The Albanese government has established “biosecurity response zones” at airports to combat foot-and-mouth disease, in what the agriculture minister claimed is the strongest biosecurity response in Australian history.
The agriculture department secretary, Andrew Metcalfe, made the determination under 365 of the Biosecurity Act on Friday afternoon. It’s the first time the powers have been used since introduced in the legislation seven years ago.
The new rules require international travellers to comply with directions including to remove their shoes and walk over sanitation mats.
The federal agriculture minister, Murray Watt, said this additional measure made the response to the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak the strongest biosecurity response in Australia’s history.
“I had been concerned about some rare reports that some return travellers were not doing the right thing when returning from Indonesia,” Watt said in a statement.
“These zones strengthen and widen the powers of biosecurity officers to direct passengers to use foot mats and other biosecurity control measures such as the cleaning of shoes.”
“The difference with these new powers is that rather than having the ability to ask individual passengers to do certain things and relying on their agreement, these new powers if introduced, would apply to all passengers where circumstances required,” Watt told reporters in Brisbane.
“Once introduced, we would be the first government in Australian history to use these powers to direct all passengers to comply with biosecurity requirements.”
Watt said he had also directed his department “to step up its visibility at the border and step up the number of inquiries of passengers, particularly in baggage halls, and that should be starting to occur right now”.
“Our agriculture industry is at stake and it’s vital that we continue to work together to ensure Australia is foot-and-mouth disease-free.”
Earlier, the Liberal leader, Peter Dutton, offered the government support for “whatever tough measures they are taking”.
The National Farmers’ Federation president, Fiona Simson, welcomed the new powers and reaffirmed her support for the screening of passengers arriving from Indonesia.
Viral fragments of foot-and-mouth disease were detected in pork products at a Melbourne retailer, and in beef products seized at Adelaide airport. But Australia remains free of the disease, as the live virus has not been detected.
Watt urged people to remain calm, warning that “scaremongering and fanning the flames of genuine concern does nothing to help our $80bn agriculture industry remain strong”.
On Sky News, the Nationals leader, David Littleproud, accused Watt of being “indecisive” and only introducing sanitation mats at the opposition’s suggestion.
Considering the use of biosecurity response zones had “taken three weeks”, while tens of thousands had entered Australia without being screened including “some who had declared they’d been on farms in Indonesia”, Littleproud claimed.
Dutton, who received a briefing on Thursday, said he had been “shocked” at hearing that foot-and-mouth disease was “spreading like wildfire” in Indonesia.
“I just want to make this really important point: if it is detected in one cow, or one livestock, one sheep, or one pig here in Australia, the industry closes down overnight,” he said.
“There are no exports. There is no processing of beef. The prices on our shelves will go through the roof, but more importantly, you would see countless numbers of livestock slaughtered in our country and devastation potentially for years for farmers.”