Bio Security – Could Australia Cope With A Pandemic?

In the midst of the current Coronavirus outbreak, questions are being asked around how bad this health crisis might become and whether or not Australia could cope with a full-blown pandemic. To help address these questions, the following article is an is edited version of a somewhat prophetic piece we publish in 2014 during the Ebola Scare, written by Julian Talbot and Garry Young,  looking specifically at the dangers and challenges of an influenza based pandemic, how, as a nation, we might respond and what role the security industry might play. The original version of this article can be found in issue #93 of Security Solutions.


Julian Talbot & Garry Young, Citadel Group Ltd.

Pandemic (panˈdɛmɪk):

  1. adjective (of a disease) prevalent over a whole country or the world.
    synonyms: widespread, prevalent, pervasive, rife, rampant, epidemic.
  2. noun: an outbreak of a pandemic disease.

 If a pandemic of any kind were to occur in Australia would we be ready? Yes. And no.

Global pandemic is not without precedent. In 1918 an unusually deadly influenza pandemic became one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history when over a period of three years; it killed 50 to 100 million people – roughly 3 to 5% of the world’s population.  Although most of the world is far better placed in the 21st century to deal with a pandemic, the frequency and speed at which people travel is unprecedented in history.    Even in 1918, the pandemic spread across the world as far as remote Pacific islands and the Arctic Circle.

Human history has seen countless pandemics.  Influenza pandemics, to name but one disease, have occurred four times in the last century (1918, 1957, 1968 and 2009).

Why We Need To Be Concerned

The threat from an influenza like Corona virus is very real and serious. You would transmit it before you realised you were sick. You are unlikely to have any immunity. It could spread like wildfire – and it’s deadly.

According to Dr Andrew Cuthbertson, Chief Scientist at the Commonwealth Serum Laboratory (CSL) “In terms of a public health threat to Australia, influenza is a significant threat.” Professor Anne Kelso, Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza, believes that an influenza pandemic is inevitable.

According to Professor Kelso “The risk that new influenza viruses will be generated is increasing as crowding of domestic poultry, pigs and other animals increases, while global trade and travel speed their spread around the world … and that … even with sound planning and plenty of resources, a severe pandemic can be expected to cause major disruption until it runs its course or can be arrested by effective immunisation.”

The reason that any pandemic has the potential to be so deadly is because the world hasn’t yet developed immunity to it. Australia’s technology, onshore vaccine production facilities and relative isolation means we are somewhat better prepared to fight and protect ourselves than other countries.

Commonwealth Arrangements

Fortunately for us in Australia, our health authorities are very capable at responding to and controlling a pandemic level crisis. They are well practised in dealing with new infectious diseases, as was demonstrated in recent years with the national responses to SARS and the 2009 Pandemic Influenza

Australia was in a good position to respond rapidly to the emerging threat from pandemic (H1N1) 2009 influenza virus. The Australian response to the 2009 pandemic was guided by the Australian Health Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza 2008 (AHMPPI), which provides the health sector with a nationally agreed strategic framework to guide preparedness and response activities for an influenza pandemic. Coordination between the Commonwealth and the state and territory governments occurred through the Australian Health Protection Committee (AHPC), the peak health sector decision-making body for national health emergencies.

Currently the health emergency response arrangements at a national level (the National Health Emergency Response Arrangements – NHERA) are coordinated and promoted by the AHPC and include the Emergency Response Plan for Communicable Diseases and Environmental Health Threats of National Significance (CDEHPLAN) which addresses communicable disease control (epidemic and pandemic arrangements) and environmental health (response to climate change and natural disasters).

What Are The Options If Major Outbreak Occurs

For people in the western world, it can be difficult to grasp just how devastating a pandemic can be and how challenging it can be for governments to manage.

In the event of a major outbreak in Australia, there are a range of options that the Government and our health authorities could enact, depending on where it occurred, how infectious it was and the lethality.  These measures include a range of quarantine measures, including enforcing appropriate disinfection measures on aircraft and ships or port facilities. The government has accordingly put in place a number of high category isolation units which are able to cope with a surge.

