The Federal Government will reduce the number of repatriate flights from India into the Northern Territory by a third in response to a massive outbreak of COVID-19 in that country, but questions still remain over whether the NT Government is prepared to take over management of the international wing of the Howard Springs quarantine facility.
This morning, the NT Government announced 13 new COVID-19 positive cases – all connected to repatriate flights from India – bringing the NT’s total to 38 active cases, the majority of which are people who were onboard flights from India.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the reduction in flights on Thursday afternoon following a national cabinet meeting.
“What we’ve agreed to do, and this particularly relates to the chartered services we’re running into the Northern Territory – we will be reducing by some 30 per cent – the numbers coming through our chartered services in the months ahead,” Mr Morrison said.
“These are difficult decisions we’ve had to make but the increasing risk that we’ve seen from some countries … necessitates managing that risk in the best way possible, but also maintaining the volumes of those who can come under the cap arrangements we currently have.”
However, the reductions in flights from India have not quelled fears the NT Government is woefully unprepared for taking over management of the quarantine facility from the federally-funded AUSMAT team.
Health Minister Natasha Fyles maintained that the government had only recruited 70 staff out of the 400 workers needed to operate the international wing of the facility – nearly one month after signing a $500 million takeover agreement with the Federal Government and just over a week before it was expected to transition to managing the facility.
CLP Senator Sam McMahon said the NT Government managing the facility is a “disaster” waiting to happen.
“One, I don’t think that they will be able to get the 400 workers that are well-enough trained and qualified as they need to be to fulfill that role, and that’s certainly seeming to be the case,” Ms McMahon told Mix104.9.
“I was always concerned that this could turn into a disaster and I think it’s very much heading down that path.”
Chief Minister Michael Gunner told the ABC that the government is “tracking very well for the transition”.
Mr Gunner said they have recruited “a lot” more than 70 staff announced but did not provide a revised figure, stating that the Health Minister will provide an update on the recruitment soon.
“So, tracking well, that’s probably not quite accurate description of how it works out in sight, but tracking well, we had 70 people coming across to start with us a couple of weeks ago,” Mr Gunner told ABC Radio Darwin on Thursday.
“We’re tracking very well in terms of recruitment and training and working very closely, obviously we’ve got AUSMAT who are out on site about how we maintain our gold standard.
“So, what we’ve always said is there will be a transition process and we’ll do it based off the staff coming on the training, and as we just go through it week by week..
“We’re also having number of AUSMAT staff choose to stay on, if that makes sense.”
Opposition says Gunner Government putting profits ahead of public safety
The Opposition also expressed concern over the capability of NT Health to take full control of the Howard Springs quarantine facility.
“This facility presents the greatest risk of COVID getting out into the Territory community and we have grave concerns it will be understaffed, or staffed by under qualified people,” CLP Leader Lia Finocchiaro said in a statement.
CLP quarantine critic Gerard Maley also said that the Gunner Labor Government has neither the experience nor the staff to manage this transition.
Mr Maley accused the Gunner government of putting profits over public safety.
“The only reason Labor is pushing so hard for full control is the vast amounts of funding from the Federal Government to prop up our annihilated economy,” he said.
Ms Fyles said the government would be ready for the handover.
“I’m confident that from May 3, that when we bring the facility together as one — it’s not to say on May 3 that AUSMAT will be walking away — it’s from that point that we’ll be working together as one facility and we’ll be making sure that those clinical processes are kept in place whilst we transition the facility to be fully staffed by the NT government,” Ms Fyles said.
The virus is currently devastating India where test results are being questioned, hospitals are overstretched and the country is dealing with record numbers of infections, reporting more than 300,000 a day.
Doctors and patients in New Delhi and Mumbai told Reuters it was taking between three and eight days to get their test results.
Doctors said they were relying on CT scans and symptoms to treat patients as test results are often delayed.
“What is happening because of the delayed testing is that the circle of transmission is getting wider and wider,” Dr. Ravindra Khade Patil of Sushrut Hospitals on the outskirts of Mumbai told Reuters.
“Without a test, the patient may not isolate and thus infect others.”