Secondments to national incident room underway

By Chris Johnson

Saturday March 21, 2020

Scott Morrison in the National Incident Room of the Department of Health in Canberra. AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Key staff are being seconded to the federal health department from across the public service to help operate the National Incident Room dedicated to the COVID-19 response.

The incident room, housed inside the Department of Health’s Canberra building, is already staffed to 150 people and growing, to ensure a thorough approach to the handling of the government’s coronavirus initiatives.

Efforts have been underway to secure top talent from other departments via urgent secondments. Some of these senior staff are already in place, having left their positions elsewhere to join the concentrated approach to the crisis.

Others are still being negotiated. But departments are acting quickly. Once a secondment is agreed to, relocation takes place within a day or two in most instances.

Tenures remain open-ended for most, due to the uncertainty of the continuing spread of the virus and the workload that addressing it will require.

In response to questions from The Mandarin, the health department stated that officers in the incident room are operating on extended shifts with a full 24/7 capability.

There are currently 17 staff from other departments and agencies seconded to the incident room.

“The capacity of the National Incident Room also leverages the existing resources of the Office of Health Protection,” the department stated.

“It is important to note the significant amount of staff from outside the NIR dedicated to the COVID-19 response, including in our aged care, primary care, Indigenous health, mental health and population health and sport divisions.

“The NIR is formally activated as the Australian Government’s Health Emergency Operations Centre in response to health emergencies of national significance. It has been activated since November 2019 in response to COVID-19, the national bushfires, the White Island volcano and Australia’s response to the Samoan measles outbreak.

“It will remain activated for as long at this national health emergency demands.”

Much of the team is dedicated to communications. Public information and community awareness are high priorities for the unit. Internal communications and interdepartmental communications are also being ramped up.

“While a percentage is not possible as it changes daily, the department has committed a significant amount of resources to informing the community of the latest health advice and what they should do. This includes the national campaign, website, fact sheets, media and social media,” the Health Department stated.

No staff from other jurisdictions have been seconded, but the states and territories are in constant communication, including through daily meetings of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee and the Communicable Disease Network Australia.

The health department is, however, looking beyond the APS to fill the incident room ranks as well as coronavirus taskforces in various locations. The department is advertising externally for “highly motivated, experienced professionals to join the team to work on a variety of projects relating to COVID-19”.

In its call for applicants, the department states:

“Roles are continuously evolving to meet the demands of the outbreak response. Successful candidates will be approached based on suitability for available roles based on their skills and experience.”

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and Prime Minister Scott Morrison are updated by Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy (centre) in the National Incident Room of the Department of Health in Canberra (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

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