7 June 2022

Airport CEO 'heartbroken' as he prepares legal action against ACT Government's mask mandate

| Lottie Twyford
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Canberra Airport managing director Stephen Byron and Chief Minister Andrew Barr

Canberra Airport managing director Stephen Byron said he was “heartbroken” the issue couldn’t be resolved collaboratively. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Lawyers acting on behalf of Canberra Aiport will launch legal action as early as today against the ACT Government for continuing to impose a mask mandate in airport terminals.

They will argue this is in breach of the ACT’s Human Rights Act as it’s a burden on travellers and workers that can no longer be justified given the COVID-19 restrictions imposed in other settings.

Canberra Airport CEO Stephen Byron said he was “heartbroken” to go down this path.

“We will advise our lawyers to file the paperwork because we have no other choice and we have a responsibility to the aviation staff and customers to fix this,” he said.

“It’s not like we haven’t tried asking nicely and even persistently and waited and waited, patiently and impatiently.

“We have asked for justification but there is none because there is no health reason for it to remain.”

READ ALSO No COVID-19 numbers for three days in a row due to tech glitches at ACT Health

Mr Byron said it was particularly disappointing given the airport had worked closely with the ACT Government throughout the pandemic, including working with ACT Health to facilitate a vaccination hub and testing centre.

But now he found himself at his wit’s end, saying continued mandates sent a message to the public that air travel was in some way dangerous.

“After all of the damage that was done to the aviation industry with border shut downs through COVID-19, the last thing we want to be doing is telling people air travel and tourism is more dangerous than going to the shops, footy or the pub,” he said.

Furthermore, Mr Byron said people found it both annoying and perplexing, and staff were fed up with having to enforce it.

Masks are currently mandatory in the ACT in settings defined as high-risk such as aged care, disability services, correctional centres and the hospital.

They are still required on public transport.

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr

Chief Minister Andrew Barr said he would prefer a nationally consistent approach to mask mandates in Australia’s airports. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr said no one was contesting the airport’s right to bring a legal challenge against the ACT Government, but he would prefer a “nationally consistent approach”.

“Why is Canberra Airport so different from the rest of the country?” Mr Barr asked in response to Mr Byron’s calls.

“In practical reality, you still need to wear a mask when you’re on the plane … so it becomes a question of when you need to put your mask on,” he said.

However, Mr Byron disputed this argument.

“Nothing in COVID-19 worked on a nationally consistent basis. Nothing ever did. It’s never been nationally uniform on any day of the last two years,” he said.

“If the east coast was going to wait for Western Australia, we would have been in lockdown until the end of February.

“It’s a joke.”

READ ALSO Canberrans will save on their electricity bills as prices soar around the country

The Chief Minister told reporters earlier this week that the public health advice around airports was different from the rest of the community because they were regularly exposed to international and interstate travellers.

He also noted there would come a time when the mask mandates would be lifted but said that was a question and decision for Chief Health Officers around the country to make.

“I have made the observation that mask mandates are at their most effective when they do actually make a difference and are logical,” he said.

“But the question of whether or not it is the right time to make this change is one the health professionals are reluctant to move on at the moment.”

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Common sense prevails over irrational fear – ‘Australian airport mask mandate can go, health chiefs say’

The Editor of the Canberra Times argues that Canberra Airport is a domestic airport, and poses a lower Covid risk than international airports. I was not aware that changing planes when coming from overseas through Sydney etc al. instantaneously made me a domestic passenger.

Furthermore in its pursuit of honesty and transparency will the CT insist that Canberra Airport rewrites its web presence to reflect it is no longer an international airport?

As Barr has commented, mask wearing is mandatory in every airport around the country – why is Canberra airport special? People correctly scream for COVID consistency across all states and territories – here’s one example where there is consistency.

I get your point about supermarkets etc, although I still wear a mask when going there.

The thing about airports however is that people are required to wear a mask, when catching an Uber to the airport and required to wear a mask when on the plane. Taking it off in the airport building seems a bit silly doesn’t it? Let’s face it, when in the airport building, you are still mixing in close proximity with the same people that were on your plane.

Wearing a mask isn’t a big deal.

I think that’s the point though Kenbehrens. Why are we still mandating the wearing of masks on planes or in Ubers, when there’s no evidence that it is having a material overall health impact anymore. COVID is now freely circulating and endemic within society and there are plenty of other equally risky places where masks are not mandated.

Removing the mandated face masks doesn’t stop anyone from continuing to wear them or taking extra precautions, it simply means it isn’t forced.

Public health controls should always have a defined outcome, if they’re just for show, they’re useless.

But it was always theatre. It was always the Yes, Minister joke: “[P]olitician’s logic: Something must be done, this is something, therefore we must do it.”

The Silver, I disagree that it was always theatre. Prior to the vaccines, widespread virus cases and the lessening severity of COVID strains, there were clear and direct links to the health outcomes.