Economic Cost

Some broader implications for the community might include non-attendance of staff at workplaces, including healthcare professionals (whether mandated or self-selected) and the possible closure of schools. It is likely that by the time additional security personnel were required for isolation control, that many workplaces would be closed and sporting events cancelled.

The impact of economic losses due to business closures, restrictions on travel and tourism are likely to be significant when the day comes that we actually face a major pandemic. However, there are a number of Federal and State funding arrangements in place. The Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements (NDRRA) for example, represent a comprehensive national policy and financial framework for disaster relief and recovery which provides partial reimbursement to states and territories for eligible expenditure on certain disasters events.

NDRRA also supports the provision of urgent financial assistance to disaster affected communities and there are a number of Categories of eligible expenditure such that NDRRA is ostensibly both a response and recovery phase payment including Personal Hardship Assistance Scheme (PHAS), Essential Services & Safety Reconnection, Community Recovery Packages, Funeral & Memorial Grants and Local Council Support Packages.

Security Industry Response

The key role for security personnel in the event of a pandemic would be in providing security at isolation venues where they would be primarily tasked with access control and maintaining public safety.

This, of course, creates a number of potential challenges in managing access control and safety of workers. The requirements for additional security officers at airports, hospitals and isolation units to manage these issues is likely to come to the fore. Work health and safety requirements will mean that additional training, monitoring and personal protective equipment is going to be critical. Hospital queues and isolation units may even prove, however, to be the least of the issues. Consider mundane functions such as food and hygiene. Most households only have a few days of food and supermarkets only hold a similar quantity of stock.  Transporting goods to and from quarantined regions would be problematic to say the least.  Fortunately, major supermarket chains have contingency plans in place for hygiene stations, one-way access through the shop, and a one-metre trolley rule but maintaining safety could well fall to security officers as shortages occur or people start to panic. It is likely that in such circumstances, emergency and health workers would be in short supply but security personnel are equally likely to be in demand.

WHS Issues For Security And Emergency Personnel

One of the core challenges for personnel working in potential contact with pandemic diseases is to maintain their immune response.  The effect of long hours, shift work and infrequent meals of limited nutrition should be self-evident.  Employers have a duty-of-care to ensure that some basic mitigations are in place to reduce risks to staff. Such measures involve basic steps such as helping (or at least not hindering) the immune systems of staff to remain strong and healthy including:

  • Encouraging staff to avoid tobacco, alcohol and non-essential medications
  • Ensure a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and low in saturated fat. Having staff eating most meals from the vending machine in a hospital corridor is a virtually guaranteed way to adversely impact their immune systems
  • Structure work activities so that it includes regular moderate exercise and no extended periods of inactivity
  • Provide nutritional supplements during periods of peak stress and/or poor nutrition. Supplements such as zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, and E have been shown in clinical trials to improve immune responses
  • Put in place stretching programs to stimulate lymphatic nodes
  • Meditation is a proven stress reducer and immune support strategy which can be taught in a matter of minutes, even from mobile apps such as Headspace
  • Put in place rosters and rest stations so that staff get adequate sleep.
  • Get regular medical screening tests for people in high risk areas. Basic screening such as blood pressure, self-assessment, temperature monitoring, heart rate, stress hormones, elevated antibody levels testing is relatively easy to do and much of it can be automated with wristbands and similar devices

We’ve all seen medical staff in emergency rooms or bush firefighters working extreme hours under very trying conditions to deal with peak workloads. While that’s not a good practice at any time, during a pandemic it can create the exact situation that we are trying to avoid – a loss of containment.  There is abundant medical evidence for the ability of certain practices or environmental stimuli to compromise the immune system. Giving staff personal protective equipment and wash stations, although essential, simply isn’t enough in this day.

What Will Be The Role Of The Media In A Pandemic

The media, in particular social media, is likely to be a key contributor to keeping people informed and indeed to tracking the emergence of any outbreaks. The responsibility of the media to maintain accurate reporting, however, would be critical. Hence the role of government in ensuring a full and consistent flow of information to media sources would have to be a key priority.

