Transcript: 6PR Interview with ABF Commissioner Michael Outram APM

GARETH PARKER: On the line, a guest who I want to thank for being flexible. He is himself extremely busy and so I thank him for being flexible, the Australian Border Force Commissioner Mike Outram. Good morning.

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Good morning, Gareth.

GARETH PARKER: The cruise ships issue is clearly a national one, but we’ve got a particular situation here in Western Australia. Can you explain how difficult it is to sort of balance the obligations that we have as to be humanitarian, but also to try and prevent our health systems from being overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases on cruise ships?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Yeah it is difficult, but not insurmountable. It’s an international problem, in fact we have a lot of Australians caught up in a similar situation in other countries around the world. And they – you pointed exactly right to the balance here. So the first part of our mission is to protect the Australian community, and obviously people on these cruise ships can present a risk, if not handled well. The second part is in turn in terms of the case the Artania is that there are obviously reasons why that vessel can’t yet put to sea. Everyone including the men and women on the Artania, the people of Perth, and myself, and the owners of the ship want to get it under way safely home. There’s no doubt about that. But as you’ll be aware, we’ve got 29 people in hospital. We’ve managed to get about 850 passengers off the ship and they’ve got home and that was a remarkably successful operation over the weekend. That ourselves and Western Australian Police worked together on, but we were left with about 464 crew on the Artania and we have to work through that carefully. Now, they’ve asked us for help, that’s the ship’s owners. They’ve asked us for help and for permission to stay whilst we work through with the people on board some processes to make sure that they’re well and if we get the ship on the way.

GARETH PARKER: Can you tell us right now if there are sick crew on board that ship?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Today there are 12 crew who are being tested for COVID-19 because they’ve reported to be feeling you know sort of flu-like symptoms, and they, as well as any crew being in contact with them, have been isolated. And so once those results, those 12 crew are known we will manage that accordingly. But what I would say is this, that last night, an expert – Dr Armstrong from WA Health – or yesterday went on board the vessel and he’s provided a report to me and others about what can happen here. And the doctor on the vessel, the ship’s master and Dr Armstrong all agreed that the crew can be appropriately quarantined on the vessel. We don’t need to bring them all off. There’s a lot of room on that vessel. There are about 12 to 15 of the crew who are critical to the safe operation of the vessel – and you’d imagine there’d be sort of engineers and navigators and those sorts of people – those 12 or 15 people are being kept separate from the rest of the crew. And we’re going to make sure now that we keep it that way, and we work through the hygiene, sterilisation or the disinfecting the ship. We’re bringing in a whole lot of help and contractors to help us do that.

So the best case scenario here is that we manage over the next few days with the crew on board, the situation, contain it and get the vessel safely under way. We are also, of course, there’s a lot of crew here that aren’t mission critical. We’ve got obviously people playing in bands, and people who entertain, and men and women who do those sorts of jobs. A lot of them are from the Philippines and there’s quite a few from Indonesia. So we are working through with the ship’s owners and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to see if we, can we get any of those people off the ship and home on charters like we did with the passengers, over the next few days. I don’t know the answer to that yet, but obviously that’s a preferable outcome if we can achieve it.

GARETH PARKER: So there are plans underway to see if you can mount a similar operation as happened to the passengers, albeit that they basically all went to Germany and onward from there, whereas the crew hail from all over.

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Yeah that’s true, they hail from all over, but 294 crew of them are from the Philippines and 63 from Indonesia. So there’s a lot of- to get 300 people or 350 people out of the 460 off the ship would be would be pretty good, in my opinion, if we could achieve that. We’re working towards that, but also at the same time of course, working towards getting the ship under way with the crew that are left on board back to Germany. And that’s what everybody wants here, and I appreciate fully the pressure that’s on to achieve that outcome. But also, I would say, this ship and the owners and the people on board – the men and women on board the ship – have asked us for help. And I think I’d be really reluctant to force the issue and push it out to sea where I thought there’s a risk to life at sea in those circumstances.

GARETH PARKER: Okay. The 12 to 15 crew on board who are critical. Is there any reason to believe – that’s critical to the ship’s operations – is there any reason to believe that they have been exposed to COVID-19?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: No. At this point, no, there isn’t. And the medical advice I got yesterday was they’re in good health. And so we’re just belt and braces here. We want to keep those people separate from the rest of the crew just to make sure they stay that way.

GARETH PARKER: Okay. And the 12 crew who have been tested for COVID-19, I presume we get test results later today or tomorrow about them. What happens to them?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Indeed, that’s my expectation. Well, if they’re ill, then of course like the other 29 being brought off the ship and put into hospital, that’s what would have to happen to them, I expect. But I’d be guided by the medical advice in relation to that, Gareth.

GARETH PARKER: Okay. Now the question that’s been asked by the Premier is the longer that this ship remains at port, the more chance there is of COVID-19 spreading through the vessel and infecting more people who would need medical treatment here in Western Australian hospitals.

