The government has been caught out by the threat posed from an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Indonesia, the federal opposition says, less than 24 hours after biosecurity officers were given more powers.
Agriculture Minister Murray Watt on Friday authorised the establishment of biosecurity response zones in the nation’s international airports, allowing travellers into Australia to be screened more thoroughly.
Arriving passengers would be directed to comply with biosecurity measures, including removing their shoes for inspection or walking over sanitation mats, and be questioned by officers.
It is the first time the Biosecurity Act powers have been used in Australia.
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“I had been concerned about some rare reports that some return travellers were not doing the right thing when returning from Indonesia,” Senator Watt said.
“These zones strengthen and widen the powers of biosecurity officers to direct passengers to use foot mats and other biosecurity control measures such as the cleaning of shoes.”
The outbreak in Indonesia spread to Bali, a popular destination for holidaying Australians, about two weeks ago.
Senator Watt has already announced a $14 million package to help reduce the risk of the livestock disease spreading to Australia.
The package will provide a million vaccines for the Indonesian cattle industry and boost measures in Australia to increase detection and protect local herds.
On Saturday, the minister said many travellers were following advice and throwing away or thoroughly cleaning their shoes before returning to Australia.
Sanitised foot mats have arrived at airports and are being installed as quickly as possible, he said.
“We’ve got some of the strictest biosecurity measures in the world at the border, but it has been ramped up even more, both in airports and mail centres, in response to the outbreak,” Senator Watt told AAP in a statement.
“This includes 100 per cent risk assessment of passengers returning from Indonesia, more biosecurity officers, more questioning, detection dogs and awareness campaigns.”
But Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie, who is the coalition spokeswoman for infrastructure, transport and regional development, said Labor was not doing enough.
“The government now has been flat-footed on this,” she told the Nine Network on Saturday.
“We have known that this outbreak occurred just across the waters in Indonesia from May.
“We are only just now seeing measures where they’re starting to take it seriously with mandating shoe cleaning and the like.”
Viral fragments of foot and mouth disease were detected in pork products at a Melbourne retailer this week.
But Australia remains free of the disease, with no cases of the live virus yet detected.
Senator Watt has rejected opposition calls to ban flights from Indonesia and has dismissed criticism the government has not acted quickly enough.
Senator McKenzie, though, wants border closure to remain as an option.
“We can’t emphasise enough that the kitchen sink needs to be thrown at this,” she said, adding the threat will dominate question time when federal parliament returns next week.
The Department of Agriculture has estimated the direct economic impact of a large multi-state foot and mouth outbreak over 10 years at around $80 billion.
The disease is highly contagious and affects cattle, sheep, goats, camelids, deer and pigs.
The virus is carried by live animals and can present in meat and dairy products, soil, bones, untreated hides, vehicles and equipment used with farm animals.
It can also be carried on clothing and footwear and survive in frozen, chilled and freeze-dried foods, according to the department.