Abbott government to contract private company to provide Ebola assistance in West Africa

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is set to announce on-the-ground help for the fight against Ebola. AAP/Julian Smith

The Abbott government is set to announce on-the-ground help for the fight against Ebola in West Africa – but plans to contract out the operation to a private company.

It is expected to use the medical service provider Aspen to undertake the work, putting the government at arm’s length from the day-to-day responsibility. The staff would be employed by the company.

Aspen Medical describes itself as “an Australian-owned global provider of guaranteed, innovative and tailored healthcare solutions”.

It says on its website that it is “dedicated to providing our clients with world-class Australian healthcare services in any setting”. It works across a range of sectors, operating in Australia and internationally.

The commitment was ticked off in principle by cabinet’s national security committee on Monday. It will cost some $20 million and is for six months.

The operation would run a 100-bed British-built hospital in Sierra Leone. This would require about 240 people. It is not clear to what extent the workers will be recruited from countries other than Australia. They are expected to include some New Zealanders.

The announcement will be made by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and is due tomorrow. The package includes Australian support for regional preparations in case Ebola hits, directed particularly at Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Fiji.

There will also be fine-tuning of arrangements in Australia, probably with some changes to entry travel cards.

Details of the assistance have been worked on across portfolios, with the Prime Minister’s Office and Department co-ordinating. There has been some rush in the last couple of days to get it done.

The decision follows prolonged negotiations with other countries over arrangements for the guaranteed treatment of any Australian health workers who caught the virus. The contracted company would have to satisfy the government on the detail.

The government has been under intense pressure from the United States and Britain to provide health workers.

Domestically, there have also been repeated calls from the Australian Medical Association and the opposition for Australia to get more actively involved at the governmental level. Australian health workers have been sent by non-government organisations.

Until now the government commitment has been limited to $18 million in funding.

It was not clear tonight whether the announcement would name Aspen - that could depend on the stage at which the contract process is at.

Aspen has already been running a clinic in Liberia. The Australian government is familiar with the company from the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) and work in PNG.

A spokeswoman for Abbott said tonight: “The government has said repeatedly that it would not deploy Australians to Ebola-affected countries without a credible plan for treatment and/or medical evacuation, should an Australian health care worker contract Ebola.

"In recent weeks, the government has discussed the evolving situation, including measures to treat health workers, with our partners, in particular the United Kingdom and the United States.

"The government is considering these discussions and how it might best contribute further to the response.

"Any further Australian contribution would be prudent and proportionate. It would not involve the deployment of hundreds of Australians; indeed, the government will not direct Australians to deploy to the region,” the spokeswoman said.

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