Interview with Oliver Peterson, 6PR Perth

26 May 2020

OLIVER PETERSON: Let's ask the Federal Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud who joins me live on the line. Minister, welcome to the program.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me.

OLIVER PETERSON: Has your department's communications stuffed up?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. Well look, we're slowly working through this to make sure we get this right before we make elevated statements in the public that raises anxiety unnecessarily. Now there are a chain of events here that need to be worked through. Effectively before pre-arrival, the ship themselves have to notify the Department of Agriculture of anyone that's sick. On 20 May they did notify that there was three sick but they didn't have any elevated temperatures. And having sick people on boats is pretty, part of the course, sitting on a ship for a number of days. So it was continued to be monitored. We understand the information that was provided was that no one of those people on the boat had an elevated temperature above 37 degrees, they did not report that any person had that. And in fact before it even came, they had to give a declaration that no one had been in contact with anyone that had been COVID positive for 14 days prior to coming to Australia.

So there had been a number of protocols that the ship was meant to undertake. We are still working through to make sure that they did that. In fact, there's some further work that was done when we went on the boats to in fact, even inspect logs to make sure that the captain and the master of the vessel in fact did give the right information to the Department of Agriculture. They did, as I'm just being advised by my department, did advise, on 22 May after this ship had docked. And obviously the Port Authority officials had already taken the boat through and weren't on the boat but had been on the boat prior to that. It wasn't until 22 May that in fact the ship themselves notify the Department of Agriculture that someone had an elevated temperature and was showing symptoms. At that point the protocol is the Department of Agriculture immediately notifies the Western Australian Department of Health which it did.

So we're getting to make sure that all that has true veracity to it and that all the protocols whether they be state or federal were adhered to. And so to make assertions of disappointment or anything you need to understand we need to go through this calmly and methodically. And it also is important to understand that when those boats get to Australia, none of that crew is allowed to get off, they have to self-isolate for 14 days prior to disembarkment anyway so they have to be kept in isolation. So there's a whole lot of protocols here that obviously have taken place. The last advice I got probably two minutes before coming on your show was that they will continue to make sure that every protocol was adhered to but on first glance of this, the Department of Agriculture has done everything that it should have in terms of working off the information it is provided by the master of the ship or its agent, in telling us, they are the ones that have to tell us the information of the well-being of those people on those ships as they come to this country.

So as soon as we were notified that those people were showing symptoms then the protocol kicked in. But I will make sure, and I've asked my department to go back and double check and triple check to make sure that every protocol has been adhered to, but on the face of it we believe that every protocol, whether it be from the Federal Department of Agriculture, and I suspect after that from the Western Australian Department of Health, was in line with the COVID protocols that have been put in place.

OLIVER PETERSON: Alright. Just on your timeline there, just to clarify, you said on 22 May which is last Friday, when the Department of Agriculture was informed of an elevated temperature of one particular crew member, that is when the Department of Agriculture informed the Western Australian Department of Health, last Friday 22 May?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: That is correct. In fact, I've asked the department to provide me a copy of that e-mail to make sure that was done. So there is evidence of their claim to me because I've asked them to be accountable for this, because this important aspect of our nation's security and safety at the moment and they are providing me with that e-mail to make sure that as soon as they were notified by the ship's master, by their agent, that someone had an elevated temperature, an email as per the protocol is sent to the appropriate people in the Western Australian Department of Health. And that was as soon as we became aware of it and it would have been as soon as the WA Health Department was made aware of it. But I'm going to make sure that is locked in in writing so that we don't get an elevation of anxiety in the community, that they know, the community can have confidence that we are working within the set prescribed protocols both state and federal and that what we have done now should ensure that there is little risk of further outbreak from this because of the isolation, the subsequent isolation that has been put on these crew members. But we were going to have it anyway because of those coming to this country must self-isolate 14 days and that the ship themselves have provided all the information that they should have when they should have because we do rely on that information coming from the ships themselves in being able to provide that openly and honestly. And on face value it looks as though the ship themselves have done everything, the ship masters have done everything they should have and as soon as they became aware, they notified ourselves and as soon as we were notified we made the health authorities aware.

OLIVER PETERSON: A Fremantle Port Authority pilot boarded the ship wearing PPE to steer it into port on 22 May. Had they already reported the elevated temperature by that stage or was it after the ship had docked at Fremantle Port?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I'm advised it was prior to the notification that someone presented themselves as being ill but I'm getting that double checked as well. And I understand that that is a point of anxiety but as I was briefed just previously is that someone would- a Port Authority personnel would get on that boat probably around the 21st to be able to pilot it into the port. It docked in the early hours of the 22nd and it wasn't until some hours later that we were notified on the 22nd. So that is the challenge that we are trying to make sure that every protocol and every protection was afforded to everybody. Department of Agriculture personnel went on and they went on with PPE and I'm getting an understanding whether that Port Authority personnel employee also went on with PPE. We would hope that they did as a precaution regardless but I'm getting that checked and double checked as well, so that there is clarity and confidence that state and federal governments are doing all that they should in terms of it. But you've got to understand this is a very fluid situation with respect to these positive tests and infections is that they can happen just like that and you can come into contact and have no understanding or any symptoms prior and that's the dangerous thing about this COVID-19. The protocols in place, we are confident that everyone has adhered to it, if they haven't then we will be more than happy to be transparent about that. It will be a learning. But I think it's important not to elevate the language on this just yet.

OLIVER PETERSON: So when the Premier reports today that they found out from word of mouth would you say that is incorrect?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well when I get the email I will say that he is incorrect on 22 May but I'm waiting for my department to provide me with that. I'm taking everything on face value until I can demonstrate it and I want to be able to demonstrate to the community with confidence that everything has been adhered to. But I've asked for that email to be sent to me so that I can see quite clearly that we have done everything we should have as soon as we were notified by the ship's agent that there was someone with an elevated temperature, that we notified the WA Health, as is the protocol accepted between state and federal authorities.

OLIVER PETERSON: What happens with the 56,000 sheep? Would you consider an extension to allow a later departure date than 1 June?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah look, we're working through that as well. Obviously human welfare is the utmost just at the moment but I'm working with the department and the regulator. Obviously it won't be my decision, the independent regulator will have to make that. But we'll be working with the company to see what other arrangements can be made to master that ship back and who may do it. There's obviously going to have to be a clean of a lot of that ship as well. So there's an animal welfare issue here that we have to work through and it's important we do that and I think I'll be taking more advice on that overnight and in the morning about that and how can we facilitate that shipment back there. It's important to understand that those sheep would have been paid to the farmer. It'll be the exporter that we need to help out here in getting them over to the Middle East. So we will just work practically as we can, as quickly as we can to give them some confidence on that.

OLIVER PETERSON: David Littleproud, we appreciate you checking some points and when you can get them to us we will pass them on to our listeners. Thank you for your time this afternoon.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, mate.

OLIVER PETERSON: David Littleproud, the Federal Agriculture Minister joining me live on the program.