Quarantine staff concerned over biosecurity gaps at border as auditing team 'gutted', workforce 'hurtling towards burnout'

Newshub can reveal concerns about biosecurity gaps at our border, with a chief quarantine officer warning key inspection teams have been "gutted", rosters are "not fit for purpose" and workers are facing "burnout". 

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) said it's recruiting more staff and, despite the warnings, it remains "extremely confident" its border security is world-class. 

Inquisitive and fastidious quarantine staff are our main defence against invasion by foreign pests and diseases. But a chief quarantine officer was blunt about worker troubles in Christchurch, saying in an email to union representatives last month "the current airport roster is not fit for purpose".

In July, 560 hours of overtime was racked up to "meet deficiencies". Furthermore, the auditing team has been "gutted" and the workforce is "hurtling towards burnout".

"Some of that detail was from a regular union meeting in terms of discussing some of the pressure points and pain points," said Mike Inglis, Biosecurity New Zealand's northern regional commissioner.

"Any statement when staff raise a concern, we need to deal with it and deal with it quickly."

Wayne Langford, Federated Farmers vice president, said the problems identified make him uneasy.

"It's definitely concerning language and definitely a worry to our industry to hear that sort of thing," he said.

"We've taken it really, really seriously and we'll be continuing to follow it up to make sure that we keep the highest standard."

Langford recently visited Auckland Airport with MPI amid the current foot and mouth scare and said the impression he got was that security is robust. But he said there's no room for slip-ups. 

"Our expectation is that border security is maintained to an absolutely high level, or above really. We can't afford for anything to get in."

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Kiwifruit Vine Health chief executive Leanne Stewart said her organisation has "extremely high expectations" that pests and diseases are kept out. 

She said secure borders are "critical" to the country's kiwifruit and horticulture industries and they work closely with Biosecurity New Zealand. 

"There is a high degree of trust, transparency and accountability in our relationship and the many layers of robust border protection that are in place." 

Newshub understands staffing concerns exist not just in Christchurch but in Auckland too. 

Inglis acknowledges the pressure on staff and said MPI's actively recruiting more people. A total of 58 new staff have been employed since April and the agency wants another 20 staff by early next year.

The staff issues follow a change to "rotational" rosters, where staff are required to work across multiple areas. For example, rather than only working at the mail centre, staff will be expected to carry out sea cargo inspections and passenger checks at airports as well.

Staff surveys, obtained by Newshub, reveal criticism of the plan. 

"By rotating staff, we are going to lose site knowledge," an officer warned. 

"It's difficult to stay competent in multiple areas," said another.

The new model means officers are a "jack of all trades and master of none", said another.

One staff member said "full rotation is dangerous" and another added that "incursions are going to happen".

"It is like a time bomb or an accident waiting to happen," said another staff member. 

Inglis said not all staff agreed with the changes but managers listened to all feedback. 

He said it was decided the changes would be implemented on the basis they would strengthen biosecurity. 

"I am disappointed in terms of the criticism, which is actually shining a light on staff across the piece, but absolutely I engage my staff regularly, and every staff member that comes in to protect the borders, I value them," Inglis said.

And, as 80 percent of the staff already work on rotating rosters, he doesn't accept that making all staff do it will increase risks at the border.

"No I don't. I totally refute that."

He said all staff will get specialised training and those in Auckland won't transition to new ways of working until April next year.