Interview with Nadia Mitsopoulos, ABC Radio Breakfast

27 May 2020

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: The Federal Minister is David Littleproud. Very pleased that, Minister, you could join us this morning. Hello to you.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, thanks for having me.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Did your department make a mistake or in hindsight maybe should not have used the words no concern for COVID-19 on the ship when that e-mail was sent?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No because all they are passing through to the relevant health authorities is the declaration that's made by the ship's master. Now, they did obtain three high temperature readings which was important and is why that e-mail was sent but they took the declaration from the ship's master.

They don't have medical degrees, they look after animals and plants and that's why the protocol is even if there's one piece of evidence that the ship's master may provide, which was the high temperatures, they forward it on to the Public Health Emergency Operations Centre for them to make a determination, a medical assessment.

We do not diagnose; we actually allow the health professionals to do that. We pass on the information; we are a conduit and then allow the health department to make the determination from that. And it didn't just go to that email address, it also went to a health official, it was CC-ed to a health official so that it could be actioned and an assessment could be made to.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Okay.

RUSSELL WOOLF: Because you've cut that out, that part of the e-mail address. But it did go to a specific person rather than a generic email address?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well let me just say about this generic email address. It is the Public Health Emergency Operation Centre. This isn't something that Joe Public can just get to. This is one that we are provided as a federal agency to provide the information that they would need to make medical assessments, predicated on information declarations provided to us by ships.

So that is effectively the protocol that Western Australia has asked us to undertake to inform them, because they are the medical professionals, not us and we respect that. And so that's the protocol and the email address. And to make extra caution, we've actually added in a health official who we've used and in fact used this process a number of times previously and someone that we had contact with I'm advised. So that that was in an even deeper lens on this by health officials in WA.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: We're obviously trying to get to the bottom of whether somebody actually picked up that e-mail from the health department, at what time and whether it was passed on or not. But when you look at the e-mail, it's almost like dot points and you can understand how somebody, maybe from health, would think that your department has made an assessment because it says from information received no concern for COVID-19 on vessel. When I read that, I mean I do assume that that's an assessment that your department has made it. They're pretty vague, this email. It's …

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I'd have to disagree with you on that. We don't make assessments and the health officials know that; we simply pass on the declaration. So if you're, if you're looking at that e-mail through the lens of a health professional, from the WA Health, they would be looking through that as the lens of a declaration has been made by the ship's masters to the Department of Agriculture. They would then work through that predicated on the fact that there are a number of symptoms to COVID-19 - one is respiratory but other is temperature. It is then for them to determine.

We simply do not make determinations and the health department knows that. We are not profess, we are not medical professionals, not medically trained. So they understand, through the lens of their eyes, that it would not be the Department of Agriculture making any recommendation or assessment. That has never been the case and it will never be the case.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Should you have passed this on to the Health Department federally, Greg Hunt's office?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. The protocol for this is quite clear because in each state, the ownership of health and the management of that is the health officials. They are the ones that have the professional people on the ground that have been entrusted to manage this. In every state, this is the protocol that takes place. This isn't anything new, anything different. We've simply done, undertaken the protocol that's been asked of us to make sure that it's followed through and made sure that this is done calmly, in a professional way. 

And I am confident, after asking for written documentation from my department, that they have followed protocol that Western Australian Government has asked of my officials.

RUSSELL WOOLF: We're talking to David Littleproud, the Federal Agriculture Minister on ABC Radio Perth. Nadia Mitsopoulos and Russell Woolf, it's 17 past seven.

Just very quickly, in sending this email, do you think it should have raised a red flag in WA?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well I can't make that assessment.

RUSSELL WOOLF: But do you think it should've? Do you think somebody receiving that should have gone: oh this needs to be looked at or …

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well that's a question for WA Health because they would, they would've been making those assessments and they're the ones that were responsible for telling the Port Authorities, not us. We don't have, we don't have the ability to notify the Port Authority because we don't, we can't …

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Well it's in the email.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, no. But that is where a medical assessment is made by health professionals about whether it is a situation that needs to be escalated, not the Department of Agriculture. We don't make that assessment. We're not allowed to make that assessment. The Department of Health in Western Australia makes that assessment. And we've done that and we've done that calmly and it would be up to the health officials who then, we then work at their direction. And if they came back and told us the boat's not to dock and you need to stop and undertake certain actions, then we work as their agent. And in fact, that's happened before in Western Australia, it's happened in other states.

So effectively, because they hold the expertise, we work at their direction but we wait for them to make a recommendation or direction. We do not make that. WA Health makes those determinations.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Yesterday, the WA Premier Mark McGowan said this.

[Excerpt]
MARK MCGOWAN: Clearly, if there's cases of people reporting high temperatures on board, that should be reported and red flags should be raised. So I just say to everyone involved, in particular the Commonwealth agencies that knew about this, they need to be on guard and be alert. 
[End of excerpt]

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: How do you assess the handling of this issue by the WA Premier, Minister?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well look, I think what the Australian public and I think WA public would want is leadership not politics. If there are lessons to be learnt, I'm happy to have my department look at them. But I'm comfortable from the evidence I've seen that we've done everything.

If there's questions to be asked of WA Health, well I'll leave that to the Premier. But he could, I would've enjoyed a phone call. In fact, I heard of this through the media and basically was then trying to ascertain exactly what had happened. If he hadn't come to us directly, we would have been able to make sure that our protocols were maintained. I can't speak for other agencies, I can't speak for WA Health but they were notified at 10:39 on a Friday and they didn't appear to do any testing with that crew until the Monday.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: And you got no email responding to your email to acknowledge that they'd received that information or anything like that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. And in fact, Border Force also raised this and escalated it through another agency that also emailed the Public Health Emergency Operations Centre on the Sunday as well. The same emails that we sent and that's when they turned up on the Monday. But you've got to understand that no one left that boat. So everyone was in isolation and whether they made a determination that they were in isolation, forced isolation by biosecurity and ABF is a question for WA Health to answer. But I'm confident that we have lived to the letter of the protocols. If someone has evidence to the contrary, I'm happy to hear it.

RUSSELL WOOLF: We've asked for the Premier or for the Minister for Health Roger Cook to join us this morning to clarify their positions on this. We're hopeful that we'll get something from them before the end of our program today.

It's something that is within your remit. If human health is not, is the well-being of animals and we shouldn't forget the fact that this is a story that's wrapped around 56,000 sheep who were supposed to leave this port for the Middle East before the 1 June deadline which is Monday. Will an extension be granted and what can you tell us about the wellbeing of the sheep?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. That's a really good point. It is important that the animal welfare standards are maintained and I'm advised that they are. They're housed, they're fed and watered, they've had veterinary checks; they're in good health. It is up to the independent regulator, not me, to determine whether that boat may be able to go after the first of June.

I'm advised that there is parts of the legislation that allows for that to take place but that will be determined by the independent regulator. There is biosecurity risks that I would understand that they would have to take into account.

So if everything works through and were able to deep clean the boat and the crew's health is also the other important aspect of this is, is to a satisfactory level, I understand that there may be an exemption to be able to be granted by the independent regulator to allow that boat to sail. And I'm sure that they'll be working as quickly as they can with the exporter and those that are responsible for the welfare of the sheep at the moment.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: We'll leave it there. We do appreciate your time. That is the Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud.