If even the most rudimentary biosecurity measures had been in place last year, it is most unlikely that equine influenza would have spread the way it did, a government inquiry has found. Peter Westmore reports.
Blame for last year’s equine influenza outbreak has been put squarely at the feet of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS), a government inquiry has found.
In a concluding submission to the inquiry, counsel assisting the inquiry, Mr Tony Meagher, SC, found that widespread failures of quarantine had caused the disaster.
He invited the commissioner, former High Court judge Ian Callinan, to find that “the virus escaped from horses infected within ECQS [Eastern Creek Quarantine Station] and that it did so via contaminated persons or equipment leaving ECQS and coming into contact with a horse in the general horse population. The contaminated persons or equipment are most likely to have been associated with caring for the horses whilst in quarantine.”
Mr Meagher said: “If there were in place at Eastern Creek, and being properly implemented in August 2007, even the most rudimentary biosecurity measures, it is most unlikely that there would have been any escape of equine influenza from the quarantine station.
“Such measures would have included at a minimum that people having contact with the horses in the equine enclosure be required to shower and change their clothes before exiting the equine enclosure and to leave contaminated clothing and equipment in the quarantine station.”
Mr Meagher said that the disease outbreak constituted “a serious failure by those within DAFF [Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry] and AQIS who were responsible for the management of quarantine risks and, in particular, the management of post-entry quarantine arrangements.
“The persons who ultimately must take responsibility for that failure include the secretary of DAFF as the director of Animal and Plant Quarantine and the person who, under the minister, is charged with the execution of the Quarantine Act, the executive director of AQIS and the executive manager of the Quarantine and Plant programs within AQIS.”
The departmental secretary is Dr Conall O’Connell, who appeared as a witness at the inquiry.
Mr Meagher said: “That such a measure was not being implemented within the quarantine station in August 2007 was the consequence of a number of acts and omissions on the part of various employees and officers of AQIS occurring at different levels of that organisation and over a period of time from at least 2003.”
He said that when the disease outbreak occurred, in August 2007, there were no operating procedures or work instructions in AQIS which were understood by those officers at Eastern Creek responsible for the quarantine of live horses as setting out the biosecurity measures which had to be implemented within the quarantine station.
The submission by Mr Meagher painted a picture of organisational confusion within AQIS as to where responsibility for quarantine lay.
At the time of the EI outbreak, the manager of the Live Animal Imports program – which was responsible for promulgating nationally applicable work instructions and operating procedures and auditing (i.e., checking) to see that those procedures were being implemented – believed that AQIS’s Live Horse Work Instructions laid down the relevant procedures for the quarantine stations and that they were being implemented.
However, that program had never undertaken any audit or check to see that this was in fact the position. Although it was required to do so, it had apparently not done so because it lacked the financial resources to perform that task in priority to other tasks it had.
At the same time, the responsible New South Wales quarantine officer did not regard the Live Horse Work Instruction as applicable, or as sufficient and satisfactory, stating that he had brought these matters to the attention of the national program manager. He did not know whether the officers in the Eastern Creek Quarantine Station were aware of that document (and, it follows, whether they were implementing it). He took no steps to implement the instructions, although he was required to implement nationally promulgated instructions in the region.
The assistant New South Wales regional manager, responsible for the management of the Live Animal Import and Post-Entry Animal Quarantine programs in New South Wales as at August 2007, was aware of the existence of the Live Horse Work Instruction, but had never looked at it and did not know if it was being implemented in the region. Nor did she regard it as part of her function or that of her immediate superior, the New South Wales regional manager, to see that it was being implemented.
“This outline of the position bespeaks an organisation which lacked clear lines of effective communication between those responsible for formulating procedures and those responsible for implementing them, and one in which there was no sufficient training and education in relation to procedures to be followed, and no checking to see that procedures were being implemented,” Mr Meagher concluded.
The inquiry is expected to report to the Federal Minister for Agriculture, Mr Tony Burke, by the end of April 2008. The report will be eagerly awaited by all people concerned about Australia’s quarantine system, not just those affected by the outbreak of equine influenza.
– Peter Westmore