Press conference in Brisbane, Queensland

21 July 2022

Prepared: Wednesday 20 July 2022
Title: Press conference with Minister Murray Watt.
Description: Press conference with Minister Murray Watt discussing foot-and-mouth disease, foot mats at airports and viral fragment detections
Date Broadcast: 20 July 2022

MURRAY WATT: Well, thanks for coming along today. I wanted to give Australians an update on the foot and mouth disease outbreaks that we are seeing in a number of countries around the world at the moment and what the Albanese government is continuing to do to take action to protect Australia’s livestock industry and Australia in general from this potentially devastating disease.

As I think people well understand, the foot and mouth disease outbreak that we’ve seen in a number of countries around the world first reached Indonesia a few months ago. And, of course, it reached Bali about two weeks ago, which understandably has heightened concern, particularly in our farming communities but I think for all Australians. And that’s because if foot and mouth disease does get into our country it would be devastating for our livestock industry. You’ve probably seen the estimates – in the order of $80 billion that it would wipe off the national economy. So, it is in all of our interests to take this disease seriously and do everything that all of us can do to keep it out.

I’ve said consistently since this Bali reached – since this outbreak reached Bali that biosecurity is a shared responsibility. The federal government absolutely have a role, particularly when it comes to taking measures at our borders. And we’ve stepped up and done that. We’ve taken our share of the responsibility. But it’s also important that other players in this space take their share of responsibility as well, and I’ll be meeting with state and territory agriculture ministers this afternoon in the first agriculture ministers meeting that has been held for eight months to talk about these and a number of other key agriculture matters.

And, of course, we also need the travelling public and our farming communities to do what they can to keep the disease out of Australia in the first place and also to take strong measures at the farm gate.

So, as I say, in response to the Bali outbreak the Albanese government has taken strong and immediate action both at home and abroad. I’ve been saying that our approach is a two-pronged one – it’s about taking action at home and abroad, because we need to do both of those things if we’re going to keep the outbreak out.

Some of the measures that we have already introduced now moving to 100 per cent risk profiling of passengers entering Australia by air from Indonesia. So every single passenger that comes in on a plane from Indonesia is now risk profiled looking at their past travel, the sort of destinations they’ve been to and other risk factors to determine whether they should be subjected to more detailed screening. And we are widening in a large way the number of passengers who are fully screened along with widening the luggage that is screened and also parcels, because as I’ll come to shortly, one of our major concerns is that it’s actually more likely that this disease would come into Australia through an animal product being imported rather than via a traveller coming in from Bali or anywhere else.

We’ve also, as I said on Friday, funded 18 new biosecurity officers who will be put in place at our airports and our mail centres to ramp up that screening. We’re redeploying detector dogs to some of the airports that see large numbers of travellers coming in from Bali. And as probably you are aware, I travelled to Indonesia last week and was able to announce that we are delivering – the Australian Government is delivering 1 million vaccines to the Indonesian government to assist them bring their foot and mouth disease outbreak under control along with providing a range of other assistance as well.

Now, I’ve always said that we would continue to ramp up our measures based on expert biosecurity advice. I’ve had a lot of full and frank feedback from people over the last couple of weeks about what should be done, and I appreciate the feedback that people have provided with – provided to me, but I think it is vital that the Australian government acts on the basis of expert biosecurity advice when we’re dealing with something that is such a big risk as FMD. And the advice that I’ve consistently received from our biosecurity experts is that the actions that we have now taken are the major things that need to be done to keep our country safe.

So, I was advised to ramp up measures at the airports, particularly in terms of screening and extra biosecurity officers and extra detector dogs, and we’ve done those things. I was advised that we should be making a big priority to help Indonesia with its outbreak, and we’ve started doing that as well. And now that we’ve done those things, we are in a position to announce additional layers of action that will complement those major measures that we know will make a difference.

