Australia’s peak union body has urged the government to force airline staff to quarantine at home for 14 days after landing to protect employees and passengers from coronavirus.
Currently, a discrepancy in rules issued by authorities means passengers must isolate but airline crew don’t.
The intervention by the Australian Council of Trade Unions comes after it was revealed 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.
Qantas since updated its policy to insist all staff self-isolate for up to 24 hours in their hotel rooms during layovers.
A letter from the ACTU to Australia’s chief medical officer states, “As you are aware, cabin crew are expected to be in close contact for a sustained period, often in excess of 15 hours in flight, with people who are likely to be positive to COVID-19.
“We are of the view that in-flight infection has occurred, and remains a significant risk even with the additional controls that airlines have put in place in recent days.
“Cabin crew are willing to serve and take on significant personal risk of infection but we draw the line at exposing families and loved ones along with the travelling public.”
Qantas told The Sydney Morning Herald the union was raising a “moot point” by removing the exemption completely because crews could self-isolate in a hotel paid for by the airline if they did not want to return home.
“We’re not sure why the ACTU want to take this flexibility away from crew,” a Qantas spokesman said. “We have fully complied with the requirements of Australia’s chief medical officer in relation to the quarantine exemptions for air crew and will continue to do so.”
The news is the latest in a long line of stories over the airline’s handling of COVID-19, quarantine and staff safety.
On Tuesday, South Australia’s health department asked 750 Qantas staff to self-isolate after a coronavirus cluster among the airline’s Adelaide Airport employees grew to 34.
South Australia’s chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier said the new cases included workers outside the ground handling team, and that there were 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.”
Finally, 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.
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