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Quarantine for Darwin port workers a ‘bureaucratic overreaction’, maritime union says

The maritime union is demanding the release of 13 port workers from mandatory quarantine in Darwin, disputing the claim by health authorities that the workers breached COVID safety rules.

Key points:

  • Thirteen port workers remain in quarantine at Darwin’s Howard Springs facility
  • The union said workers were told the ship incorrectly declared the number of days spent at sea
  • But health authorities said the quarantine order was necessary after PPE breaches by the workers

The workers were ordered into quarantine on Friday after what health authorities said were breaches in personal protective equipment (PPE) protocol by staff working the Tacoma Trader container ship after its arrival from Singapore.

But the assistant national secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, Adrian Evans, said the workers were initially told by police the problem was an error by the ship’s agent in declaring the number of days the vessel had been at sea.

Mr Evans said the union had asked authorities for clarification on how PPE protocols had been breached but had not received an answer.

The union said the forced quarantine was a “bureaucratic overreaction” and the workers should be immediately released.

“Our guys have worked that vessel like they’ve worked every other vessel since the onset of COVID,” he said.

“This is no different and we don’t know why they’ve been locked up.”

He said the 14-day quarantine order had caused extreme hardship for the port workers, especially those with the care of children.

The union said authorities had cleared the ship for unloading through the usual temperature checks of the crew and a declaration by the master there were no COVID cases on board.

NT Health maintains PPE breaches occurred

In a statement issued on Sunday afternoon, NT Health said the PPE breaches had been observed and reported by Australian Border Force officials.

The department did not respond to questions about the type of protective equipment that was not properly used or to the union’s claim of administrative error by the ship’s agent.

The spokesperson said while no COVID symptoms were reported among the ship’s crew, there remained a risk of asymptomatic transmission from objects and surfaces.

“Although workers did not come into direct contact with any crew members, they did come into contact with surfaces that may be contaminated,” the spokesperson said.

“Failure to wear full PPE puts port workers at risk as well as that of their families and the broader Northern Territory community.”

NT Health said it was working with the union to provide a briefing on the “hierarchy of infection control strategies and risk management”.

The maritime union has been lobbying national Cabinet to mandate rapid COVID tests for international arrivals at all Australian ports and said the situation highlighted the “precariousness” of current arrangements.

Mr Evans said the NT, in particular, needed a better system because its proximity to Asia meant most ships arrived before spending 14 days at sea.

“What we need is the rapid testing of all seafarers arriving in Australian ports, ensuring COVID outbreaks onboard are immediately identified, appropriate health support is provided, and Australian workers are protected from the risk of infection,” the union said.

The NT Health spokesperson said compliance with safety measures including full PPE was the most reliable method for protecting the community.

“Negative tests for COVID-19 prior to the arrival of international maritime crew, which are not conducted under the auspices of NT public health authorities, cannot be relied upon to provide assurance that there is no COVID-19 present on board.”

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