There was a “breakdown” in the airport screening process on a Melbourne to Sydney flight where almost 50 passengers left the airport without being checked, Jetstar’s chief executive has said.
Speaking on Thursday morning, Gareth Evans said the changing rules that affected travel between different states could “cause confusion”.
Jetstar flight JQ520 landed at Sydney airport just before 7pm on Tuesday night, five hours before the border between Victoria and New South Wales was due to close and 19 hours after restrictions were placed on anyone from the Melbourne area travelling into NSW.
About 137 passengers were able to disembark without NSW Health staff in attendance, in breach of airport screening protocols.
Evans said the flight had not met been by NSW Health officers, as was the accepted procedure. He would not apologise for the misstep when interviewed by reporters in Sydney on Thursday.
“There was not a NSW Health official in the aerobridge,” he said. “They should have been. People should have held the aircraft. They didn’t. The passengers got off. We followed them up as quickly as possible.”
He said the passengers on the flight had been subject to the same screening in Melbourne before they boarded the plane, so “from a risk perspective, it was a double-check”.
“As rules change and develop, sometimes these things break down,” he said. “Unfortunately that happened and we followed up as quickly as we possibly could.”
Evans said he would welcome a federal review of airport screening processes, “because they are different across various health authorities and different states and that has the potential to cause confusion”.
Under the protocols, airlines are supposed to keep disembarked passengers in the gate lounge until they have been screened.
This involves temperature and symptom checks, and interviewing passengers about whether they have been in a hotspot suburb in the past 14 days. Anyone who displays cold and flu symptoms receives a Covid-19 test.
The passengers were also screened before boarding the flight in Victoria
Health staff and police managed to speak to 89 of the passengers on Tuesday night but 48 had left the airport.
As of Wednesday night, 45 of those passengers had been found but three were yet to be contacted. One person had refused to be screened and had been referred to NSW police, NSW Health said.
The NSW chief health officer, Kerry Chant, said on Thursday there were still five people who needed to be “tested”.
“All of the follow-up action has occurred, and I’m pleased to say that five, the final five, are being tested today,” she said.
Dr Teresa Anderson, the chief executive of the Sydney local health district, said the airport had agreed to a new protocol to ensure the mistake was not repeated.
“No flights from Melbourne will be permitted to arrive at the gate until NSW Health have confirmed that we’re in position and ready,” she told the ABC.
Evans said plane doors would not be opened until that was confirmed.
The federal health minister, Greg Hunt, told reporters he had directed his department to talk to state health departments about their airline procedures.
Hunt said he had been reassured that NSW had now changed its procedures.
The national cabinet is due to review the number of international flights permitted to arrive in Australia after breaches in infection protocol by private contractors employed by the Victorian government to manage mandatory hotel quarantine in Melbourne.
The NSW chief public health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, said on Wednesday that passengers from the Jetstar flight had disembarked while the health team was screening another set of arrivals.
“The airport has now put in protocols to ensure the health teams are there and able to do the screening and no one’s allowed to disembark when that happens,” she said.
The NSW Greens MP Cate Faehrmann said the bungle invoked the screening failures surrounding the Ruby Princess cruise ship, the source of the biggest cluster of coronavirus cases recorded in Australia to date.
“The government has shouted from the rooftop in recent days about its efforts in ensuring people don’t cross the NSW-Victorian border without a permit, including by patrolling the smallest border crossings in remote NSW, yet a plane full of passengers can touch down at Sydney airport and sail through security – unbelievable,” Faehrmann said.