Coronavirus War Room in the Department of Health building in Canberra. The National Incident Room Operations Manager Adam Lambert. Picture Gary Ramage
Coronavirus War Room in the Department of Health building in Canberra. The National Incident Room Operations Manager Adam Lambert. Picture Gary Ramage

Australia’s coronavirus contagion war room

Beside suburban Woden Westfield shopping centre in southern Canberra sits a fairly nondescript building from where the Federal Government is co-ordinating one of its greatest national crisis in living memory.

It is a 'war room' like you would see in movies but instead of uniformed military in front of a giant TV screen directing a theatre of conflict, in suburban Scarborough House sit 65 mostly civilian men and women watching an invisible enemy depicted on screen as ever spreading and enlarging red dots pulsing across the whole of the planet.

This is the National Incident Room (NIR) from where national authorities are fighting coronavirus, on a full 24/7 operational capability war footing, where the Federal Government's Emergency Response Plan was created and where what Australia does next will be decided.

And make no mistake, they are preparing for things to get worse before getting better.

"The NIR is currently staffed by around 65 officers, operating on extended shifts with a full 24/7 operational capability," said one federal Health Department official.

"The Department will soon boost the NIR's capacity to meet the demands of the COVID-19 response over the coming weeks."

Here teams of experienced epidemiologists, general practice doctors, pathologists, crisis managers, Home Affairs officials and border health and biosecurity agency officers are collecting, analysing and reporting on COVID-19 to create the policies and direction to try and keep us safe.

 

Coronavirus War Room in the Department of Health building in Canberra. The National Incident Room Operations Manager Adam Lambert. Picture Gary Ramage
Coronavirus War Room in the Department of Health building in Canberra. The National Incident Room Operations Manager Adam Lambert. Picture Gary Ramage

 

National messaging and advisories for health, education and other whole-of-government agencies are made here and responses are co-ordinated at these desks with international agencies, notably the World Health Organisation (WHO).

It is here too where minute-by-minute analytics are gathered that could prompt the invoking of sweeping little-used powers, namely the Biosecurity Act 2015, that could effectively close schools, public spaces and sporting events and deploy the military.

 

 

In 2003 the SARS outbreak response was co-ordinated from here, the tsunami the following year and the Bali bombings the year after that.

The Commonwealth's response to the Victorian bushfires were co-ordinated out of here in 2009 as were the recent devastating bushfires across the country and the White Island-Whakaari volcano eruption in New Zealand.

 

Coronavirus War Room in the Department of Health building in Canberra. Picture Gary Ramage
Coronavirus War Room in the Department of Health building in Canberra. Picture Gary Ramage

 

But those in the room say nothing compares with how broad and widespread this crisis is.

"As states and territories manage emergencies within their jurisdiction, national co-ordination is vital for incidents which affect multiple jurisdictions," a Health spokesman said.

As exclusively revealed last week by News Corp, intelligence, Australian Defence Force and Home Affairs agencies discussed the possible use of the Biosecurity Act to contain the coronavirus contagion.

At its most dire this could mean deputising the military as National Response Agency biosecurity officers to enforce management of a pandemic outbreak.

 

 

The National Incident Room Operations Manager Adam Lambert. Picture Gary Ramage
The National Incident Room Operations Manager Adam Lambert. Picture Gary Ramage

 

This could include guarding medical stocks or designated medical screening stations and enforcing closures of sporting events or sequestering sports stadiums as designated quarantine sites.

Attorney-General Christian Porter referenced the powers after Australia's first human-to-human transmissions.

"These are challenging times going forward and these will be some of the first times these important powers may be used," Mr Porter warned Parliament this week.

"It's very likely that these laws will get used on a larger scale, and it's very likely that Australians will encounter practices and instructions and circumstances that they've not had to encounter before."


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