Crisis communication messaging by government and key industry sectors would need maintain the focus on the main game which is to save lives!  It is also fundamental that messages being sent out by the Governments at all levels are being supported by the actions on the ground. Without coordination between Federal, State and local governments and health officials, an immediate credibility gap will be created. It would also be essential for key political leaders from all sides of politics to be involved in delivery.

How To Prepare

A pandemic isn’t something that we rehearse for or ‘war-game’ in real world exercises in any meaningful way but fortunately, local emergency and health resources are well schooled in managing infectious diseases. The real challenge for Australia is coordinating the management of resources at a national level. Running intense but carefully scripted and skilfully facilitated crisis management hypotheticals is one of the best ways to put current and future leaders in the hot seat to help them prepare.   Many emergency response organisations already use these for their senior leadership teams.

At the National Security College at ANU, group exercises or hypotheticals are a core part of crisis management and leadership programs where they prepare senior leaders and future emergency management professionals to think critically, challenge assumptions, to conceptualise and apply collaborative leadership and apply more policy imagination. These approaches or ways of working will perhaps be even more critical in the current and future environment we’re operating in to achieve desired policy outcomes and keep Australia safe from harm.

Implications For Security Providers

Private security companies are likely to be co-opted to assist with pandemic management arrangements but how many security officers, for example, would be able to tell you the micron rating of a mask which protects them from airborne viruses?  How many supervisors understand the importance of rostering adequate sleep, locating nutritious meals for shift workers or the basics of sustaining a high performing immune system in their staff?  Coronial inquiries should never be relied upon as the source of risk based decision making. Directors and staff at all levels of security companies are personally liable under WHS legislation and the information is out there.  We have a legal and ethical obligation to ensure we use it to protect our staff.

And how might security company’s manage in the face of the fact that there may well be a heightened call for security, yet many security officers might choose to stay home for fear of catching the disease?  Quite simply, some pre-emptive education at inductions and pre-prepared handouts or training material which can be mobilised quickly at first sign of a pandemic would go a long way to reducing absentees. We make our decisions based on how we feel about things and nothing is scarier than the unknown.

Not least of all, we need to think about the mechanism for engagement.  Does your company have a standing call-off contract with government agencies and health infrastructure providers for casual security officers?

These are the most basic of steps and the time to prepare our staff and to put contingency contracts in place is… Right now!

In short, in the event of a pandemic, be it Ebola, Influenza or something else, while Australia has made significant inroads with its bio-security arrangements and responses, there is more that individual security providers could do to help ensure a timely and effective response.

About Citadel Group Ltd (CGL)

Garry and Julian are members of CGL, one of Australia’s newest listed companies, where they are responsible for security risk management advisory services along with the development and delivery of crisis management hypotheticals. CGL more broadly specialises in enabling an organisation’s knowledge capital by integrating know-how, systems and people to provide information on an anywhere-anytime basis.

Garry was the first operational commander of the Australian Government’s Air Security Officer Program and has a detailed knowledge of Australian Government crisis management frameworks. Garry was closely involved in the recent rewrite of the National Counter-Terrorism Handbook and is currently involved in the development and delivery of counterterrorism and Emergency Management hypothetical exercises for the National Security College of the ANU.

Julian’s background includes roles as Senior Risk Adviser for the Australian Department of Health and Ageing, Logistics Manager for exploration activities in East Africa, Manager of Security for the Australian Governments most extensive international network (the Australian Trade Commission) and Manager of Security for Australia’s largest natural resources project (Woodside’s $22 billion North West Shelf Venture). He is also author of several books including lead author of the Security Risk Management Body of Knowledge (SRMBOK).

Julian Talbot
Julian Talbot is the Chief Executive Officer of Jakeman Business Solutions (JBS) a $25 million professional services business which provides business strategy, risk management and information technology advisory services. He is also a Fellow of the Risk Management Institution of Australasia, lead author of the Security Risk Management Body of Knowledge (SRMBOK), recipient of the Australian Security Medal, Director of the Security Risk Management and Analysis Association (SARMA) and a Research Associate with the Australian Security Research Centre.