Still call Australia home – the public servants helping stranded Aussies through the COVID-19 pandemic

By Melissa Coade

Thursday July 8, 2021

Frances Adamson describes DFAT's COVID work as ‘the largest consular operation’ in the department’s history.
Frances Adamson describes DFAT’s COVID work as ‘the largest consular operation’ in the department’s history. (Jordan/Adobe)

The federal government’s recent decision that caps on the number of returning Australians from overseas would be revised down by 50% of the current intake from July 14 was a departure from the noise it was making earlier this year in February that it wanted to facilitate the return of more stranded citizens.

That’s because circumstances change — and there are few things in recent memory more adept at upending the table than COVID-19.

It feels like an age (although it has only been a few short months) since the furore over Australia closing its borders to India for a few weeks as the coronavirus Delta variant claimed thousands of lives and brought that nation’s health system to its knees

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In April, Australia’s former (and longest serving) foreign minister Alexander Downer went on record to declare that the nation’s strict border policies, which prevented more than 34,000 of its own citizens from returning home, was a breach of human rights

Now Australia’s largest state has been committed to an extra week in lockdown – that will be three-weeks of restrictions for millions of everyday people in NSW. It’s a whole new world.

Someone to turn to

For those stranded Australians whose plans to return home have again been impacted by the federal government’s decision to reduce arrivals to about 3,085 people per week, more uncertainty awaits. They have no way of knowing when policy settings will change (the COVID-19 vaccination program in Australia does not inspire hope of an expeditious solution) in their favour or how to plan their lives while they wait.

Since countries around the world began implementing restrictions to deal with the virus early last year, bureaucrats at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) have been responsible for helping the thousands of Australian citizens who remain unable to return home. This assistance is ongoing and has also had to adapt to the government’s regularly changing position.

Speaking to The Mandarin during her final days as DFAT secretary, Frances Adamson described the work as ‘the largest consular operation’ in the department’s history. She says it is likely DFAT will be providing updates on its efforts to help bring Australians back home well into 2022. 

“It is certainly the largest logistical challenge for us,” Adamson says.

“Helping Australians overseas continues to be, because it needs to be, the top priority.”

From the time that the COVID outbreak was declared a pandemic, the department has assisted more than 49,300 Australians return home. This has included more than 21,300 people from 32 countries on 145 government facilitated flights (mostly with assistance from Qantas).

Government figures show that the top three countries by the number of returns on government facilitated flights to Australia have come from India, the UK and the Philippines.

“DFAT has a long, proud tradition of mobilising in major consular crises but this was orders of magnitude larger and more complex than anything we’d ever done before,” Adamson says.

Since the time that the federal government recommended people reconsider their need to travel abroad, more than 623,000 people have arrived back into Australia.

Mobilising consular services in a crisis

DFAT’s consular work during the pandemic has not simply focused on the logistical challenge of repatriating Australians. It has also occurred against the backdrop of other volatile events — natural and man-made — around the world. 

Adamson says the federal government has recognised the need to bolster the number of staff in overseas postings to help execute and deliver these ‘very significant’ consular services and provided the department with more funding to this end. 

“There was civil unrest in Hong Kong, there was a measles outbreak in Samoa, there was a tropical cyclone in the Pacific, and there was an explosion in Beirut.

“Because it’s a top priority that we’re able to [provide assistance] and to do that, in as joined-up and modern a way as possible, the government has actually given us through the budget some money to strengthen and modernise our consular capability,” she says.

Adamson admits to feeling anxiety during the early stages of the COVID-19 virus spreading, and before it was known that the thing causing the respiratory illness was even a virus. Decisions had to be made about the Australian staff working across DFAT’s network of 113 international postings, and their dependents, some of whom have been living in lockdown conditions now for up to 17 months. 

The situation was instructive, she adds, because there was a real sense of impending danger and responsibility for handling it. 

“There were times, I would say, when I felt a strong sense of anxiety about that, as we worked our way through the issues, including using a risk framework.

“Refocusing all of that risk matrix on COVID was what enabled us to work through those issues, to identify them, to rate them, to mitigate them, to look at the residual risk, and then to make good decisions about what we would do,” Adamson says.

The toll on DFAT bureaucrats

The challenges facing some of the DFAT consular staff who have either been in extended lockdown, performing home-schooling duties for their children, or separated from their families for months on end, is not lost on Adamson. It has been ‘tough’ for many employees, she says.

“If I look back now, as we learnt more about the virus, as we worked through all of our response plans, we were able to deal with it in a way that was pretty incredible for our staff and for their dependents.”

“We’ve had a number of instances of COVID across the network, but we’ve got a very strong medical unit that has been managing their cases and caring for them. 

“And of course, as soon as vaccines became available, that became the highest priority — ensuring that we have a vaccine rollout.”  

All of Australia’s consular posts now have access to COVID-19 vaccines and Adamson says that in 70% of countries where Australia is represented, DFAT staff have received their first dose.

Reflecting on the efforts of the department and the broader public service during the last year, Adamson is of the view that ‘enormous strides’ have been made to deliver good public outcomes with rigour and discipline.

According to Adamson, DFAT personnel are constantly asking ‘What are the drivers of change? What’s happening? How do we assess all of that? What is the policy response and implementation plan? How do we measure that? How do we hold ourselves to account? How do we report it? How do we refine the policy?’.

“All of those things go to good public service performance, which if done in a rigorous, disciplined kind of way, genuinely do produce better results,” she says.

DFAT has redeployed 320 staff across the Australian Public Service since the beginning of the pandemic.


READ MORE:

Australia announces support for Indonesia as COVID-19 cases surge

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