And, in particular, I'm pleased to announce today that we will be deploying sanitised foot mats to every international airport in Australia to service all inbound flights from Indonesia. Now, I didn’t make a big deal about this, but when the outbreak reached Bali, soon after that I directed my department to begin work urgently on working out what the best footwear solution would be when it comes to travellers coming back in from the airport.

We’ve obviously already said to people – and we continue to say to people – that it’s vital when they come back in from Indonesia, particularly Bali, that they need to clean their shoes thoroughly before they get on the plane, after they get on the plane, and to think really seriously about whether they even need to bring their footwear back. But we recognised that there probably was room for additional measures that could be taken in relation to footwear, and that’s why we’re now proceeding with sanitised foot mats in every international airport in Australia.

Now, I’m not just getting up here and saying this is something that’s going to happen at some point in the future; again, quietly behind the scenes we’ve been working on this day and night over the last couple of weeks. And that’s why we have now made real progress. We’ve ordered the foot mats. We are currently shipping them to airports as we speak. And people can expect to start seeing them installed in international airports in coming days, beginning with Darwin Airport and Cairns Airport.

Those two have been selected for the beginning of this because they do service a lot of inbound travel from Indonesia, but also because those two airports in particular were very keen to partner with us in putting foot mats in place. And I thank the operators of those airports for their initiative. But I know that there are a number of other airports that have now come on board as well and, frankly, these foot mats will be going in regardless of what people think about them because, again, this is too important to not make mistakes and to leave gaps in our system.

The foot mats contain basically rubbery – it’s hard to describe what they are – they’re foot mats that people will walk over and that they are sprayed with citric acid which will dislodge dirt from the sole of people’s shoes and cover it in acid. Travellers will still, of course, need to declare contact with livestock and those with visibly contaminated shoes will continue to have them cleaned at the airport by biosecurity officers.

So really the idea is that when people get off the plane they’ll walk over these mats that are covered in citric acid to provide that extra little bit of protection when they come back into the country. But I cannot emphasise enough how important it is for people to take responsibility themselves, clean their shoes and, as I say, if they really don’t need them to come back, then leave them behind.

Now, I know that the whole issue about footwear has been a real concern of people. It’s been pointed out to me a lot. And the advice that I’ve received from my department and the biosecurity experts in that department are that this will add another layer of protection. It’s not the major thing we need to do. The major thing we need to do is the things that we’ve already done – supply support to Indonesia and ramp up our biosecurity officers and other measures at the border. But this will add another layer of protection. And, what’s more, this is a practical solution when it comes to footwear in an airport environment.

Again, there’s no silver bullet when it comes to biosecurity. None of these measures will work on their own. It is a shared responsibility and, again, we do need people to take their share of responsibility.

So, I want to thank the departmental officers who have been working really hard on this behind the scenes for the last couple of weeks. And I also want to thank the airports and airlines for their cooperation in getting this done. And, as I say, I’ve always said that we will continue to take more measures as required and based on advice. And I look forward to talking about with some of them with my – at the ministerial meeting later today.

The other thing I wanted to update people on in terms of foot and mouth disease is that as I’ve said earlier in this press conference, we have always said that animal product imports are actually the biggest risk of foot and mouth disease entering our country. There is a risk that it can be brought back a traveller on their shoes, but the advice I’ve received is that the biggest risk is actually the importation of animal products.

And that’s why I want to let people know that during routine retail surveillance exercises we have detected foot and mouth disease and African swine fever viral fragments in a small number of pork products for sale in the Melbourne CBD that were imported from China. And, in addition, several other pork products for retail sale have tested positive for African swine fever viral fragments.

Now, I want to emphasise this does not pose a threat to human health and, importantly, despite this, Australia does remain foot and mouth disease free and African swine fever free as well. And that’s because we seized these products, tested them and it turned out that they did have those viral fragments in them. Now, I’m advised that all products now of this kind have been seized from all linked supermarkets and a warehouse in Melbourne.

In addition to this, a passenger travelling from Indonesia has in recent days been intercepted with a beef product that they didn’t declare, which tested positive for foot and mouth disease viral fragments. Now, at one level these detections are very disturbing, that we see these viral fragments – not live virus, viral fragments – coming into the country via these animal products. But at another level these detections show that our borders are strong and that our biosecurity systems are working.

