*By Doug Dingwall
New advice to federal agencies has recommended they send only vaccinated staff on international travel, as the public service is warned of high COVID infection rates overseas.
The agency overseeing the public service published the guidance on Thursday, warning of the “high risks” of overseas travel for public servants during the pandemic.
“Many international destinations have high numbers of COVID-19 cases and are subject to relatively greater risk of community transmission,” the public service commission said.
“This situation places Commonwealth officials travelling overseas at a high risk of being exposed to a variant of COVID-19 in the course of their employment.
“When travelling alone or as part of an official delegation, Commonwealth officials are at high risk of being exposed to the virus which can make them seriously ill and lead to hospitalisation, be further transmitted amongst the delegation and imported into the Australian community.”
The emergence of new, more transmissible and severe COVID variants heightened that risk, the public service commission said.
The agency advised federal agencies to send on overseas travel only staff who were fully vaccinated with a Therapeutic Goods Administration-recognised COVID vaccine.
“Travellers should also have received their second vaccination a minimum of two weeks prior to travel,” the new guidance said.
“An unvaccinated official may need to undertake official overseas travel for essential purposes as identified by the agency head or because they cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.
“In these circumstances, the agency head is expected to manage the risk against the necessity of the travel.”
Nearly 1200 Commonwealth public servants are based overseas, while many others undertake work that, before the pandemic, involved international travel.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has nearly 900 staff spread throughout its overseas network of embassies and consulates, while the Home Affairs Department (130 staff) and the Defence Department (130 civilian staff) also have large numbers of staff in foreign countries.
Defence and Foreign Affairs department employees being posted overseas were among the first in line for a COVID vaccine this year, while other public servants were told the timing of their vaccination would depend on their demographic or the characteristics of the work they performed.
Public service commission advice to agencies in February said the vaccine was voluntary, though strongly recommended, for public servants. However, deploying Defence personnel were told they had no choice but to receive it.
Under the national reopening plan, all restrictions on outbound travel for vaccinated Australians would be lifted once the nation reaches the 80 per cent vaccination target. Travel bubbles would be extended to nations such as Singapore.
Inward and outward international travel would gradually reopen with countries deemed safe, and there would be proportionate quarantine and reduced requirements for fully vaccinated inbound travellers.
*Doug Dingwall is the Canberra Times public service editor
*This article first appeared on the canberratimes.com.au website.