The Australian airline Qantas has warned its cabin crew, that  they must not leave their hotel rooms during 24-hour layovers.

This cames after it was revealed that 11 Qantas crew members who worked on a flight from Chile to Sydney, but didn’t undertake two-week hotel quarantine after returning home, subsequently tested positive for coronavirus. Altogether, 50 Qantas Group staff have now been diagnosed with COVID-19, including 11 Adelaide Airport baggage handlers.

The discrepancy in rules, which means passengers must isolate after landing in Australia but airline crew don’t, emerged because the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, a major decision-making body during the pandemic, issued an exemption.

Responding to criticism in a statement to the media titled “Facts on coronavirus and crew”, Qantas argued, “There’s been no confirmed cases of transmission of the coronavirus to employees or customers on board our aircraft, or any aircraft globally”.

That statement is likely to prove controversial after the Australian government signalled a large proportion of cases originated from overseas, and the previously close proximity of passengers sitting together in aircraft.

On 23 March, Prime Minister Scott Morrison effectively banned anyone from leaving the country, except for a few specific exemptions, to stop the spread of the pandemic.

The statement also claims infections have predominately occurred in overseas cities not practicing social distancing; that all crew are now provided with masks, gloves and PPE; and that cases are almost all from community transmission overseas.

In a question titled “Can customers have confidence that they will not contact the virus when flying on Qantas?”, the airline responds, “The evidence from this outbreak and previous outbreaks of respiratory illnesses suggests that the risk of inflight transmission is low.”

It also added that “the configuration of the cabin seems to also help reduce the risk”.

Qantas medical director Dr Ian Hosegood said earlier this week, “Whilst our crew have followed all Australian and other government advice when they are overseas, in some destinations the local community spread had been underestimated by local health officials.

“For example, previously crew were allowed to interact within hotels, and we suspect that’s how a number of crew contracted the virus in Santiago.”

The Transport Workers Union national secretary Michael Kaine said, “Qantas has shown a frightening disregard for worker safety since the outbreak of this virus. It has operated a business-as-usual response, refusing to hear workers’ concerns about the lack of information, consultation, training and protective gear.

“The TWU has consistently raised concerns about cabin crew, aircraft cleaners, baggage handlers and other workers not being given protections they need. Now over 50 Qantas workers have been infected and we believe Qantas has serious questions to answer.”

The union said it has made a “legal request” to Qantas seeking copies of hazard management plans to minimise the risk of infection.

In early March, the NSW workplace safety authority said that Qantas’ cleaning standards are so poor they could put passengers and staff at risk of catching COVID-19.

An inspection note obtained by The Sydney Morning Herald noted how cleaners were wiping tray tables without disinfectant and performing tasks such as handling soiled nappies and dirty tissues without wearing “protective equipment” for “the majority of these tasks”.

SafeWork NSW issued Qantas with an “improvement notice” and ordered the airline to develop a new system specifically to deal with COVID-19.

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