Bligh says govt acted before Hendra report

Anna Bligh.
Anna Bligh.

The Queensland Government had made significant changes to the way it handled Hendra virus outbreaks well before the ombudsman released a critical report, Premier Anna Bligh said.

Ombudsman Phil Clarke’s report highlighted inadequate communication between veterinarians and horse owners.

Clarke said systemic failures had hampered the Labor government’s response to six Hendra outbreaks between June 2006 and October 2009.

The report, released early this month, identified outdated policies and procedures, and overlapping legislation that led to inconsistent quarantine practices.

Training and resources for government agency staff, contractors and property owners were lacking.

Records of decisions made were also inadequate and there was a poor framework for compensation payments

Bligh said the report analysed how historic cases were handled, and ignored how government agencies had responded to the most recent incidents.

“They date back several years and there’s been a very significant shift in the way the matter’s being dealt with now,” she said.

“Nevertheless, when things like this happen you learn from it.”

Clarke found some Queensland Primary Industries and Fisheries staff had imposed quarantines contrary to law, and were uncertain about what personal protective equipment to use and how to employ it.

The report dealt with 18 horses which died or were euthanased, two vets who died from Hendra, and a third vet who contracted the virus but recovered.

It found many recommendations made in previous internal and external reviews had not been implemented.

Queensland Horse Council president Debbie Dekker said it was unfortunate the report did not examine the 11 Hendra incidents which occurred in Queensland in 2010 and 2011.

The ombudsman acknowledged the significant progress made in recent years but said more work needed to be done.

He made 74 recommendations to improve the way the public sector managed Hendra incidents and other bio-security threats.

Liberal National Party leader Campbell Newman said it was clear the government had learned nothing and had not communicated with the community properly about the threats of the disease.

He said the state government had neglected its bio-security functions and didn’t have correct staffing levels and the right experts.

Agriculture Minister Tim Mulherin said the government would use the report as part of its continuous improvement program.

“Biosecurity Queensland has … already made significant changes that would address many of the issues raised in this report,” he said in a statement.

“Until this year there had been only 14 primary cases of Hendra virus over a 17-year period.

“Since June 2011, there have been 10 incidents in Queensland including the first infection of a dog outside of a laboratory.

“Biosecurity Queensland has successfully managed all of these cases without any spread of infection from the primary location.”

Mulherin said the recommendations would be carefully considered, and he would respond to the report in parliament in the next couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, the bureaucrat charged with tackling Hendra virus complained the ombudsman botched a report into the Government’s response to a series of outbreaks.

Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation boss Ian Fletcher said the Clarke’s report had inaccuracies and outdated information, quoted officers out of context and misconstrued evidence.

Fletcher admitted there were lessons to be learnt but said his department could not be too rigid because it had to adapt to fast-moving and highly variable outbreaks.

Clarke found outdated and overlapping legislation led to inconsistent quarantine orders and some officers imposed quarantines contrary to law, while others did not know which protective equipment to wear and how.

Staff, contractors and property owners were not properly trained and recommendations from previous internal and external reports were not implemented.

There was evidence government officers had challenged some veterinarians’ diagnoses or discouraged them from conducting tests, while poor record-keeping caused difficulty identifying blood samples.

Clarke found Primary Industries and Fisheries might need to pay compensation for a Rockhampton horse destroyed in 2009 because it had Hendra antibodies, and recommended the owners be asked to submit a claim form.

But others might not be able to seek compensation because of a legal error in which PIF gave “wrong” advice to the minister on the meaning of the word “outbreak”.

Clarke was also critical of three ex-gratia payments totalling $220,000, awarded with poor reasoning and records.

Meanwhile, DERM has approved four applications to move on flying fox populations, made by the North Burnett, Barcaldine, Lockyer Valley and Gold Coast councils.

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