Now, the situation has clearly changed.

There is no evidence that mask mandates have any effect on infection rates when looked at globally. Which was the position of pretty much every health body prior to 2020. (To preempt the obvious response “mask mandates” != “masks”).

Yeah. Just like people should still be required to take off their shoes as part of the security check. Safety theatre is incredibly important in making people think something is being done.

It’s not so much the airport but the aeroplane that is the breeding ground of virus. And as such the airport as a direct result of its close proximity to it is therefore a close associate of it and should require masks for all passengers.

I agree with the Airport CEO. Why should the airport require masks, when other public places like shopping centres don’t? The Chief Nanny is displaying excessive caution, verging on control. Now that we are all double or triple vaccinated and the majority of the population is over covid both physically and mentally, we can dispense with these uncomfortable, intrusive and temporary props. Those who want to wear them, either from fear or virtue signalling, can continue to wear them, wherever they like and for as long as they like, but the rest of the world is moving to normality.

I don’t think that following medical advice is either fear or virtue signalling.
There are people who had to wear masks in public prior to the pandemic because of medical issues. People who politicise medical advice make things harder for everyone.

Scott Anthony6:34 pm 07 Jun 22

The US got rid of mask mandates, and its time we did too. Covid still has a mega survival rate that we need to embrace now that its in the endemic stage and dying out. time to move on..

Ah not sure what world you are living in that it is ‘dying out’. Plenty of people still dying with it – while people may be ‘over it’, it is most definitely not disappearing anytime soon…. as much as we really like it.

So we should follow the US example? What was their overall death rate again?
I wouldn’t be looking to the US as an example of good public health policy on any issue.

One thing the aviation sector does attract is whinging CEO’s… yet the media gives them so much oxygen, even when they make so little sense.

What exactly is the point of the legal action to remove mask requirements at Canberra Airport, when you are then required to wear them on the plane and at the other end. Literally zero people are not flying because of this issue. Go spend some time marketing yourself to some foreign airlines or something productive.

People may not like it but the mandated mask wearing in airports and planes does now seem to be a bit of an outlier, when other equally risky locations do not require any. If masks are still a critical health response, why are they not required elsewhere?

As we see across the world, this requirement is now being wound back, perhaps it’s time for Australia to do the same.

Think you are spot on here. Especially the last sentence, it’s time for AUSTRALIA to do the same.

This issue is not specifically an ACT “nanny state” “I hate Andrew Barr” issue, it is very much a national one. Until such time as the national mandate to remove masks from flights and each and every state removed the requirement from airports at the same time it would be pointless and even more confusing for Canberra airport to have different requirements to every other airport in the country.

I agree that a national response would be best.

Just outlines the ridiculous situation that has existed throughout COVID where individual states did what they felt when they wanted to, rather than having a consistent risk based approach Nationally.

In the ACT, the government was always happy to cry “consistency” when enacting new or continued restrictions but was always far slower when removing them.

swaggieswaggie4:32 pm 07 Jun 22

He’s never been the sharpest tool in the shed but saying that “mandates sent a message to the public that air travel was in some way dangerous” is total stupidity. it’s not mask mandates keeping people away from Canberra airport it’s the inability of Virgin and Qantas to operate scheduled services – 2 cancellations in the last 2 months make me think twice about booking a flight from Canberra.

Tom Worthington3:58 pm 07 Jun 22

A Public Health Emergency is still in place in the ACT, due to COVID-19. This gives government wide powers to do what they think necessary to keep the public safe. Anyone can take the government to court to challenge this, but courts have generally backed emergency measures in the past. To say that passengers have a human right not to wear a mask in an airport terminal is just a bit silly. This situation was explored in Tom Clancy’s novel “Executive Orders”, where a judge declares emergency measures to combat a pandemic legal with the well know US saying “the Constitution is not a suicide pact”.

You mean those powers they want to cast into law to act perpetually the ones that went from a matter of days to do something about that have turned into 90 odd days and then extended now indefinitely?

Fear and paranoia win votes at elections as people vote for the people who appear to be doing things to manage the ‘crisis’ yet those that argue that the crisis is overstated are silenced as heretics like a modern day witch burning.

So you are politicising public health advice?

Capital Retro3:50 pm 07 Jun 22

I wish Mr Byron good luck in trying to take legal action against the current ACT Government.

I have known of people trying this in the past but no local lawyers will take on this government as most are conflicted by associations they have with them.

If I were Byron I would retaliate by banning all ACT Government employees from using the airport.

Finagen_Freeman3:11 pm 07 Jun 22

Heartbroken and wants people to mingle in close proximity with no masks?

Cares for customers and staff, but wants them exposed to interstate and international travellers ?

Masks are mandated at every international and domestic airport at present. This tiny Canberra airport deserves no special treatment.

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