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Consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic

Our leaders and management teams had to think and act quickly during this time of uncertainty. However, with the guidance of the senior leadership group and the creation of the COVID-19 taskforce, AIATSIS has demonstrated its ability to react quickly to ensure continued delivery of core functions.

An internal audit report on AIATSIS’ response to the pandemic concluded that ‘this unique event provided a real opportunity to test business continuity and disaster recovery plans, risks and strategies … the organisation is effectively transitioning to a post pandemic environment, with safeguards and mechanisms in place to monitor and respond to emerging risks’.

Some notable facts are:

  • Annual leave utilisation fell by 30.4 per cent.
  • Long service leave utilisation increased by 23.1 per cent.
  • Other leave with pay utilisation increased by 118.4 per cent.
  • Personal leave utilisation fell by 17.1 per cent.
  • For the majority of the reporting period AIATSIS staff were divided into two cohorts, with 50 per cent being on site at any one time, rotating weekly between working in the office and working from home.
  • Visitors to the Maraga Building reduced by 52 per cent. Relatedly, items used in the reading room reduced by 67 per cent and the room itself was closed for three-quarters of the year.

Examples of the growing list of indirect consequences of the pandemic are provided below.

Technology and human interaction

We sought to accelerate our mobile working capabilities through improved ICT network band-width and security. Our Digital Services team deployed Zoom and Microsoft Teams calling to enable greater connectivity and improved remote access for staff via VPN to minimise disruptions to our business continuity.

Supply chains and return of cultural heritage

The COVID-19 global pandemic had a significant impact on the Return of Cultural Heritage (RoCH) program in 2020–21. In particular, it impacted the RoCH team’s ability to travel, carry out planned program activities and engage with key stakeholders.

RoCH staff were unable to travel internationally during 2020–21. This meant that no international delegations were undertaken to collect material. Face-to-face engagement with institutions that were considering a return request or considering partnering with the program was also not possible. Many collecting institutions across the world were closed for large periods of 2020–21 and at times it was not possible to progress collaborative work, as key staff were not available to conduct research or discuss possible returns.

RoCH staff were also unable to travel within Australia from July to November 2020. Domestic travel continued to be difficult from November 2020 onwards and was carried out on an ad hoc basis, subject to localised COVID-19 travel restrictions for discrete outbreaks. This had a major impact on the ability of RoCH staff to consult with Indigenous communities and other key domestic stakeholders regarding the program and the return of material. Localised travel restrictions and discrete outbreaks also led to cancellation or postponement of return events in Canberra and in regional areas, sometimes at short notice.