The Northern Territory state government has proposed a plan to see overseas repatriation arrivals processed at Darwin Airport, as opposed to RAAF Base Darwin, following advice from Australia’s chief nurse.
As the Darwin International Airport and RAAF Base Darwin share use of the same runway, at present, passengers arriving on international flights are moved to the RAAF Base for processing.
However, NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner stated that the state is currently awaiting a “firm agreement” to be struck between Darwin Airport and the federal government to see repatriated citizens processed within the airport terminal, before they are moved to quarantine.
The state hopes to see the processing of international arrivals safely moved to within the airport terminal by the beginning of the NT’s wet season, which usually begins around November, following the advice of Australia’s Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer Alison McMillan.
The country’s chief nurse reportedly made the recommendation to relocate the processing of overseas arrivals in February, after conducting a review of the NT’s infectious disease control processes.
Expanding on her recommendation, NT Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker elaborated that processing arrivals at the RAAF base in the wet season presented challenges “not only for the comfort of those who have been repatriated, but also the staff”, and made some note of “safety” concerns.
Chief Minister Gunner noted that while the proposal has been made to the Commonwealth, the NT government was “not in a rush” to see processing moved, in light of the success of such procedures at RAAF Base Darwin so far.
Darwin International Airport owner Airport Development Group (ADG) said it was currently in negotiations with both the state and the federal government over the proposal, however the move could pose some logistical problems.
Notably, as the airport terminal sees passenger thoroughfare from both international and domestic arrivals, the terminal would need drastic work completed to make it COVID-safe for domestic travellers, particularly in light of more contagious variants of the disease that are spreading globally.
ADG said this could include additional walls to keep parts of the terminal separate, and independent air conditioning systems.
Commissioner Chalker said that the airport’s renovations would likely include a “complete sterile corridor” that would separate the domestic and international sides of the airport.
However, NT Opposition Leader Lia Finocchiaro has criticised the proposed plan, arguing that now is not the time to “tinker” with a system that has effectively kept the Territory free of community transmission for over a year.
“The Chief Minister and Health Minister are changing a simple, well-established process that has worked without incident for well over 12 months,” she said.
“The last thing the Gunner government should be doing is experimenting and altering processes in the middle of this health emergency.”
The comments come following similar criticisms made after the NT government officially took control of the management of the international quarantine facility based at Howard Springs, and made various policy changes that sparked concern among health professionals.