The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade brought home almost 300 of its overseas staff and 800 of their family members amid the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
In a submission to a parliamentary inquiry into the implications of COVID-19 for Australia’s foreign affairs, defence and trade, DFAT revealed that more than 80% of its staff took part in the COVID-19 response effort.
More than 300 employees were also redeployed externally.
“The pandemic required a pivot of our activities across the foreign affairs and trade portfolio to support Australia’s response,” the submission stated.
“Staff were redeployed to areas of critical operational need, both in DFAT and to other APS agencies.”
The department argued it has been supporting staff since the beginning of COVID-19, and has worked closely with 25 global partner agencies “to ensure our approaches align in protecting their staff and families posted overseas”.
“Extensive use of remote work arrangements and virtual communication channels have supported continuity of operations and the intensified diplomatic engagement required as a result of the pandemic,” it noted.
“Because of COVID-19, DFAT temporarily returned almost 300 DFAT staff and 800 dependants from 73 posts overseas to manage medical, welfare and safety risks, while over 70% of DFAT’s overseas staff footprint continued to deliver essential services … Over 230 partner agency staff and 480 dependants also departed posts.”
DFAT and partner agencies plan to return staff and their families to overseas posts on a case-by-case basis as COVID-19 conditions ease, depending on safety of travel and individual circumstances.
Earlier this year DFAT secretary Frances Adamson noted that the department’s approach to COVID-19 had to go “well beyond what’s written in our consular charter”, such as using social media to communicate with stranded Australians.
The new DFAT figures state that during the height of the pandemic, employees answered more than 250,000 calls and produced 917 Heads of Mission videos, which were viewed 3.52 million times.
Roughly 70% of Australian officials remained in 84 countries during that time.
More than 345,000 Australians returned home with the assistance of the department, including more than 6500 from 51 cruise ships.
DFAT’s consular response has also helped facilitate more than 290 flights from more than 90 countries, including through the direct facilitation of 58 non-scheduled commercial flights.
The department operates in 111 locations overseas, with an additional nine posts managed by Austrade.
Its current priorities include continuing to deliver services for Australians; contributing to regional health security and supporting regional partners’ pandemic preparedness and response; building a pathway to sustainable and resilient economic recovery for the region; mitigating threats to regional stability as required; and shaping outcomes in global and regional institutions to strengthen health security and facilitate global economic recovery.
DFAT recently launched a new aid policy outlining its plans to strengthen partnerships in the region to overcome the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.