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Yes, that’s true. So, this is the choice that I face, is to, in this situation, demand that the ship puts to sea, in a situation where I’m receiving medical advice that that could risk the lives of the men and women on board that ship. So, I’m not prepared to do that, of course. And does that present problems. So, the medical advice I’m getting, and all my decisions will be based on expert medical advice on this, Gareth, it’s important to make that point, is that we can probably contain this on the ship, we don’t have to bring everybody off the ship. It’s containable, provided we get certain practices in place around accommodation, isolation and all those movement of crew and all of those things on the ship, and we’re now working with the ship’s doctor and the master to bring that about. We have view to getting it on the water as soon as possible. So, certainly everybody wants to get the ship on the way as soon as possible, but safely.

GARETH PARKER: Do you know when that date might be?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Well, the ship’s asked us for permission to stay for 14 days, but look, if it takes that long or less, my intention would be to get it underway as soon as possible when it’s safe. And again, I’ll be guided by medical advice in relation to that decision point.

GARETH PARKER: We’ve reported on this program previously that there was a direction from Border Force for the ship to leave on 29 March. Why didn’t that happen?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Well,{inaudible} that’s correct. So, in fact, all the cruise ships in Australian waters, I issued a notice for them to leave Australian waters if they weren’t Australian flagged. But as part of that process, they’re also entitled to seek permission to stay. And a lot of the ships around our waters have sought permission to stay, and then we have to work through case by case why that might be. My general position is that they need to go back to their home ports or the flag states, that’s my general position. In this case – the Artania, of course – there is a unique circumstance in that we’ve got to make sure that it’s safe to do that.

GARETH PARKER: Okay. There was a report yesterday, or I was told yesterday, that one of the options being considered was to use those 14 days to effectively disinfect and clean the ship. Is that something that’s being contemplated?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Yeah, absolutely. But my advice is from the experts, that can be achieved with the crew on board. You can imagine, we’ve got a very big ship here with no passengers. So, there’s plenty of room, you know, for the men and women who are left on there. And so, we can basically zone off the ship, clean parts of it, and move people around in that way. So, I’m advised that that can be, both outcomes can be achieved without having to get everyone off the ship.

GARETH PARKER: Okay. So, in terms of getting it moving as soon as possible, is that tomorrow, by the weekend, by Monday?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Unlikely. It’s unlikely it’ll be tomorrow. Again, I’ll be going on medical advice. I think we’re talking a few days here, Gareth, if I’m being perfectly honest. Because we have to be assured that the, anybody who’s ill on board is able to be medically treated. Of course, if it puts under sail in the middle of the Indian Ocean, of course, there is an outbreak of COVID-19 on board, particularly in relation to the people who are critical to the safe operation of the ship, then that would be problematic. So, that’s probably why these ships are asking for two weeks, so that they can quarantine those 12 people for two weeks, make sure that they’re match fit and that the ship can get under sail safely. So, I don’t think we’re talking about this weekend or tomorrow, no.

GARETH PARKER: What if it refuses to go?


GARETH PARKER: What if it refuses to go?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: I don’t think it’s a question of refusing to go. Look, at the end of the day, we’ve got the legislative power to demand that the ship leaves the Australian waters. And we’ve also, we’ve already asked them to do that. They’ve asked for permission to stay. My permission will be based on medical advice. If I get to a position where I’m satisfied that the ship can get under sail, then we will demand that it does so. There are powers available to us, I mean, it’d be pretty rare and exceptional that we use them, but we can board a vessel and see it out to the edge of our territorial seas. We have powers under the Maritime Powers Act.

There’s also powers with the port’s operators, by the way, by WA Ports to demand that ships leave the port areas. We have legislative powers to get it out of our seas. But I, look, the body language I’m reading from the operators of the ship and the people on board isn’t one of resistance, we’re not, we’re refusing to go. They’re actually asking us for our help. They’re asking us to help them with the issues on board in order that they can get under way. They’re not saying that they’re refusing, there’s no sort of digging their heels in or being recalcitrant, there’s nothing like that.

GARETH PARKER: Last question before I let you go. Yesterday, the Premier said he was worried that, effectively, Fremantle might become a magnet for other ships. What do you say about that?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: I understand his concern, but I want to reassure the Premier and the people in Western Australia that we’re doing everything to make sure that doesn’t happen. So, for example, there is a ban in place that’s been communicated globally, and no cruise ship is allowed to enter Australian waters without permission. That’s the first point I would make. We are in the Australian Border Force Maritime Border Command, and so we are monitoring constantly all of the seas around Australia right out through the continuous zone. And if any ship enters our waters, not just a big ship, but a small ship included, then we’re alerted straight away. So we’re on the lookout, and I’m pretty well assured that that’s not going to happen.

GARETH PARKER: Mike Outram, I know you’re busy. I very much appreciate your time. Thanks for talking to our listeners.

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Thank you Gareth, and thanks for your listeners for listening to me. Thank you.

GARETH PARKER: The Australian Border Force Commissioner, Mike Outram.

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