Health department secretary Martin Knowles has contradicted his chief medical officer by declaring Australia ready for a regional outbreak of Ebola.
The federal health department has declared Australia ready to respond to a regional Ebola outbreak.
The assurance comes after the government’s chief medical officer, Chris Baggoley, sparked concern about Australia’s preparedness, apparently contradicting prior government assurances a strategy is in place should the epidemic reach the Asia-Pacific.
The government has resisted calls to send health workers to West Africa to help fight the deadly disease, citing the lack of a proper evacuation plan and a need to be ready to provide assistance in the Asia-Pacific.
Professor Baggoley told a senate hearing on Wednesday health staff were yet to be given specialist training for treating Ebola, and it would take two weeks to get them “skilled up”.
Greens senator Richard Di Natale, a former public health professional with experience in infectious diseases, accused the government of sitting on its hands while the situation spiralled out of control.
“What have we been doing? This thing has been going on for months,” he told reporters.
“We don’t have anyone that we could send if there was an outbreak (in the region) tomorrow.”
But health department boss Martin Bowles stepped in to ease fears, saying Australia had 20 staff trained in how to treat an Ebola outbreak and was prepared for an immediate regional deployment.
“We would obviously use them in first instance for any immediate response,” he told the estimates hearing.
“To say that we are not ready … is not true.”
Defence does not yet have the capability to transport potential Ebola victims back to Australia from within the Asia-Pacific region.
“But by the end of November we are expecting to have an interim short haul capability for our C-130s and C-17s,” Defence Force Vice Chief Ray Griggs told the senate hearing.
The aircraft will be able to evacuate people within five hours of Australia’s north – the capacity of the isolation pods in which infected patients would travel.
Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie wanted to know if Defence had any information on whether Australia’s enemies could use Ebola-infected suicide bombers.
Vice Admiral Griggs said there was no evidence to suggest that was likely.
Experts at a health conference in Melbourne said Australia was prepared for any outbreak on its shores.
Nossal Institute Global Health director Barbara McPake said the likelihood of “the odd case” emerging in Australia was relatively high but the country had a strong health system.
“I think what Australians need to be worried about is if future outbreaks like this are being adequately prepared for and prevented by the strengthening of health systems in countries in the region,” she said.