to new areas.  

The Department of Health will establish a Health Service Response Centre, which will help hospitals coordinate patient flow, distribute activity and support decisions around service reconfiguration, such as suspending some activity or moving to home-based care.  

Additionally, there will be an expansion of COVID-19 streaming sites to increase the number of hospitals caring for coronavirus patients – easing the pressure at hospitals currently handling the most patients. 

VHA’s CEO, Tom Symondson said this is the first time a Code Brown has been called for multiple hospitals in Victoria at the same time, demonstrating how critical things have become for Victoria’s health system. 

‘The Victorian Government has called this Code Brown at the right time,’ Mr Symondson said.  

‘Our ambulance service and hospitals are already struggling to meet demand from people with COVID-19 while delivering other necessary healthcare, and this is predicted to get worse over the next month.’  

‘This extreme demand can impact on every Victorian needing healthcare at any time, which is why we are calling for the Code Brown to be extended to all public hospitals in Victoria.’  

‘A coordinated, system-wide approach will help us use our precious healthcare workers and resources wisely. Most importantly, it will help our healthcare workers treat the sickest patients first as they respond to rising demand in coming weeks.’ 

The Victorian Healthcare Association is urging the Victorian public to play their part in protecting the health system. 

‘The next month could be the most challenging period our healthcare workers will ever face,’ Mr Symondson said. 

‘Every Victorian can play a role to reduce this pressure. Now is the time to get vaccinated if you’re eligible, look after your health and use health services appropriately. There are many health services available aside from 000 and hospital emergency departments. Think about local services such as GP clinics, community health centres and Nurse-On-Call in case you need them.’ 


What is a Code Brown? 

As outlined in the State Health Emergency Response Plan, each health service has a Code Brown plan that steps out how to plan, prepare, respond and recover from an external emergency or mass casualty event. 

Typically, Code Brown plans are activated by individual health services for a particular hospital or facility when additional capability and capacity needs to be mobilised to receive an influx of patients due to an external emergency. For example, individual health services called a Code Brown during the Thunderstorm Asthma Event and in response to the Black Saturday Bushfires. 

This is the first time the Department of Health, as health system manager has announced a coordinated Pandemic Code Brown, with multiple health services across Victoria activating their Code Brown plans simultaneously.  

A coordinated approach allows hospitals to work together to prioritise resources, redistribute demand across the system and manage workforce shortages. 


Is decision-making deferred to the State Service Response Centre? 

Health services and the health workforce will continue to have responsibility for clinical and operational decisions that affect patients and their communities. This includes decisions around how to manage internal patient flow within a health service as well as the assessment, treatment and referral of patients. 

Where decisions have a significant system impact on patient access and flow, these should be escalated to the Health Service Response Centre in the first instance to work through. 


What has triggered the Pandemic Code Brown? 

The Victorian health system is stretched. With Omicron spreading at unprecedented levels, our health system is responding to increasing COVID-19 hospitalisations, while continuing to treat other priority patients with urgent and emergency needs.  

Health services are already managing significant workforce shortages and it is expected that COVID-19 hospitalisations will continue to rise – even as we start to move beyond the peak of cases. 

The system-wide Pandemic Code Brown has been declared in response to a combination of nearing more than 1,500 patients admitted to hospital with COVID-19, severe workforce shortages, critical supply chain issues and the exhaustion of other levers to release capacity across the system. 

These intensifying pressures require an escalation in our emergency management response.