Travelers returning from overseas trips could soon face the ‘strongest biosecurity response’ Australia has ever seen as the government steps up efforts to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease.
Agriculture Minister Murray Watt announced on Friday that Biosecurity Director Dr Chris Locke was carrying out a risk assessment to introduce new measures that have never before been used by a government under the article 365 of the law on biosafety.
“These powers have been available to the Australian government for seven years and they have never been used once,” he said.
“If we were brought in, we would be the first government to use these powers to order all passengers to comply with biosecurity requirements and that shows you how seriously we take this risk.”
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Australia’s $80 billion livestock industry is under threat from the detection of highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease in Indonesia and fears that unsuspecting returning travelers could be carrying the disease on their shoes.
Mr Watt has already asked the biosecurity department to immediately increase its visibility and the number of international arrival inquiries and has asked the director of biosecurity to consider whether additional measures are necessary.
Under current powers, biosecurity officers can ask arrivals – who are considered a risk – to walk on mats and put their shoes back on.
However, if Dr Locke implemented the unprecedented powers, airport officials could direct groups of passengers – when circumstances permit – rather than asking individuals and having to rely on their agreement.
“The kinds of things they allow that are currently not allowed by law are that biosecurity officers could order all passengers to, for example, walk on these sanitary mats, put their shoes back on, comply to other requirements, it would also give us the power to install infrastructure at airports if we deem it necessary,” Mr Watt said.
“At this stage, the intention (is that these powers apply) for airports receiving flights from Indonesia and most likely to assess for a trial period to assess their proper functioning.
Mr Watt said a decision on the additional powers was expected on Friday, with the rules expected to last at least three months.
Australia remains free of foot-and-mouth disease despite the discovery of non-communicable fragments of the disease in food products at Adelaide airport and a supermarket in Melbourne.
Mr. Watt and the government introduced sanitary floor mats as a measure to prevent the spread of the disease and a $14 million biosecurity program to provide defenses at airports and mail centers, as well as support to Indonesia and neighboring countries.
Australia is also working with Indonesia to vaccinate herds of cattle in affected areas and limit the spread, but Mr Watt has so far resisted closing the border.
National Farmers Federation president Fiona Simson said an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease would have a ‘catastrophic’ effect on the livestock industry, but insisted NFF members were not supporting no border closures.