Border Force staff on patrol at sea need better protections from the risk of Covid infection, the main public sector union says.
The Australian Border Force should test workers for Covid if they intercepted vessels, and the agency should provide more support for staff to get vaccinated, the Community and Public Sector Union said.
The union's deputy national president Brooke Muscat said Home Affairs had been "obstructionist" and was not listening to marine unit staff calling for safety measures to manage the risk of Covid on the job.
But the Home Affairs Department, which oversees the border enforcement agency, says it provides support to all eligible staff to obtain a vaccination during work time and that it has communicated with employees about changing requirements of state Covid restrictions.
Ms Muscat said Border Force staff did difficult and dangerous work, and needed opportunities to get vaccinated and should have protections from the coronavirus.
"If they are for example intercepting a foreign vessel, and they have access to people on those vessels that are from countries that have high rates of Covid, we would say that when they are returning into Australia, they should be tested to ensure it's safe for them to go back home and back into the community," she said.
About 48 per cent of Border Force marine unit staff who have consented to being vaccinated have received at least one dose of Covid vaccine, according to Home Affairs.
Ms Muscat said the rollout of Covid vaccines had been slow for marine unit staff, despite their work on the front line in patrolling borders and intercepting vessels.
Home Affairs should introduce support to make it easier for workers to get vaccinated, such as miscellaneous leave for those receiving their doses, she said.
"The department hasn't really taken any proactive steps to facilitate our members going out there and arranging their vaccination."
Staff were calling for Home Affairs to roll out a system facilitating their travel across state and territory borders according to COVID-19 restrictions, to better protect them and the community as workers commuted to and from patrol vessels, the union official said.
We don't understand why Home Affairs doesn't give this the attention that it needs.Brooke Muscat
The department also lacked a policy for self-isolation and quarantine for staff returning from patrol, creating uncertainty on whether they would be paid for that time. Home Affairs was failing to listen to staff calling for safety measures and was moving too slowly in responding to their concerns, despite the union raising Covid safety matters on multiple occasions over 18 months, Ms Muscat said.
"It's a large agency, with lots of resources, they should really have the foresight to deal with these particular issues from the outset," she said.
"It's about having consistent policies and procedures so people know what applies to them in various circumstances, and so people feel safe when they're coming off patrol.
"These are issues that can be managed relatively swiftly and easily. We don't understand why Home Affairs doesn't give this the focus and attention that it needs.
"It's not just about our members' safety, which is paramount to us, it's the potential flow-on effects to the community more broadly.
"Our members are concerned, with everything that moves around so quickly, that they're not potentially sufficiently protected."
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A Home Affairs spokesperson said the department provided support to all eligible staff to obtain a COVID-19 vaccination during work time. Staff receiving the vaccination for reasons not related to their role in the department can use one hour of work time to receive a vaccination dose.
State and territory health authorities did not require staff returning from patrol to be tested for COVID-19, and there was no Therapeutic Goods Administration-approved rapid test that was clinically appropriate for use in the marine operating environment, the Home Affairs spokesperson said.
"The department has proactively facilitated priority testing when necessary, for example this has occurred in Perth, Darwin and Sydney on numerous occasions," the spokesperson said.
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