The COVID-19 pandemic presented extraordinary challenges for Defence in terms of both supporting the whole-of-government response and maintaining the continuity of our operations.
At the peak of the pandemic in March and April 2020, more than 2,200 personnel supported the state and territory authorities as part of Operation COVID-19 ASSIST, in line with Defence’s mission to ‘defend Australia and its national interests’.
The organisation deployed to all states and territories while managing the complexities of physical distancing, border closures, and enabling more employees to work from home. All Groups and Services rose to the challenges together and supported the Government’s response to COVID-19.
Defence rapidly embraced the changes to the workplace to protect our personnel and their families from the risks of transmission. We successfully provided remote ICT capabilities to much of the workforce as personnel moved to working from home, and distributed essential information on security, work health and safety, and mandatory quarantine leave.
More than anything else, the crisis demonstrated Defence’s ability to deliver significant outcomes for the Australian Government and the Australian people and respond to diverse situations in an agile and coordinated manner.
The Defence COVID-19 Strategy articulated four lines of effort to enable the Australian Government to protect Australians and secure Australia’s national interests as the pandemic evolved:
Safeguard national security
Support public health
Support the economy
Support the near region.
On 9 March 2020, Defence established its COVID-19 Taskforce, led by Lieutenant General John Frewen DSC AM. Lieutenant General Frewen was supported by the First Assistant Secretary Governance and Reform, Megan Lees. This leadership combination embodied the collaborative, integrated relationship between Defence’s Australian Public Service (APS) workforce and the Australian Defence Force (ADF)—a partnership that made Defence uniquely able to coordinate the operational and policy aspects of its response.
The COVID-19 Taskforce was established to coordinate Defence’s contribution to the whole-of-government response, ensure departmental resilience and support Defence capabilities with advice, policy initiatives and communications so that our business could continue in a rapidly changing situation.
The health and wellbeing of our personnel was the highest priority, to ensure that we could continue to provide essential Defence capability throughout the developing crisis.
Safeguarding national security—Operation COVID-19 ASSIST
Operation COVID-19 ASSIST was established on 1 April 2020. Led by Major General Paul Kenny DSC DSM, it was an operation built on partnership as the ADF supported the Commonwealth, state and territory governments to protect public health.
ADF members and Defence civilians were deployed across Australia on a range of tasks, including:
repatriating Australian citizens from overseas
planning support and liaison roles
ensuring quarantine compliance with local law enforcement agencies
providing frontline medical assistance
supporting the defence industry
assisting Australia’s partners in the Indo-Pacific.
Defence found ways to support the national effort in ways it had never done before. For example, we provided customised support to Tasmania, where Defence personnel reopened and operated the emergency department at North West Regional Hospital, whose staff were sent home for two weeks quarantine following an outbreak of COVID-19. This deployment was crucial to maintaining critical health services in Tasmania.
As the response to COVID-19 in Australia progressed, Defence personnel assisted health authorities to undertake frontline medical testing across Australia. We provided planning assistance, medical personnel and support personnel to testing centres across Melbourne, New South Wales and Queensland. Defence personnel acted in concert with the rapid whole-of-government measures to control the virus across Australia, providing flexible and willing support where needed.
Supporting public health—pandemic health policy Joint Health Command led Defence’s COVID-19 health response. Headed by Rear Admiral Sarah Sharkey, Commander Joint Health and Surgeon General of the Australian Defence Force, it became the central point for health information within Defence, providing expert policy advice and guidance for the wider organisation. This included:
establishing a COVID-19 Operations Cell within Joint Health Command to coordinate the policy effects of the pandemic
ensuring the ADF had access to the latest medical and policy advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee and a clear view of how the broader healthcare sector was responding
establishing 29 COVID-19 assessment stations at bases across Australia
assessing the health risks and communicating them to commandersand leaders to help minimise COVID-19 transmission risks
rapidly actioning health policy to ensurethe organisation aligned with the whole-of- government response
prioritising services to optimise on-base health care and minimise the impact on the civilian health sector
providing subject matter expertise and staff support to other government agencies, including the National Incident Room
conducting COVID-19 tests on 5,867 uniformed personnel as at 21 June 2020—processing 460 tests per day at the peak of the pandemic.
