South Australia’s health department has asked 750 Qantas staff to self-isolate after a coronavirus cluster among the airline’s Adelaide Airport employees grew to 34.
The Transport Workers Union responded by claiming Qantas “knowingly exposed” staff to the disease by asking those who had been in contact with confirmed cases to continue working. The airline has insisted it complied with the authority’s guidance.
Two weeks ago, Australian Aviation reported that 11 baggage handlers tested positive for COVID-19, as part of 50 from the flag carrier around the country.
South Australia’s chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier said the new cases include workers outside the ground handling team, and said there are now concerns for duty managers, pilots and cabin crew.
“For this reason, we’ll be requesting approximately 750 Qantas staff who have worked in those three areas since the 18th of March to self-isolate and be in quarantine immediately,” Professor Spurrier said on Sunday.
TWU SA Branch secretary Ian Smith slammed Qantas’ handling of the situation, saying, “Instead of directing workers who had been in contact with that worker to self-isolate, Qantas directed staff to continue coming to work. Others went on to contract the virus and no doubt spread it to even more staff and their families.
“We want a full investigation into how Qantas mismanaged the situation in Adelaide and will be turning over evidence to both SA Health and SafeWork SA.”
The airline responded by arguing that all staff were reminded not to come into work if they were feeling ill, and some staff were already self-isolating as a result of the state’s contact tracing plans.
The news is the latest in a long line of stories over the airline’s handling of COVID-19 and staff safety.
Separately, it was revealed that 11 Qantas crew members who worked on a flight from Chile to Sydney, but didn’t undertake two-week hotel quarantine after returning home, subsequently tested positive for coronavirus.
The discrepancy in rules, which means passengers must isolate after landing in Australia but airline crew don’t, emerged because authorities issued an exemption.
Qantas since updated its policy to insist all staff self-isolate for up to 24 hours in their hotel rooms during layovers.
On 5 March, the NSW safety watchdog said that Qantas’ cleaning standards were so poor they could put passengers and staff at risk of catching COVID-19.
An inspection note obtained by The Sydney Morning Herald noted how cleaners were wiping tray tables without disinfectant and performing tasks such as handling soiled nappies and dirty tissues without wearing “protective equipment” for “the majority of these tasks”.
SafeWork NSW issued Qantas with an “improvement notice” and ordered the airline to develop a new system specifically to deal with COVID-19.
Finally, on 2 April, the same watchdog wrote to Qantas to confirm it’s investigating the suspension of a worker who raised concerns about staff being exposed to coronavirus.
SafeWork NSW has the power to fine the carrier up to $500,000 if it’s found guilty.
Qantas has previously strongly rebutted the claims, insisting that the worker actually told colleagues it was not safe to work on aircraft arriving from China, spreading unnecessary alarm.
However, the Transport Workers Union, which is representing the staff member, insists the person was a health and safety representative who raised legitimate concerns.