Cathie Schnitzerling interview with Minister Murray Watt

7 July 2022

Radio Transcript
Prepared: Thursday 7 July 2022
Title: Cathie Schnitzerling interview with Minister Murray Watt.
Description: Cathie Schnitzerling interview with Minister Murray Watt discussing foot and mouth disease and increased biosecurity restrictions.
Channel: ABC Brisbane
Program: Mornings with Rebecca Levingston
Date Broadcast: 7 July 2022
Time Broadcast:  8:47AM - 8:54AM

CATHIE SCHNITZERLING, HOST: Aussie holidaymakers in Bali are being urged to stay away from cattle for fears they may carry the highly contagious foot and mouth disease back into Australia without even knowing, because it can be carried on shoes and it can be carried on clothes.
An outbreak of the disease here would devastate the livestock industry and cost the economy up to $80 billion. It would shut down the export beef industry, farmers could be forced to slaughter their herds, and undoubtedly there would be a flow-on effect to customers in supermarkets.
Senator Murray Watt is the federal Minister for Agriculture. Thank you for joining us here on ABC Mornings.


SCHNITZERLING: When were you first notified about foot and mouth disease in Bali? It has been – it’s been in Indonesia for a little while now, but now Bali is one of our very close neighbours. When did you know?

WATT: Yeah, we were officially notified by the Indonesian authorities on Tuesday morning, Cathie. There had been rumours circulating for a few days before that that we were investigating. But official notification arrived Tuesday morning, and that’s why we’ve acted quickly to make sure – bring in these new measures. We have known for some time that there was every possibility that the disease could get to Bali, given it has crossed over from province to province in Indonesia. So some good work had been done by my department in the last few weeks and months to prepare for this situation, and that’s why we were able to act really quickly in getting these new measures in place.

SCHNITZERLING: Can you just outline what those new measures are? For example, what biosecurity restrictions or scrutiny is in place at the Brisbane International Airport at the moment?

WATT: Yeah, well, what I’ve been advised, Cathie, is that even before the outbreak got to Bali there were increased efforts being taken in relation to travellers returning from Indonesia. So, for instance, anyone who disclosed on their forms when they came back in the country that they had been in a rural environment or a farm location or in contact with livestock was basically being talked to and in some cases then referred off for more intensive screening.

But what we’ve done in response to Bali - it reaching Bali, is upgrade that. Now what we’re doing is pretty much through profiling using the passport system, going that one step further to identify people who may have been in contact with the virus and then having those discussions and potential screening with them.

But what we are also going to do among other measures is launch targeted operations where not for every single plane but for certain numbers of planes in the major airports coming back from Indonesia every single passenger will be taken away or asked questions and then potentially referred off for screening. So it’s a step-up in the number of people who will be screened and it’s going to be making it much more comprehensive than what we have been doing up until now.

CATHIE SCHNITZERLING: That sounds very intensive. What about foot baths? I remember coming back into the country some time ago now, some years ago, where you had walk through a foot bath with your shoes on to clean any infectious matter off your shoes if you had been to a farm.

WATT: I have asked about this, Cathie, because I know there’s a lot of people suggesting that we do this. The advice to me is that foot baths aren’t a particularly effective biosecurity tool partly because people are likely to have multiple pairs of shoes they’ve had with them while they’ve been away and just because you’re wearing one pair of shoes back into the country and through the airport doesn’t pick up everything.

But also the reality is that with a place like Indonesia there’s a lot of people who come back in wearing thongs or open footwear and the chemicals that are in foot baths are actually pretty damaging to people if they come into contact with their skin.

Having said that, I am asking the question and other solutions are being suggested to me around disinfectant mats or other things like that. But we think at this stage the measures that we’re bringing in, like the one I talked to you about but also extra detector dogs, extra information being provided to travellers, will be enough. And starting today every single plane that returns to Australia we will have biosecurity officers board – the planes returning from Indonesia – biosecurity officers will board and read out a special message focused on foot and mouth disease.

You might remember from, you know, years ago when we were able to travel internationally, when you come back into the country there’s a video message often or an audio message about biosecurity issues. What we’re going to do with Indonesia flights is actually have a specific message that will address foot and mouth disease. So that will be starting from today, and it’s another example of what we’re doing to step up our patrols.

SCHNITZERLING: How many dogs have you got in place?

WATT: Look, I don’t have the overall number around the country that’s currently in place. But what we’re going to do as a result of this, from next week we’re relocating one dog - one additional dog, to Darwin airport and one additional dog to Cairns airport. The advice to me is that they’re the two airports which probably need the boost at this stage. But, of course, there are a range of dogs in place at every major airport in Australia as well.

What I’ve been told is that the dogs aren’t so much about sniffing soil or sniffing footwear but particularly picking up animal products. We’ve had some really tight controls on the importation of animal products from Indonesia for some time because, you know, whether it be beef or – meat or some sort of dairy product or something like that, there’s the possibility of transmission through that as well. So dogs are very useful in picking up those kinds of scents.

But I think, frankly, it's also just a good visual warning sign to people as well. If you can those dogs wandering around the airport it makes people just that much more alert about what they might need to declare themselves.

SCHNITZERLING: Minister, how long with these measures, these screening measures, which sound very time-consuming to me – so I imagine that travellers are going to be facing even longer queues and delays at airports than what they currently are – that aside, it’s probably for a good cause, but how long are the measures going to stay in place?

WATT: Look, we haven’t set a time frame for that at the moment, Cathie. You know, and it is realistic to think that they might be in place for some time because, as you said in your introduction, if this disease gets into the country, it will just wipe out our livestock industry. So, you know, it’s in our national interests to try to keep it out, even if that does mean a bit more inconvenience for people at airports.
We are obviously increasing the resourcing to the airports to conduct some of these exercises. So we don’t want to unnecessarily delay people. But, yeah, it’s a really important thing that we do.
I mean, the other thing worth mentioning is that biosecurity is a shared responsibility. So the more that we can do to encourage travellers to do the right thing the less people will be inconvenienced and the more chance that we have of keeping this out.

SCHNITZERLING: Thank you very much, Minister, for your time this morning.

WATT: No worries, thank you.