The efforts of Joint Health Command minimised the impacts of COVID-19 on Defence and ensured that Defence personnel remained job ready.
Supporting critical health research—Rapid Response Group At the request of the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology in response to concerns about Australia’s supply of invasive ventilators, the Chief Defence Scientist, Professor Tanya Monro, formed a Rapid Response Group to research possible methods of repurposing non-invasive ventilators to perform as invasive ventilators.
The Rapid Response Group consisted of Commonwealth, state and territory representatives, as well as key industry and university experts.
Defence scientists and engineers quickly pivoted from developing military hardware to designing precision medical equipment and learning about ventilator operation and oxygen requirements for critical COVID-19 patients.
They developed a conversion system—the first of its kind—that can be installed on the two most popular non-invasive ventilators in Australia to allow for a controlled amount of oxygen to be delivered to an intubated patient.
Defence also contributed its scientific expertise to a number of national efforts to research the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) virus and how to mitigate it.
Defence was involved in pandemic modelling to investigate the effectiveness of physical distancing measures and the influence of environmental factors. The results were provided to the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee.
In collaboration with CSIRO and members of the Five Nation Research and Development Council, Defence investigated how the COVID-19 virus survived on various surfaces such as metal, glass, plastic and banknotes.
Also in partnership with CSIRO, Defence began work with two Australian companies on the development and manufacture of a rapid point-of-care diagnostic device. This device, which is the size of a shoebox, could allow people to be tested for the virus in their own homes.
Supporting the economy — Defence industry The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated a true partnership between government and industry. Defence industry worked extremely hard to keep businesses operating safely and continued to invest in and deliver capability to Defence. In turn, Defence invested in industry, maintaining cash flow in the economy and supporting business growth by linking companies with opportunities across Australia.
The Minister for Defence and the Minister for Defence Industry spoke regularly to chief executives, defence industry bodies, and state and territory defence advocates. The Defence COVID-19 Taskforce Industry Support Cell provided a single contact point for defence industry to engage on a range of issues, from cross-border-restrictions to airfreight delays.
Defence was an exemplar in accelerating the payment of supplier invoices, fast-tracking more than $8 billion to help mitigate the impacts of COVID-19. We also released $870 million of estate works to the market early to open up new jobs and business opportunities, providing a steady pipeline of work for thousands of Australians during the pandemic recovery phase.
Industry and Defence will continue to work together to strengthen Australia’s sovereign defence industrial and manufacturing base to meet the challenges of the changing strategic environment. https://www.defence.gov.au/covid-19/ https://www.defence.gov.au/covid-19/defence-industry/
Contact tracing Small teams of ADF personnel performed critical roles supporting contact tracing teams around Australia.
Full-time and Reserve members were embedded with local health agencies to trace potential paths of infection from confirmed COVID-19 cases. Members with medical and planning backgrounds made particularly effective contributions in the initial stages of establishing contact-tracing operations.
Members without previous specialist skills in the area quickly learned how to interview members of the public about their travel histories, their interactions with other people and the potential symptoms they were experiencing.
This ADF assistance allowed local health agencies to identify thousands of cases of COVID-19 and helped Australians to access tens of thousands of coronavirus tests.
Defence civilians at Services Australia Defence APS personnel volunteered for redeployment to assist with critical whole-of-government priorities during the pandemic. More than 200 deployed to Services Australia—most based in Canberra and a small number in Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide.
After training by Services Australia, these Defence personnel worked on critical tasks such as processing income support payments for the many Australians who were losing their jobs because of the pandemic. Many took on roles in a call centre environment, speaking with customers over the phone and processing their JobSeeker claims.
This exposure to a social policy agency, outside their regular environment, was a valuable experience for Defence personnel. Many reported back that it was very rewarding to be able to assist someone in the community directly, particularly to process critical payments.