Sydney airport chaos after NSW brings in coronavirus temperature checks for all arrivals

Paul Karp
Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

The New South Wales health department has ordered nurses and biosecurity staff at Sydney international airport to temperature check all incoming passengers, escalating that state’s response to combat the spread of Covid-19 above and beyond commonwealth rules.

The directive, approved by health minister Brad Hazzard, was sent on Thursday, causing delays at Sydney airport and prompting concern from the Community and Public Sector Union and others that social distancing is not being observed in the arrival hall.

The shadow home affairs minister, Kristina Keneally, posted video footage of lines developing at Sydney airport from one passenger who reported that Australian Border Force staff had blamed biosecurity for failing to ensure passengers left 1.5m between themselves and others.

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“These are concerning reports and images,” she said.

“The government – specifically [home affairs minister] Peter Dutton needs to explain what is going on here, what protocols are in place at airports and what directions are being given to Australian Border Force.”

In a statement the CPSU said that Australians returning home on Thursday “were met with mass confusion at Sydney airport, due to unplanned and badly communicated changes”.

Biosecurity staff and NSW health department nurses had previously been directed to test passengers who have been in Covid-19 high-risk countries in the past two weeks and randomly test all others for temperatures.

“Today all passengers are undergoing increased health screening,” the union said. “The testing space is too small for all passengers, and disembarking is not being staggered to allow for social distancing.”

Guardian Australia has confirmed the directive came from Hazzard and NSW Health, and the union reports similar delays are not being experienced at other airports.

At Sydney airport, biosecurity staff are conducting temperature checks in a staff-only corridor that runs adjacent to the public corridor between arrival gates and immigration.

The CPSU deputy national president, Brooke Muscat-Bentley, said: “What we have seen at Sydney airport is a direct failure of government.”

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Muscat-Bentley blamed the federal agriculture department for failing to listen to CPSU member concerns about the lack of space for screening, suggesting if they had done so “[Thursday’s] scenes would have been avoided”.

“It is astonishing that the government is telling the nation to social distance and take up most precautions but cannot take steps to assure us at our border.

“The government has known what was coming, but have just been unable or unwilling to prepare for it.”

Asked about apparent crowding and failure to observe social distancing, a federal agriculture department spokeswoman told Guardian Australia: “The responsibility for managing airport terminal infrastructure including arrival halls, luggage pick-up and customs processing sits with the airport corporations … not [the department] and not Border Force.”

A Sydney airport spokeswoman said: “Our priority in any crisis is the health and safety of our people and that of everyone who comes to the airport, and our ongoing response has been guided by the most up-to-date advice from health authorities.

“We are supporting federal and state government agencies as they conduct health assessments and roll out passenger information campaigns regarding self-isolation and social distancing.”

Sydney airport displays prominent signs asking passengers to leave a space of 1.5m between themselves and others.

“We have deployed security personnel in the terminals reminding people of their obligations,” she said.

On 13 March the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade recommended Australians reconsider non-essential travel overseas, advice which was upgraded on 17 March to return home as borders close around the world.

On Wednesday the Australian government introduced a ban on overseas travel except in limited circumstances.

The NSW and federal governments have been publicly bickering about responsibility for the decision to allow 2,700 passengers to disembark the Ruby Princess cruise ship without temperature checks, which Hazzard has conceded was a mistake. The cruise has so far been responsible for 133 confirmed cases of Covid-19.

On Wednesday the Australian Border Force commissioner, Michael Outram, said its responsibilities for border control did not extend to health checks, blaming NSW Health for the decision.

The NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has publicly argued that both federal and state agencies must take responsibility for arrivals by ship and plane, and privately pointed to ABF advice that the ship was low risk.