Officials have revealed a former minister did not act to prevent the potential spread of a deadly disease into Australia after being informed in early May.
Australia’s response to the foot and mouth disease (FMD) outbreak in Indonesia has been put under the microscope, with officials from the Department of Agriculture grilled on Wednesday.
The parliamentary inquiry was told department officials were first made aware of FMD entering Indonesia through “informal sources” on May 6.
Deputy chief veterinary officer Beth Cookson confirmed that then minister David Littleproud was briefed that day and almost daily afterwards.
“Daily updates to the minister’s office commenced on the ninth of May and continued on a frequent basis after that point,” she said.
But following advice, Mr Littleproud did not ask the department to order vaccines or foot mats for airports to prevent the disease in Australia.
Speaking to Sky News as the inquiry was taking place, Mr Littleproud said the current minister was “rife with indecision”.
“The big moment was when it spread to Bali. That changed the risk profile overnight,” he said.
The advice was received during the caretaker period, meaning then opposition spokesperson Julie Collins was also briefed about the outbreak.
Officials were unclear on Wednesday what action the former minister could have taken during the caretaker period.
The department estimates the risk of the disease entering Australia in the next five years increased to 11.6 per cent after it spread to Bali on July 5.
Foot mats with citric acid to get rid of fragments on footwear were rolled out to airports by July 27. Detector dogs are in every airport but Adelaide, which will have them by the end of the month.
However, at no point since the outbreak hit Indonesia or tourist hot spot Bali has the department discussed closing the border.
One million doses of vaccines for foot and mouth disease, supplied by Australia, are set to touch down in Indonesia at the end of the month.
But the department confirmed no vaccines were held on Australian shores nor were there plans to proactively vaccinate cattle, citing trade concerns.
“In its broadest sense, the world is divided into sort of three groups; those who have FMD who have quite restricted trade access, those who don’t have FMD but are classified as free of FMD with vaccination, they have a little more access,” national animal disease preparedness co-ordinator Chris Parker said.
“Then … there are countries like Australia which are free of FMD completely without vaccination and they have almost unfettered access to markets on that basis.
“So if we were to use the FMD vaccine in Australia, we would change our trading status.”
A review into a total food ban on products from Indonesia is under way.
“There have been significant actions taken in relation to food being imported from Indonesia since the outbreak occurred and many more categories of food unable to be imported,” Department of Agriculture secretary Andrew Metcalfe said.
“We are constantly reviewing the risk factors associated with any food imports and making changes accordingly.”
It comes after the government outlined its biosecurity strategy on top of its $14m biosecurity package to bolster frontline measures.
The department confirmed the new officers would not be in place until September but current employees and contractors were filling the gaps.