A recent spate of highly infectious COVID cases has seen some cities (including Sydney) locked down and further exposed the failings of Australia’s shambolic vaccination rollout. An infected flight crew member working five domestic flights has resulted in calls to fully vaccinate frontline domestic flight crews as a matter of priority.

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Unions are calling for domestic flight crew vaccinations as a priority. Photo: Getty Images

COVID cases on the rebound in Australia

After a relatively trouble-free few months, locally acquired COVID cases are cropping up around Australia again. The raw numbers are relatively slight. Perth is enduring a four-day lockdown based on three Delta strain infections. A two-week stay-at-home order is underway in Sydney, with 18 new locally acquired COVID cases reported there on Monday. They are numbers that would have most countries whooping for joy. However, it was enough for New Zealand to pop the quarantine-free travel bubble and multiple Australian states to close borders, causing chaos for airlines and travelers.

In the background, a poorly managed vaccination program has seen just 7% of Australians fully vaccinated. Critical frontline workers (including airline employees) are not yet fully or partly. vaccinated. Further, there are no specific programs or requirements for them to be vaccinated to work.

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An infected Virgin Australia flight attendant worked on five flights late last week. Photo: Getty Images

Governments begin to move after infected flight attendant works on five flights

A serious incident last week highlighted the recklessness of this stance. An infected Virgin Australia flight attendant worked on five flights over June 25 and 26. The flight attendant was unaware of their infectious status at the time. However, every person that flight attendant had close contact with, including the passengers on those five flights and people in airport terminals when the flight attendant passed through, are now isolating for 14 days.

There is no legal requirement for flight crews to be fully or even partly vaccinated. While airlines like Virgin Australia encourage vaccinations, mandating it for employees is legally troublesome.

But there are signs Governments are moving to get their act together. The NSW Government issued a public health order on Monday targeting customer-facing workers, quarantine staff, and transportation workers ferrying people from Sydney Airport’s international terminal to quarantine. This follows an unmasked driver transporting a FedEx flight crew to their quarantine hotel catching COVID and sparking the latest Sydney outbreak.

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Australia’s vaccination rules currently capture international flight crews but does not cover domestic flight crews and other airport workers. Photo: Getty Images

Union hits out at current vaccination regime and calls for flight crew prioritization

The public health order requires these workers to get the COVID vaccination. But Unions representing airport workers have flayed the order, saying it fails to capture domestic flight crews.

“This is an absolute shemozzle, it’s a fiasco what’s happening,” the Transport Workers’ Union Michael Kaine told Australia Today on Tuesday morning. “We had a situation here where aviation workers have not been on the priority list for vaccinations. We know part of the reason we’ve got the spread of this virus now across nearly all states is because the virus has got liftoff on the aeroplanes.”

Following a National Cabinet meeting on Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison (isolating at his official residence in Canberra following an overseas trip) said new vaccination and testing regimes for quarantine workers, including those involved in transportation, would come into force. National Cabinet also agreed to seek advice regarding COVID vaccinations for all aviation workers.

“We need a national system that mandates pre-flight testing for the flight crew,” says Mr Kaine. “It’s the weakest link syndrome here. This is just common sense but what we’ve got is political football.”

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The TWU National Secretary Michael Kaine. Photo: TWU

Michael Kaine’s call to prioritize vaccinations for domestic flight crews and airport workers has support from one airline executive. Speaking on the ABC’s Radio National Breakfast on Tuesday, Regional Express Deputy Chairman John Sharp said;

“It does make sense that aviation staff get vaccinated because aviation staff are dealing at the frontline with thousands of people every day.”

Saying his airline encouraged vaccination, John Sharp suggested mandating vaccinations was easier said than done. But the airline executive thinks there may be a shift in policy following the latest COVID outbreak.

“We could be looking at Australia doing what the United States is doing, where you have frontline staff dealing with people on a daily basis who have the potential to spread COVID vaccinated. I think it makes sense for those staff to be vaccinated and for the Government to provide a legal basis for airlines to see that happen.”

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