This is exactly why last week we announced that we would be employing more biosecurity officers both at our airports and our mail centres so that we can properly search luggage, parcels, screen them and pick up these kind of things. Now, again, I’m advised that this is not the first time in Australian history that we have picked up foot and mouth disease viral fragments in meat products. It’s happened a number of other times in an airport setting. This is the first time that I’m aware of that they have been discovered in a retail setting.

But, again, I want to assure people that our systems have worked. We have monitored this. We have undertaken surveillance operations and these products have been found, tested and now seized. And we’re taking further action to investigate how these products came into the country in the first place. And it’s quite likely that prosecutions will occur, certainly if any offences have been committed.

And what that shows, of course, is that if you do the wrong thing, you will be caught. If you try to bring products into the country without declaring them, you will be caught. If you try to bring or post products into the country, you will be caught and we will take action, because what we want to do is make sure that we are at all times putting the safety of the Australian community and the livestock industry first.

So, I’ll leave it at that. But in summary, what this shows, this announcement today around foot mats, offering an additional layer of protection, having done the major things that need to be done, shows that we take this seriously. We will continue taking strong action. Australians can have confidence that we have one of the best and strictest biosecurity systems in the world. But we will continue taking whatever action is required based on biosecurity advice to keep Australians safe, to keep our farms safe and to keep our national economy safe.

I'll leave it at that, and happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: What’s the difference between a foot bath and a foot mat?

MURRAY WATT: So, a foot bath – which I know many people have called for – that means what it says. It’s basically a basin of some kind that contains liquid solution. We did consider whether we should bring in foot baths but, again, the consistent advice to me from biosecurity experts is that they are no more effective than foot mats when it comes to decontamination, and they’re a lot less practical in an airport environment. Having people slosh around in an airport environment isn’t the most practical of measures and doesn’t offer any more assistance or prevention against contamination than the foot mats that we’re putting in place.

JOURNALIST: Will you ask agricultural ministers to mandate an electronic ID for sheep across the states?

MURRAY WATT: I notice that the New South Wales Agriculture Minister has made an announced in the last 24 hours that he’s going to be calling for sheep traceability, electronic tagging of sheep, and that's something that I really welcome. The advice that I’ve received is that New South Wales was the main state who had resisted this happening up until now. So I welcome the fact that there’s been a change of heart from the New South Wales minister.

Certainly, I intend to raise the matter of bringing in livestock tagging for sheep at this afternoon’s meeting. We do have tagging of cattle and certain other industries in place at the moment, but sheep is a gap in the system. And, again, the threat of foot and mouth disease shows that we need to be taking all steps we possibly can, and that includes tagging of livestock, particularly when it comes to sheep.

JOURNALIST: So, in those foot mats, let’s say, like, I come in from Bali and I’m wearing thongs. What happens then? Like, it’s citric acid. Does it – will people still be all right?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, no, the advice I’ve received this this is safe to human contact. And, again, I suppose that’s one of the differences from foot baths. The advice that I received was that to be effective the chemicals that need to be used in foot baths are not the kind of things that you want coming into contact with human skin. And depending on which chemical you use, the footwear needs to be dipped in the solution for up to half an hour. So, again, not a very practical move at an airport.

Citric acid, what I’ve been advised is that it is a safe and effective way of dislodging that dirt from people’s shoes, treating their shoes. But I don’t want to pretend that this is a silver bullet – it’s not. And that’s why we need all the other things that the government is doing and it’s why we also need people taking responsibility themselves for giving their shoes a good scrub if they’ve been in contact with livestock or farms in any of the countries that have foot and mouth disease but, in particular, if they’re in Bali or Indonesia.

JOURNALIST: Just staying in the airport, we’ve noticed how long it takes for people to clear security and all of those kind of stuff with staffage shortages happening in the airports. You mentioned 18 extra biosecurity officers. But is the worker shortage a problem in our international airport arrival centres? And do we have enough people to make sure that it’s not a staffing gap that allows FMD to come in?

