Qantas ground staff at Brisbane Airport were reportedly blindsided by the news that a COVID-positive passenger from Papua New Guinea was about to land last week, according to reports.
The Courier Mail claimed employees involved felt that they were “put at risk”, particularly as aviation workers are yet to be prioritised in the current vaccine rollout in the same way as quarantine and border workers.
However, Qantas downplayed the story, saying that “there are a number of strict procedures in place for managing aircraft arriving from overseas” and adding that the ground staff in question “followed all procedures”.
Speaking with the Courier Mail, the staff involved called the incident “an absolute cock-up”, after they were informed 30 minutes prior to landing that an incoming flight, Air Niugini flight PX003, had a passenger onboard who tested positive for COVID-19 before boarding.
“No one could believe it,” the employee told the Newscorp publication. “We were put at risk, with no explanation of how an infected passenger flight could have been allowed to land.”
Despite his positive COVID test results, the man had an exemption letter allowing him to travel to Australia.
The source said that staff were already wearing gloves and masks at the arrivals gate, and were then told to “open the [aircraft’s] door and run” back to the terminal.
The Courier Mail confirmed that a Qantas supervisor did instruct staff to open the aircraft’s doors and return to the terminal to reduce any risk of transmission, as is standard procedure for international arrivals during the pandemic.
“The last we saw of the COVID passenger, he was sitting on the floor of the arrivals concourse looking very, very unwell, with officials from border force, quarantine and Queensland Health flapping about him,” the staffer said.
“We’ve been kept in the dark, and are extremely concerned because this thing spreads like wildfire.”
Later, Queensland’s chief health officer Jeannette Young confirmed that Australian authorities were aware that the man had tested positive for COVID-19, however were confident that he was not infectious and was instead shedding the virus.
“This gentleman was a fully recovered case, he was a historical case,” she said.
“And that was why he was given permission by Australian Border Force to travel to Australia.”
A spokesperson for Air Niugini confirmed the passenger was initially scheduled to fly from Port Moresby to Brisbane on 6 May, however was “denied uplift as his paperwork was not in order”, due to his positive test result.
He returned to the airport the following day, 7 May, with the appropriate paperwork that allowed him to fly despite the positive result.
“The passenger had previously been diagnosed with COVID-19 and had undergone 14 days’ quarantine as per normal procedures,” the spokesperson said.
“After that he kept getting positive results. He received a doctor’s certificate advising he was considered non-infectious, and that he had been symptom free in the previous 72 hours.
“Air Niugini had been in touch with the Australian high commission in Port Moresby in relation to this case and they in turn liaised with the Australian Border Force, which approved the uplift.
“There were questions upon the passenger’s arrival into Brisbane as to the correct processes to follow, but we understand they have now been identified and addressed.”
According to the Courier Mail, the passenger in question is an Australian passport holder.
A spokesman from the Australian Border Force said, “There are a number of categories in which the traveller is automatically exempt from the travel restrictions and can enter Australia (without obtaining an individual exemption), including if they are an Australian citizen.
“Quarantine arrangements are a matter for each state and territory.”
Peter Biagini, Queensland branch secretary for the Transport Workers Union (TWU), stated the incident highlights the high-risk environment that aviation frontline workers face each day.
“Aviation workers are on the frontline and are at a high risk of interacting with positive COVID cases,” he said.
“So far the federal government has refused to prioritise aviation workers in the vaccine rollout, leaving workers vulnerable when situations like this arise.
“While this passenger had an exemption, the fact remains that aviation workers were potentially in contact with a positive case, and despite PPE precautions we know that this is a very contagious virus that can spread very quickly.
“This virus is primarily appearing from flights coming to Australia, and we need to ensure that the workers who are interacting with international flights are protected.”