International quarantine to be run by NT Government as nearly 400 new staff sought

by | Mar 6, 2021 | COVID-19, News | 4 comments

A partnership between the NT and Commonwealth Governments to more than double the amount of repatriated Australians into the Howard Springs quarantine facility from 850 a fortnight to 2000 – while increasing facility personnel from just over 100 to 500 – has caused concerns the NT Government may be unable to manage its new workload.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the deal yesterday, that will see the Federal Government pay the NT Government for expanding operations of the facility with the boost in numbers expected “over the next few months”.

But some are concerned about the NT Government taking over the international wing of the quarantine facility that was run with great success by the federal AUSMAT team.

Chief Minister Michael Gunner said merging the domestic and international sections of the facility is what the Commonwealth Government wanted and that he was “more than happy to take on that responsibility”.

“The Territory government will assume management of the facility from the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth will continue to work hand in glove with us,” he said.

“This is a decision made on the absolute best health care advice.”

The merger will see NT Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker in charge of the entire facility.

“I’ve always been in control as the Territory controller,” he said yesterday. “That probably just necessarily hasn’t come through.”

However, Mr Gunner faced tough questions from media about the NT Government’s ability to handle the increased workload and where exactly the nearly 400 new health professionals to manage the facility would be coming from.

Chief Minister previously said numbers of international arrivals limited by lack of ‘skilled staff’

On January 11, Mr Gunner said that the cap on the number of people permitted into quarantine was limited to the number of qualified staff his government was able to recruit.

“We’ve basically reached a limit probably [of] what we can handle, into the skilled staff that we have in the Territory,” he said two months ago.

“We’ve come to a point in time where you’re capped by your staffing resources, and we’re probably reaching that point in the Northern Territory, where we want to manage within the people we have got here.”

At yesterday’s briefing, Mr Gunner said a recruitment drive will start this month, with 400 staff “trained and mobilised from May”.

“The Australian Government is working with us on that recruitment campaign and making sure that we get the numbers that we need,” he said, without offering specifics of where exactly the new staff would be coming from.

Opposition questions timing as health resources strained

Opposition Leader Lia Finocchiaro said the Gunner Government is biting off more than it can chew, flagging “serious concerns” about how it will handle the additional repatriates.

She said the additional impost of 400 staff and thousands of Australians returning from overseas will put an increased strain on the NT’s over-burdened health system.

“This comes at a time when Royal Darwin Hospital is experiencing a critical bed shortage, we’re struggling to find surgeons to fill our emergency departments and Territory Health is undergoing an extensive restructure to amalgamate the Top End and Central Australia health services,” she said.

“We know that international arrivals present the greatest risk of COVID getting out into our community and that’s why Territorians have been reassured by the separation between domestic and international quarantine arrivals, and staff at each facility, with the AUSMAT team and Federal Government in control of the highest risk cohort.

“We know that despite the best efforts of the Territory’s health professionals, on the domestic side we’ve seen serious security breaches including rave parties and attempted escapes.

“Our hospitals and health network are under enormous strain just keeping up with the day-to-day healthcare needs of Territorians.”

NT Government data show more than 4,600 international arrivals have quarantined at the Howard Springs quarantine facility since repatriation flights to the Northern Territory began on October 23, 2020.

In November 2020, Chief Health Officer Dr Hugh Heggie warned of a possible shortage of health workers should an outbreak occur in the Territory, saying that if the healthcare system gets overwhelmed, COVID-19 patients would need to be flown to interstate hospitals.

“The risk is that if the virus comes here, it will spread very quickly,” Dr Heggie said at the time.

“If we actually become overwhelmed, we’ll need to potentially even have to travel patients from the Northern Territory to somewhere else, in the past that might have been Adelaide.”

He also said that most of the NT’s health professionals during the pandemic came out of South Australia.

It was unclear where Mr Gunner would be finding the nearly 400 new health professionals in the next month to take over the international wing of the quarantine facility.

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