More than 350 Australian doctors and nurses have volunteered to fight Ebola in west Africa, as the government fends off criticism it should have acted sooner.
The federal government has done a $20 million deal with Canberra-based private firm Aspen Medical to run a 100-bed British-built facility in Sierra Leone until mid-2015.
Aspen boss Glenn Keys said at least 350 Australians had registered online to be involved in the hospital and a further 100 applications had come from Africa.
Mr Keys said up to one in five of the 240 staff at the hospital could be Australian.
It’s expected the staff will undergo several days of training, then work for three to four weeks in the hospital before entering a three-week quarantine process and returning home.
“I think there’s going to be quite a number of Australians employed,” Mr Keys said.
“They’ll come back with a lot of great experiences that we could use, not only here, but in future crises in the region.”
Labor leader Bill Shorten said the volunteers had been available for some time.
“The government has sat on its hands,” Mr Shorten said.
“If we don’t deal with it now we will deal with it later with greater repercussions.”
The government argued that until this week it did not have an assurance from a third country that the health workers would receive appropriate treatment and evacuation if they contracted the virus.
Mr Keys said it would have been difficult to act sooner.
“I would have been concerned for my staff and any volunteers we had, if we didn’t have the methodology to treat them,” he said.
“I don’t think that’s an unrealistic requirement.”
Health Minister Peter Dutton rejected criticism that only a small proportion of the workforce would be Australian.
“They will be working in the hospital,” Mr Dutton told ABC radio.
“They will draw on an Australian workforce, but also an international skill set, and most importantly I think a local health workforce.”
Federal secretary of the Nursing and Midwifery Association Lee Thomas said it was impossible for locally hired health workers to cope with the crisis.
“Whilst it’s important to train local people, the relief effort in west Africa must be supported by Australian and other healthcare workers from around the world. That’s the only way they are going to cope,” she said.
Groups such as Oxfam Australia and the Public Health Association are calling for the military to be deployed.
But Mr Dutton said there was no need for a military response, and that the UK, US and countries in Europe were all using private contractors to tackle the Ebola outbreak.
Meanwhile the World Health Organisation reported the Ebola death toll stood at a revised figure of 4818, with just more than 13,000 reported cases.