Sydney Airport has implemented new protocol for arrivals after passengers on a flight from Melbourne disembarked without being screened for COVID-19 by NSW Health officials.
A leaked email from Sydney Airport to the ABC claims Jetstar breached state government health orders by allowing passengers on flight JQ520, which landed at 6:53pm on Tuesday, to disembark without being tested.
“The final JQ flight arrived and staff enabled disembarkation without NSW Health and police in attendance, breaching the arrivals screening protocols,” the email read, according to ABC News.
The incident, which came before the border between NSW and Victoria was closed, occurred as the NSW government on Tuesday introduced new laws banning travellers from Greater Melbourne arriving in NSW except under “exceptional circumstances”.
The breach, ABC News reported, means all passengers on the plane, who would have been required to quarantine for 14 days, were allowed into Sydney “without scrutiny”.
Speaking to the national broadcaster, a health spokesperson said all passengers on board the Jetstar flight were screened in advance of leaving Victoria.
However, upon their arrival in Sydney, 48 of the 137 passengers left Sydney Airport before health staff finished screening a prior flight – the email leaked to the ABC alleged three flights had arrived in Sydney from Melbourne in close succession.
“Health staff, airport staff and NSW Police acted quickly to bring passengers back to the gate to be screened,” the spokesperson said.
It said 45 of those passengers were contacted and that arrangements had been made for them to be screened, while the other three had reportedly refused testing and were referred to the police.
According to a Jetstar spokesperson, the airline assisted authorities by locating passengers in the terminal who had disembarked without being screened and provided the aircraft manifest to authorities to assist them in contacting passengers.
Not appropriate to apportion blame, says Jetstar CEO
Jetstar chief executive Gareth Evans this morning told the press that Jetstar had refined its disembarkation processes to prevent this situation occurring again.
As a result of the incident, he said, aircraft arriving from Victoria will no longer be able to approach Sydney Airport’s gates until NSW Health teams are in place to screen passengers.
When asked whether his airline was at fault over the incident, Evans said he did not think it was appropriate to apportion blame.
“The situation is changing rapidly … there was not a NSW Health official in the aerobridge – there should have been. Our people should have held the aircraft – they didn’t,” he said.
“The processes have been changing over the course of the last two or three days and we have different staff on different routes. We have to work with other stakeholders to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”
Evans said federal Health Minister Greg Hunt had raised the need for a review of screening processes and that he welcomed that, adding state-by-state rules currently had the potential to “cause confusion”.
The Transport Workers’ Union has also raised concerns, saying the incident showed the need for national rules on COVID-19 screening.
“[Processes] are different across various health authorities and different states and that has the potential to cause confusion,” Evans said.
He denied the incident could be compared to the Ruby Princess outbreak, which resulted in hundreds of COVID-19 cases and at least 20 deaths.
In that incident, more than 2,500 passengers were allowed to disembark the cruise ship in Sydney without being tested despite many having reported “flu-like symptoms” while on board.
“It’s a completely different set of circumstances,” Evans said.
“These passengers were screened in Melbourne so they weren’t unscreened. It’s a completely different risk profile.”
The news comes as Victoria continues to battle a surge in coronavirus cases, which has prompted states and territories to alter their border agreements and plans for border reopenings.
Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner said the territory’s borders would stay closed to all of Victoria “until further notice” as he declared the entire state a coronavirus hotspot.
It comes ahead of the NT borders reopening to the rest of Australia as of 17 July, which will allow travellers to enter the territory without having to undertake 14 days of quarantine.
However, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk went one further by announcing Queensland will completely close its border to non-residents from Victoria from midday Friday.
“From noon, July 10, visitors from Victoria will no longer gain access or be able to quarantine in Queensland. They will be turned around,” the premier said on social media.
Queenslanders would still be allowed to return from Victoria; however, they have been advised against travelling there, Palaszcuk said.
“It is strongly recommended that Queenslanders do not travel to Victoria,” she said.
“Queensland residents returning from Victoria will gain access, but they must quarantine in a hotel for 14 days at their expense.”
National cabinet to debate cap on all international flights
In other news, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has asked the Australian Health Protection Principal Commission – the Commonwealth’s key decision-making committee for health emergencies – to review national hotel quarantine arrangements and report ahead of Friday’s national cabinet meeting.
According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Morrison yesterday signalled that he would propose a curb on the overall number of international arrivals to Australia, in order to ease pressure on the quarantine system when coronavirus cases were climbing.
The move will set the ground for debate on stronger measures across all states and territories after quarantine breaches at Melbourne hotels, which prompted the launch of a judicial inquiry by Premier Daniel Andrews into the conduct of security guards and the state quarantine program.
It also comes amid the news hotel quarantine is nearing capacity in Western Australia, according to The West Australian, and off the back of calls from the WA Premier for flights to be capped to the state.
See more: International arrivals capped at Sydney Airport due to “pressure” on city quarantine facilities
The Commonwealth has since approved the WA government’s request to cap the number of weekly flights to Perth, according to Health Minister Roger Cook.
“They have agreed to cap the number of international [passenger] arrivals to 525 a week, or about 75 a day,” he said, as reported by ABC News.
Prime Minister Morrison, however, has already signalled he does not want to cut the numbers of flights to benefit one state at the cost of another.
“The issue is not redistributing the load from Western Australia to other states,” Morrison said.
“Western Australia has been taking about a quarter of what New South Wales has. So I don’t think there’s a strong case that Western Australia should carry any lesser load than it has been up until this time.
“The issue is what the overall level of returning Australians are, and that’s why I’ll be bringing a proposal on Friday to reduce that load which means that’s a lesser load for everybody.”
According to Commonwealth data, more than 72,000 international passengers arrived in Australia in the month to 7 July, with more than half of them landing in NSW.
The federal tally shows 39,394 arrived in NSW, 15,374 in Victoria, 10,054 in Queensland, 5,377 in Western Australia, 962 in the Northern Territory, 683 in South Australia and 307 in Canberra.
Featured image source: iStock/Boeing746