Since its emergence in late 2019, coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has become a global pandemic that continues to impact on human health and national economies. Measures implemented throughout the world to limit its spread have affected Australians and Australian interests overseas. Border closures led to a significant contraction in international air traffic and reduced options for Australians seeking to return to Australia.
The Australian Government Crisis Management Framework (AGCMF) sets out standing arrangements for coordinating whole-of-government emergency responses for which the Commonwealth Government has responsibility. Under the AGCMF, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is responsible for providing consular and crisis management services to Australians overseas.
DFAT’s response to COVID-19 has included providing Australians overseas with access to flights to return to Australia and financial assistance. As the pandemic remains present worldwide, this report is a point in time assessment of DFAT’s management of the return of overseas Australians in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the pace and scale of the Australian Government’s response impacts on the risk environment faced by the Australian public sector. There is strong public and parliamentary interest in gaining assurance over DFAT’s ability to manage the government’s response to COVID-19, as well as other international crises.
- DFAT adapted its crisis management arrangements and established a new program of activity to provide assistance to a large number of overseas Australians affected by COVID-19, although it did not meet key government objectives. DFAT’s underlying crisis management structures and capabilities require strengthening to ensure it is prepared to respond to future major and complex crises.
- DFAT’s preparedness to manage complex crises before the onset of the pandemic was partly effective. While crisis management arrangements align with whole-of-government requirements, DFAT lacks a defined crisis management framework and mature preparedness policies. There is scope to strengthen crisis management planning, capability development and assurance processes over DFAT’s crisis management capability.
- DFAT applied its crisis management arrangements to support the return of Australians and adapted these to deliver a new program of flights and financial assistance. The pandemic has highlighted weaknesses in responding to standard and complex, and large-scale crises. While policy advice to the government was largely appropriate, DFAT’s reporting to government on its return of Australians could not be verified by the ANAO.