The Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) has criticised Serco, the private operator of Australia’s icebreaker RSV Nuyina, for not adhering to strict COVID-19 vaccination protocols.

Reports reveal that most of the ship's crew did not meet the AAD's stringent vaccination requirements during a trip last year, prompting concerns over potential medical evacuations from Antarctica.

On the day RSV Nuyina embarked on its voyage to Davis Station in October, Charlton Clark, a senior official at the AAD, said in a letter that 19 crew members had not complied with the required vaccination rules.

The correspondence has been tabled as part of a Senate review.

The AAD mandates COVID-19 vaccinations, boosters, or documented cases of the virus within a specified timeframe for all participants in the Australian Antarctic Program (AAP) to mitigate the risk of costly and complex medical evacuations. 

Clark expressed disappointment over the high level of non-compliance.

The AAD reportedly granted an exemption to ensure the Nuyina's resupply mission to Davis Station could proceed. 

Serco has defended its vaccination policy, claiming its personnel had consistently met the recommendations of the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI). Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, who chaired a Senate inquiry into the AAD, has described Serco's non-compliance as a “significant concern”.

Senator Jonathon Duniam, who helped initiate the Senate inquiry, also voiced his concerns.

“In that environment, if you have someone who develops terrible health conditions as a result of a COVID infection, that could be fatal,” he said.

The Community and Public Sector Union, representing AAD staff, attributed the issue to the outsourcing of Nuyina's operation to a private company. 

The Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers (AIMPE) has supported the crew's adherence to ATAGI standards, which are not as strict as the requirements of AAD.