Interview with Lisa Millar, ABC News Breakfast

27 May 2020

LISA MILLAR: Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, joins me now from Warwick in Queensland. Good morning, Minister, welcome to Breakfast.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me.

LISA MILLAR: Minister, can I ask you on Friday, there was an email that was sent from your department to WA authorities saying that there were ill crew members, with temperatures but no mention of COVID-19, no mention that there might be concerns about that. Is the process not working?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, I have to disagree with you there, Lisa. We notified the Public Health Emergency Operation Centre in WA, which is the protocol for our biosecurity officers to notify under COVID-19 anyone that may have symptoms. It's not for us to determine whether they've got COVID- 19. We look after plant and animals. That's why we sent that email to the health officials at WA to make that determination, undertake their protocols to further investigate that. We simply reported as we should from the declarations from the ship, that there was people that had temperatures over 37 degrees. Now, what happens after that, the health officials in each state undertake their own protocols and investigation. We don't have those skill sets. We look after plants and animals and we've done everything that would be asked of us in terms that protocol and we'll continue to work, there's no barb. So, I think it's important, it's just disappointing that the tone of the Premier yesterday, that it's important that we work together in these times and it's important to understand, no one left that boat, per the protocols that the federal government and states put in together, in February, to make sure that no one went down that gangway, into the streets of Fremantle. They were in isolation and they were kept in isolation, until WA Health was able to get to get there.

LISA MILLAR: I know what the Premier said yesterday in WA, but there then were clarifying statements that came out much later in the day and that's what I'm referring to, where this email from the Department of Agriculture, explicitly stated, no concern for COVID-19 on the vessel and no respiratory illness. But, you're saying the department did enough, did all that was required? But we've still got this dispute?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, those are the declarations that were made by the ship's captain to the Department of Agriculture, the only symptoms was that they were able to find someone that had raised temperature on that point, of over 37 degrees and we notified WA Health within an hour, to their emergency operations centre, that is the protocol; we don't make assessments, we don't have the capacity to determine whether it's COVID-19 or whether it's just a common cold. That's where WA Health comes into it. That's where health professionals come into it. That's the protocol that WA Health has asked us to undertake as biosecurity officers, is being in the frontline to support them and help them through COVID-19, as it is in every other state. And we'll continue to do that. So, we don't determine whether it's COVID-19. We can't do that, that would be dangerous, to ask biosecurity officers who look after plant and animals to determine whether it's COVID-19 or not.

LISA MILLAR: Now, 48 multi-national crew in total on the ship, six have tested positive. Is your understanding expecting that more will test positive?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, obviously it's hard for me to make a determination, because we're not health professionals, we'll wait for WA Health. We obviously have concerns about animal welfare and we're working with the independent regulator and the exporter to ensure that those animals are looked after and they are. They're all in good health I'm advised and we'll work with the exporter about trying to get that boat going. It will miss the deadline of 1 June, for the moratorium on the northern summer exports. But, there is an exemption, I'm advised, in the legislation for the independent regulator, to give, to grant approval for that ship to sail after 1 June. And particularly, in light of these circumstances, but they'll be at the discretion of the independent regulator, not me.

LISA MILLAR: Okay, because there are 56,000 sheep. They've all gone through biosecurity and quarantine and this ruling was to ensure that they weren't sitting on ships going into hot summer periods. So, you're saying that they there could be an exemption, because this ship is clearly going to be held up now while this is sorted out?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah well obviously the boat needs a deep clean and then we have to work through the welfare of the crew and understand that. And work with the company and work whether other crew could take over, if that was the case. So, that will evolve over the coming hours and days, we wouldn't like to see it go too deep into June. But obviously, that's a decision for the independent regulator, not for me, to determine whether it's safe for those sheep to travel. But there is a biosecurity risk; those sheep have passed through biosecurity and it would be difficult for them to enter back into paddocks or in Western Australia. So, there are limited options there and that's why we'll be pragmatic and I'm sure the independent regulator will work through that predicated on science.

LISA MILLAR: Alright. David Littleproud. Thanks for joining us this morning.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Anytime, Lisa. Thanks for having me.