MURRAY WATT: The advice that I’ve received is that with the additional 18 biosecurity officers that we’ll be employing that that provides us with an adequate level of safety. I experienced myself when I came in from Indonesia last week the quite rigorous testing and questioning. I wasn’t a risk, I’m pleased to say, but I was treated as a passenger who was a risk, and I underwent thorough questioning. My shoes were cleaned, and that was able to be done in a way without inconveniencing other passengers.

Not every single passenger requires the full treatment of cleaning of shoes and the other measures. What we want to do is target our resources on the passengers or the parcels that are at the highest risk. We want to target those at highest risk. So, the advice I’ve received is that the biosecurity officers that we will now have in place are enough. But, of course, if it transpires that they’re not enough, then we’ll consider resourcing more.

JOURNALIST: And FMD is a virus, right?

MURRAY WATT: Yes.

JOURNALIST: How – when you talk about parcels, is that virus that is carried in those parcels live virus? How long does it survive?

MURRAY WATT: It depends on the parcel. It depends on the product. In some cases, it is possible for products to be imported that do contain live virus. The advice I’ve received is that the parcels that I was talking about today – the pork products and the beef product – did not contain live virus. But they do contain viral fragments.

The way it’s been explained to me is that the risk of this being transmitted within Australia is, let’s say for argument’s sake it’s in a piece of salami, or a salami roll. It gets imported to Australia. You know, people have most of the salami. They might throw the scraps in the pig scraps that they might have, if they have pigs, chucked out with other vegetables and other things in those scraps. If pigs in Australia were to eat that, that would be a risk of the virus then being transmitted to Australian pigs and potentially then to other animals as well. So that’s the nature of the risk. But so, it is possible in some circumstances to have live virus, but the advice I’ve received is that’s not what we’re dealing with here.

JOURNALIST: Since there’s a higher risk from animal products, as you say, than from actual passengers, are you satisfied with the department’s response so far given some of these measures are explicitly targeting passengers and not necessarily animal products?

MURRAY WATT: Well, the – what we’re trying to do is both. We’re trying to target both passengers and also animal products as well. The announcement that I made last week about 18 new biosecurity officers will see some of them deployed to airports and some of them deployed to mail centres. And obviously the ones deployed to mail centres are mainly looking at parcels and things like that. But even at the airport, as I was able to say, there’s been an example lately where someone’s done the wrong thing. They were picked up in an airport setting. So those biosecurity officers at airports are also vital for picking up issues around parcels and animal products.

We’ve relocated two detector dogs to airports as well that are on the frontline. And those detector dogs play an important role in sniffing out animal products, too. So, we are continuing to do things when it comes to animal products. But, as you can see, we’ve already had routine operations underway as well.

JOURNALIST: How long do you expect these measures to be in place?

MURRAY WATT: Look, it really depends how long the Indonesian outbreak goes for. And, you know, the fact that the pork products we’re talking about came from China rather than Indonesia show that this is not only an issue about what’s going on in Indonesia. We need to remain vigilant when it comes to foot and mouth disease outbreaks wherever they’re occurring. Obviously, there’s a heightened risk in Indonesia and Bali at the moment. And we’ll keep this under review, but it could well be many months that these measures stay in place.

JOURNALIST: Is there – what is your update, I guess, in terms of the severity of the outbreak right now?

MURRAY WATT: In Indonesia?

JOURNALIST: Yes.

MURRAY WATT: Look, it’s quite severe. I mean, the reports that I had from Indonesian ministers when I was there last week reassured me that they are taking it serious From memory, the numbers of infected cattle were in the order of 200 to 250,000. But that’s in a population where there are 65 million cattle, are the figures that I was given. They’ve vaccinated more cattle than there are infected, so that’s a promising sign. But it’s a serious outbreak and the Indonesian government is treating it seriously. Okay, thanks, everyone.