UPDATE 25 March 2020: The Refugee Council of Australia communicated our concerns to the Department of Health on 25 March 2020. We received a response the same day saying that the Department’s advice about people in detention had not changed but that “the omission occurred due to a content uplift on health.gov.au overnight”. The website, we were assured, would be amended. Later that afternoon, “people in detention facilities” were again included in the list of people most at risk of getting COVID-19.
The Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) has asked the Commonwealth Department of Health to explain why it has taken people in detention facilities off its public list of people at serious risk of contracting COVID-19.
Until early yesterday morning (24 March 2020), the Health Department listed people in detention as being among six groups of people “most at risk of serious infection” on the COVID-19 health alert page of its website. A day later, the reference to people in detention had been removed from the website.
In a letter to Caroline Edwards, the Acting Secretary of the Department of Health, RCOA chief executive officer Paul Power questioned the Department’s actions and emphasised the importance of public confidence in the Department’s ability to offer frank advice without possible interference from others.
The changes to the website can clearly be seen the National Library of Australia’s web archive, with “people in detention facilities” listed under “who is most at risk” on the COVID-19 health alert page early on 24 March 2020 but excluded from the list on the same page early on 25 March 2020.
RCOA had referred to the Department of Health’s public advice about the risk to people in detention in correspondence with Federal Government representatives on Friday. RCOA is advocating for people in cramped immigration detention facilities to be moved to community-based accommodation where social distancing protocols can be observed. This could provide the government, RCOA notes, with the opportunity to support accommodation providers suffering a massive loss in business as international travel has ground to a halt.
The text of Mr Power’s letter to the Acting Secretary of the Department of Health follows:
Dear Ms Edwards,
As the COVID-19 pandemic has developed, the Department of Health has played a critically important role nationally in offering frank advice about the risks to the community.
Earlier this week, the Department was advising on its website that “those most at risk of serious infection” from COVID-19 included “people in detention facilities”. This accorded with the expert health advice we were hearing from other sources, that people held in confined spaces such as detention facilities without the option of following the guidelines on social distancing, were at heightened risk.
As the national community peak body on refugee policy, we are very concerned about the risk of COVID-19 to people in closed in Immigration Detention Centres and secure Alternative Places of Detention. Last week, we wrote to a number of government representatives, asking them to act quickly to move people out of cramped conditions in locked facilities into appropriate community alternatives which enabled people to minimise the risk to them and to others. In our letter, we referred to the advice from your Department about people in detention facilities being among those at particular risk, providing a link to the appropriate web page.
I was alarmed today to discover that, on your Department’s website, people in detention facilities are no longer listed as being among those at greatest risk of serious infection. From website pages cached by the National Library of Australia, we can see that this reference to people in detention was removed some time between early yesterday morning (24 March) and this morning (25 March). I have attached screen shots which illustrate this change. Can you please explain why your Department took this step? To me, this defies logic because nothing has changed at all for people in immigration detention facilities and I suspect that little is changing for people in other forms of detention in Australia.
Many people looking at this action would be left wondering whether the Department of Health is being pressured to remove health advice which doesn’t suit the political or organisational agendas of others. At a time of such crisis, it is essential that Australians have maximum confidence in the public advice of its Commonwealth Department of Health. The Australian public deserves to know why your advice about the risk to people in detention has changed.
Chief Executive Officer
Refugee Council of Australia