Emergency response bureaucrats embody ‘real and profound public service’, health minister says

By Shannon Jenkins

November 9, 2020

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

Health minister Greg Hunt has acknowledged the “extraordinarily talented” public servants from across the Australian Public Service who have been working in the federal government’s health emergency response centre, one year after it was activated in response to a measles outbreak in Samoa.

The National Incident Centre (NIC), or National Incident Room, has been activated continuously for more than one year for the first time in its history, Hunt said in a statement on Sunday. Following the Samoan measles outbreak, the centre was also faced with the 2019–20 bushfires, the Whakaari Island volcano eruption, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Workers from a range of APS agencies have been seconded to help operate the NIC during COVID-19, with the centre engaging more than 200 staff at its peak. This included liaison officers from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Australian Border Force, and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Meanwhile, surge staff have included epidemiologists and analysts from the Department of Defence, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

The health minister has thanked all of those “extraordinarily talented, dedicated and hardworking staff” who have been working at the centre over the past year.

“Their work around the clock allowed Australia to maintain an air bridge for critical and scarce global supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) and test kits at a time of international shortage,” he said.

“The staff of the NIC have embodied the concept of real and profound public service. We are fortunate to have had such a well-prepared and well-drilled centre as the NIC in place before the pandemic. We are even more fortunate to have such an extraordinarily capable and dedicated team to help save lives and protect lives across Australia.”

Read more: Secondments to national incident room underway

Aside from coordinating Australia’s health emergency response to national and global incidents, the NIC is Australia’s primary means of communication with the World Health Organization for public health events.

It was first formally activated for the SARS outbreak of 2003, and has since been activated for emergencies such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Bali bombings, the H1N1 Pandemic in 2009, the 2009 Victorian bushfires, and the Christchurch earthquake of 2011.

Hunt said a major achievement of the NIC during the bushfires and pandemic was its distribution of millions of masks and other PPE to states and territories, aged care facilities, disability service providers, and Primary Health Networks.

The centre will remain activated for “as long as this national health emergency demands”, Hunt said.

On Monday Victoria recorded its tenth consecutive day of zero new COVID-19 cases and deaths. Sunday saw no cases of local transmission in any Australian state or territory, while the number of global COVID-19 infections exceeded 50 million.

Read more: COVID-19: Defence sends troops to state health authorities


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