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The nation’s workplace safety agency is investigating Australian Border Force’s management of COVID-19 as the agency battles an outbreak of the virus on three of its marine vessels.
At least six Border Force officials in the marine unit have tested positive for the coronavirus since December 31, as the union representing its workers claims there has been a lack of health protocols during the pandemic.
A number of Australian Border Force officers in the marine unit have tested positive for COVID-19.Credit:Kate Geraghty
Sources confirmed all officers who had tested positive were in isolation.
A spokesman for Comcare, the Commonwealth’s work, health and safety authority, confirmed it had launched an inquiry into Border Force’s COVID protocols within its marine unit.
“Comcare is aware of reports of positive COVID-19 cases within the Australian Border Force’s Marine Unit,” the spokesman said.
“We have an ongoing inquiry into the management of COVID-related health and safety risks on ABF vessels.”
Border Force said on Tuesday it had put in a “robust safeguards” for its staff, underpinned by clinical health advice and the advice of Commonwealth, state and territory health authorities.
The Community and Public Sector Union claimed Border Force has not put in place specific protocols to deal with COVID-19 such as requirements for physical distancing, hygiene, isolation on return from patrol, vaccination and testing.
In a letter to senior officials within the Department of Home Affairs on January 9, CPSU deputy national president Brooke Muscat said her union was “deeply concerned that the current risk mitigation measures implemented to contain the virus have not been successful”.
Ms Muscat said it was now incumbent on the department to “consider alternative methods to ensure the safety and wellbeing of Officers is maintained”.
She said the medical team and enforcement commander are “working to manage a rapidly unfolding situation with strategies that don’t appear to be entirely effective”.
“We understand that they are doing a fantastic job given the current circumstances,” the letter said.
“It is also my understanding that the clinical team has not been liaising with the Medic on board which is contrary to advice I received from the Department yesterday and this needs to be followed up as a priority.”
According to the union, health and safety representatives issued two provisional improvement notices relating to COVID protocols since August 2020. The union was dissatisfied with the department’s response and then took the matter to Comcare.
Ms Muscat told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age that Home Affairs, the department which oversees Border Force, had “failed to adequately prepare for COVID on Marine Unit vessels”.
“At every turn they have rebuffed and ignored workers’ calls for common-sense protections, testing and onboard amenities,” she said.
“For two years the CPSU has been raising the [issue of] risks of the pandemic for the Australian Border Force Marine Unit, raising the issue with the Department [and] with the Federal Health Minister, but due to inaction we have been left with no alternative but to seek a resolution through the regulator, Comcare.”
A spokesperson for Border Force said it had put in place safeguards “to protect our staff, and the communities we interact with, from COVID-19”.
“Our marine crews engage closely with health authorities in each jurisdiction to facilitate COVID testing and medical treatment as required, both to ensure the wellbeing of our crews and the safety of the public,” the spokesperson said.
“Our methods and policies have seen us successfully maintain a strong civil maritime fleet throughout the pandemic and we are confident they will continue to do so.”
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