Qantas flight crew have raised concerns that the 14-member cabin crew responsible for bringing evacuated Australians out of China’s Wuhan province will return to work staffing commercial flights around the country without a period of quarantine.
A crew member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they and their colleagues were concerned about the health protocols surrounding the cabin crew, who will board domestic flights to return to their home cities and return to working on flights around the country and the world without being placed in quarantine.
“The breaking straw really for me is their response that the jumbo crew returning from Wuhan with the potentially infected passengers will not themselves be subject to any kind of quarantine, and will be back online flying with the rest of us as per usual as soon as possible, as Qantas do not deem them to be of any risk to the rest of us,” the staff member said.
Those passengers being evacuated from Wuhan will be required to spend 14 days in quarantine on Christmas Island, before being allowed to return home.
Qantas has said it would never have launched the evacuation operation if it was not safe for all involved and the broader public.
It said a number of additional health precautions had been put in place to manage the risk of transmission of coronavirus among passengers and crew on the flight, including health checks for passengers before boarding, masks for all onboard to be changed hourly, limited interaction between passengers and crew, and medical-grade air filters on board.
The airline said it was acting on the advice of the commonwealth chief medical officer, Dr Brendan Murphy, that a quarantine period for flight crew was unnecessary.
Murphy said Sunday: “We think that if air crew are wearing personal protective equipment, which is probably just a mask and gloves when they’re in close contact, that that would prevent them from any material exposure, and we wouldn’t want them to be quarantined. But we would want them to be wearing personal protective equipment when they’re in contact with passengers.”
Qantas conducted two webinars where cabin crew were able to dial in to ask questions of senior management and medical officers. But several staff have reportedly said their concerns were minimised or dismissed.
“The company, in my opinion and also the opinion of most of my cabin crew colleagues, are taking an extremely negligent approach to dealing with the WHO-declared emergency, to the detriment of all of us who fly, as well as to the general public,” the cabin crew member said.
The crew member said they were not seeking to act “like some kind of scare-monger … but I am deeply concerned not only for my own health and safety and that of my loved ones but also for the greater impact this can have on the Australian public, and for that matter, the global impact of this virus”.
The 14-person cabin crew and four pilots left Sydney on a Boeing 747 on Sunday afternoon. The flight travelled to Hong Kong before landing in Wuhan overnight on Sunday.
The plane left Wuhan airport at 8.03am local time. It landed at RAAF base Learmonth in Exmouth, Western Australia, about 4pm WA time. About 270 passengers and crew were on board, including significant numbers of children and the elderly, who were prioritised for the evacuation mission.
The Qantas chief executive, Alan Joyce, said the airline had worked closely with the Australian government, including the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, on the “complicated logistics” and health protocols for the flight.
Joyce told ABC radio that the additional precautions put in place to manage the coronavirus transmission risk on the flight including the crew remaining on the aircraft’s upper deck. “They are there for safety requirements, manning doors on departure and arrival. All the passengers and the crew have been given masks and hand sanitisers, and the crew have gloves.”
Food and drinks would be laid out on seats for passengers before boarding to minimise crew interaction with passengers, he said. Officials from the Department of Health would also be on board the flight.
Joyce said medical-grade air filters put new air into the cabin every five minutes, making it cleaner than a restaurant or public transport. “There is a lot of medical assistance on board, passengers are checked before they get on board, we’ve put in the maximum amount of protection that we can.”
Joyce said the crew had volunteered to get Australians out of Wuhan. “There are a lot of children, a lot of elderly passengers, we need to get them home and out of Wuhan. I’m so proud of our crew that they volunteered to do this. They know there’s a slight risk but the captain told me this is so rewarding that they are helping Australians in need.”
After flying to Exmouth, the 747 is set to fly empty to Sydney, where it would undergo “two to three days of deep cleaning” before returning to service, Joyce said. “There is a specialist team that gets on the aircraft, even the cushions in every seat are taken off and cleaned. It’s quite extensive and we believe more than meets the needs to make sure that the aircraft is safe.”
After initially saying Australian citizens and permanent residents would be charged $1,000 each by the government for transport and accommodation, those evacuated from Wuhan will not be charged at all. The Australian government is covering the majority of the cost of the charter, which will be operated at a loss by Qantas.
Qantas has said it will also bear the costs of flying Australians back to their home cities after they have finished their period of quarantine on Christmas Island.