• Members of the AFP’s contingent to the NT to protect remote communities arrived last week on the same commercial flights as two positive cases of COVID-19/ (NT Independent)Source: NT Independent
A contingent of AFP officers deployed to assist in the protection of remote NT areas has been exempted from mandatory quarantine restrictions by the NT’s Chief Health Officer.
Christopher Walsh

12 Apr 2020 - 1:36 PM  UPDATED 12 Apr 2020 - 1:45 PM

Members of the Australian Federal Police’s contingent to the Territory to protect remote communities arrived on the same commercial flights as people forced into government-imposed quarantine almost a fortnight ago, reports the NT Independent.

While dozens of civilians were taken to government-sanctioned hotels under mandatory quarantining orders at a cost of $2500 each, the AFP personnel were instead taken from the planes, put into one day training sessions and sent to remote communities, sources in the AFP and NT Police, Fire and Emergency Services have confirmed.

Other AFP members arrived via interstate charter flights.

The NT has recorded one case of two unrelated people infected with coronavirus returning to Darwin on one interstate commercial flight. It is unknown if any AFP personnel were on any of the 10 identified infected flights. 

The AFP was permitted to dodge the 14-day quarantine restriction under exemptions approved by the NT’s Chief Health Officer Hugh Heggie, but it’s expected future contingents will have to quarantine.

“I’d be concerned in remote communities to look up and see AFP officers there,” said an NTPFES member with knowledge of the situation, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

“They are the biggest risk and if it gets into communities, it’s going to be trouble. The government is bypassing their own safety measures to let them in. The risk is massive.”

Recently, five health workers in the Kimberley Region were confirmed infected with coronavirus, including a Sydney-based doctor who worked at the Halls Creek hospital- a hub for medical services for outlaying remote Aboriginal communities -prior to testing positive for COVID-19.

A senior AFP member told the NT Independent that “desperate times call for desperate measures” and that quarantining was not considered for the latest contingent.

“(There) was no quarantine for staff arriving with defined COVID-19 essential roles,” he said. “For the immediate batch (anyway). The next group arriving – if and when – will be required to quarantine.”

Inconsistencies with the Gunner Government’s coronavirus quarantine exemption policy have been brought into the spotlight recently after failing for weeks to release the details of its quarantine exemptions for fly in, fly out (FIFO) workers.

One worker at McArthur River mine site was thought to have contracted COVID-19 and was airlifted to Darwin but later tested negative. The incident has caused anxieties in remote communities.

Joe Martin-Jard, chief executive officer of the Central Land Council previously told media that the discovery of coronavirus in remote communities would devastate Indigenous Territorians.

“An entire generation of elders could be wiped out if we allowed the virus to enter their communities,” he said. “The death toll even among younger families would be far higher than for the rest of the nation.”

The AFP, NT Police and NT Government have all declined to answer questions posed by the NT Independent about the potential risks of not quarantining AFP staff and what measures were taken to reduce the risk of transmission.

Transparency required

Independent MLA Scott McConnell – whose vast remote electorate of Stuart includes many remote communities – said the Gunner Government needed to keep the public informed.

“I’m confident the AFP and health officials would mitigate the risk in an appropriate way,” he said.

“But they need to tell people what’s going on. Did that happen? The Government won’t say and they need to be able to explain things to the communities so they know what’s going on.

“The only way for the government to maintain the confidence of the community is being open and transparent and explaining what’s happening – they haven’t done enough of that.”

The government has implemented a non-essential travel ban in remote communities in an effort to prevent the virus from entering remote communities. Fourteen-day quarantines are also essential for anyone traveling to remote communities.

Chief Minister Michael Gunner previously expressed fears the deadly coronavirus will make its way into remote communities, a prospect described as potentially "catastrophic" by health experts and Aboriginal community leaders.

But his office declined to comment on the AFP personnel coming in on commercial interstate flights and being sent to the bush.

They also did not explain what measures were taken to reduce the risk of unintentionally bringing COVID-19 to remote communities.

Dr John Boffa, the Chief Medical Officer at the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress Aboriginal Corporation, told the ABC last month that he wanted to see the Army Medical Corps brought in to support remote community clinics – but only after they were properly quarantined.

“We need them to come here and quarantine for two weeks, so they can go bush and provide the necessary surge workforce that we are going to need,” he said.

Questions were sent to Dr Boffa about the government’s exemptions for interstate AFP personnel.

The 102-person AFP contingent was requested by NT Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker to help patrol borders and keep remote communities safe during the pandemic.

A press release issued by the AFP dated April 2, stated that the first deployed AFP members would “work alongside NT Police colleagues, with a key focus on preventing the spread of COVID-19 into remote Indigenous communities”.

“AFP officers will be stationed throughout a number of remote regional communities to support national efforts to protect Australians and limit the spread of COVID-19,” it stated.

The AFP declined to answer questions.

- This article was originally published by NT Independent on April 8.

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