The reported systematic failures in Australia’s quarantine system would be comical if they were not so tragic.
The recent equine influenza (horse flu) outbreak in Australia was caused by the total failure of quarantine protocols at both Sydney Airport and the quarantine station at Sydney’s Eastern Creek, and by systemic failures in the administration of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS), according to evidence presented before an official inquiry into the outbreak.
Transcripts of the evidence have been posted on the inquiry’s website, by direction of the commissioner, Ian Callinan, a retired justice of the High Court of Australia.
In hearings during November, the inquiry heard evidence from a number of senior executives in AQIS, including executives from the service’s head office in Canberra, its NSW branch office in Sydney, as well as AQIS’s working veterinarians and veterinary officers.
AQIS Quarantine Manager, Jennifer Gordon, admitted under cross-examination that there was confusion about who held responsibility for the establishment and enforcement of quarantine protocols applied at the airport and at the Eastern Creek quarantine station.
Ms Gordon was also asked to respond to submissions by a senior AQIS veterinarian in Sydney, Dr Phil Widders, who had written to his superiors complaining about the lack of enforcement of quarantine protocols at Sydney Airport, including the presence of outsiders in the quarantine area at the airport.
Dr Widders’ complaints were ignored, although Ms Gordon conceded that his comments were correct.
Ms Gordon admitted that quarantine requirements regarding disposable clothing, showering and washing after handling horses were not always followed at Eastern Creek. Since 2004, she conceded, there had not been a single audit of compliance with required procedures at the Eastern Creek quarantine station.
The inquiry also heard evidence that there are several horse flu tests on the market, one of which (Directigen) takes 15 minutes to conduct, is portable, and can identify horse flu with high reliability. Although Ms Gordon was AQIS’s Quarantine Manager, she had not heard of any of them.
Ms Gordon was also unaware there had been an EI outbreak in South Africa in 2003, and said there was no change in Australia’s quarantine regime to accommodate lessons of the South African outbreak.
The commissioner expressed astonishment that Ms Gordon first heard of an outbreak of horse flu in Japan from Minister Peter McGauran’s office, not from AQIS or the Department of Agriculture.
In other evidence, the Canberra-based national manager of live import programs and post-entry animal quarantine, David Ironside, admitted to having no veterinary qualifications, no professional training in relation to animals or animal diseases, and nothing to do with animal imports before 2006.
Mr Ironside had not conducted any audits of quarantine and import procedures since being appointed, nor had he been asked to conduct them, despite such requirements being in the AQIS business plan.
The manager of the Eastern Creek QS, Greg Hankins, advised Mr Ironside after his appointment in 2007 that he had no operational instructions for the Eastern Creek station, and he asked for them early in 2007. Hankins also told Ironside that none of the staff at Eastern Creek QS were aware of any work instructions or operational manuals for the conduct of their work. Mr Ironside arranged for his personal assistant to send information to Hankins, but did not follow the matter up further.
Mr Ironside admitted that he was responsible for auditing the quarantine procedures used at Eastern Creek, but had not done so.
In other evidence, it was confirmed that there were no security guards to supervise entry to the facility at Eastern Creek QS prior to the outbreak.
The assistant manager of AQIS, Julie Sims, who supervised the staff at the Eastern Creek QS, did not have any agricultural, horticultural or veterinary qualifications. She said she had expertise in the areas of “financial and human resources”.
Ms Sims said she regarded it as unimportant whether the manager of the Eastern Creek station had a quarantine background. The manager, Mr Hankins, did not have any academic training in horticulture or animal husbandry. She said it was not her responsibility to provide quarantine training to Mr Hankins, although she was his supervisor.
Ms Sims said that she had no role with private staff who worked at Eastern Creek caring for horses, and was not responsible for occupational health and safety programs at Eastern Creek. She had no training in either risk assessment or risk management.
The evidence reveals systematic failures in Australia’s quarantine system which would be comical, if they were not so tragic. These issues must be urgently addressed by the new Government to prevent the entry of more exotic diseases into Australia.
– Peter Westmore