As we return to many of the freedoms we took for granted before COVID-19, it is important to acknowledge the service of all those who have been involved in the heath response to the pandemic.
The National Incident Centre (NIC) has been in continual operation for more than two years, frequently operating around the clock to help coordinate Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the Department of Health’s emergency operations centre, the NIC has performed many roles and has adopted new ones in its response to the pandemic. The officials in the NIC have done, and continue to do, an incredible job in helping protect the lives and health of Australians.
NIC staff have continued to provide additional support to states and territories, including through contact tracing and case interviews. Their support through contact tracing has resulted in more than 15,000 notifications to various authorities on the movement across borders of people with COVID-19 to date.
Building on the pandemic experience of 2020, the NIC has continued to distribute millions of masks and other PPE from the National Medical Stockpile (NMS), to states and territories, aged care facilities, disability service providers and Primary Health Networks. The NMS has recently been extended to include rapid antigen testing for residential aged care facilities, as well as additional COVID-19 treatments for Australians in hospital.
The NIC has been crucial in the use of a range of powers under the Biosecurity Act 2015, many of which have been used for the first time in preventing COVID-19 from entering Australia through international borders.
In recent months the focus has shifted to supporting the staged reopening of Australia to international travel. The NIC and the Office of Health Protection and Response have worked across government to safely repatriate hundreds of thousands of Australians.
The NIC has supported more than 450 COVID-19 meetings by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), which provides advice to National Cabinet on health protection matters and national priorities. This includes working with the states and territories to develop nationally consistent public health advice through the Communicable Diseases Network Australia and the Public Health Laboratory Network.
The NIC is also the primary means of communication with the World Health Organization for public health events, including the COVID-19 pandemic.
The NIC also helps to coordinate Australia's health emergency response to national and international incidents, including deploying Australia’s national specialist emergency health response capability, the Australian Medical Assistance Team (AUSMAT).
During the pandemic, AUSMAT was deployed to assist in Wuhan, China, as well as to support our close neighbours Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Timor-Leste. In Australia, AUSMAT has deployed to Howard Springs and Christmas Island; Burnie hospital and international arrivals quarantine in Tasmania; Victoria, in response to outbreaks in 75 residential aged care homes; and to remote communities in Western and Far West NSW.
Created in 2019, the NIC commenced operations as the National Incident Room in November 2019, in response to a measles outbreak in Samoa. It then led the health response to the Black Summer Bushfires, followed by the White Island volcanic eruption in New Zealand in early 2020.
Staffed by a core of dedicated and skilled officers within the Department of Health, the NIC consisted at its peak of 200 officers, drawing on agencies including the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Australian Border Force.
I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to all those officials who work or have worked in the NIC over the past two years, and the teams supporting them from across the Australian Public Service. Their service continues to be critical to the effectiveness of Australia's response to COID-19.