July 21, 2021


PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Australians in three states, about half of the country's population, are in lockdown as the delta strain of COVID continues to spread. New South Wales recorded 110 cases today, up to 73 of those were infectious in the community. Victoria recorded 22 new cases and South Australia had one new case. Mark Butler is the Shadow Health Minister and my guest this afternoon. Welcome to the program.


KARVELAS: The Prime Minister has today acknowledged “regrettable delays” in the vaccine rollout. He hasn't used the word sorry - a bit like Fonzie from Happy Days, the word sorry hasn't come out of his mouth, but he said he regrets it and he's maintained everyone should have access to a vaccine by the end of the year. Is that good? Is that a reasonable answer?

BUTLER: No, it's not. This has been an extraordinary day of spin and of lies by the Prime Minister over after a long day of media appearances by him after being missing in action for a number of days. This morning he repeatedly tried to pretend that when he said “it's not race,” he was talking about the approval process by the Therapeutic Goods Administration for the two vaccines, the Pfizer vaccine and the AstraZeneca vaccine. When it is quite clear that Pfizer was approved in January, AstraZeneca was approved in February, and on several occasions right through March, as he was starting to come under pressure about the already slow rate of the vaccine rollout, in relation to that rollout he said repeatedly “it is not a race.” I think Australians are pretty forgiving of their leaders when mistakes are made, particularly in the midst of a crisis, but they don't like their leaders lying to them. He is lying about what he meant and when he said it is not a race.

KARVELAS: It's interesting you make that point. I looked through the record too. Originally he did use that term about the speeding up of the approval process, saying we don't need to do that because we don't have the situation going on like they do in the UK.

BUTLER: And he was right about that. No one contested the speed of the TGA process. I said at the time we didn't want the TGA to go through the expedited process that was happening in the US and the UK.

KARVELAS: My point Mark Butler, just to be completely accurate, I love a bit
of accuracy, he did say it's not a race about that speeding up that process, did he not?

BUTLER: Sure, sure. But then weeks after the approvals were in place, after he got his vaccine, as the country was going through the rollout, when he started to come under pressure because he promised four million vaccinations by the end of March, he repeatedly in a number of interviews on the 11th of March, in a press conference that day, in press conferences in the middle of March, when pressured about the rollout, he repeatedly kept saying “it's not a race.” Not about approvals but about the rollout. He repeatedly kept saying “it’s not a race.” Just be honest with the Australian people. Say you've made a mistake. He shouldn't have said that. Today, I've heard him mouth the words “I take responsibility,” and in the same breath blame everyone else. It was something about supply from overseas, the pressure he is placing, I heard you talking to Professor Bennett about this, on ATAGI, the Technical Advisory Group on Immunisations. This is just a genetic trait of this fellow. He can't take responsibility for his own failures. I think Australians want their leaders to fess up when they fail, or they make a mistake and they'll forgive that. If they see honesty from their leaders and a change of tack. We’re just not getting this from Scott Morrison.

KARVELAS: Let's talk about ATAGI because you say, I heard the word pressure from you. Do you think that what the Prime Minister has done today, saying he is constantly appealing to ATAGI amounts to pressure and do you think it's inappropriate?

BUTLER: I think it's a course of conduct. I think we've seen the Prime Minister over the course of the last several weeks freelancing about AstraZeneca and quite openly placing pressure on them to provide advice that is more convenient for him. I didn't come up with the words pressure, the head of the AMA over the last several hours described what the Prime Minister has just done about the immunisation advisory group, ATAGI, as to use his words, Omar Khorshid, the AMA, as “unfair pressure.” Those are his words and I would think it would be any observers description of what the Prime Minister has done today.

KARVELAS: You agree?

BUTLER: Yes I agree.

KARVELAS: What would you describe this as?

BUTLER: Unfair pressure. I agree with the AMA. I think this is the Prime Minister using the power of his office, as the head of the country, trying to shelve responsibility for the terrible failures of this vaccine rollout onto them, rather than taking responsibility himself.
KARVELAS: What worries you about that other than the political ramifications of what you think is inappropriate, which is you think, he should take more responsibility I accept that, but do you think there is something inherently problematic about that? Perhaps the scientists, medical experts, would feel pressure? Are you actually worried materially this will have the wrong impact, that they will feel pressured?
BUTLER: I have great confidence in the members of that group to continue to make advice and give advice to governments without fear or favour based on the science. This advice is as the AMA said, as Professor Bennett said earlier, advice based on the best science. It reflects advice of their equivalents overseas. It's just that governments overseas had arranged back-ups. They were able to shift people off AstraZeneca if they received advice like we did into more Pfizer or Moderna. This Prime Minister hadn't made those back-up arrangements. He was too lazy last year to do what so many people were advising him, which was to do more deals and more quickly. I think this is pressure. And the concern I have about it is, all the arguments I might have about Scott Morrison's approach to quarantine and vaccines, the one thing that marks our country out very well to some other countries to which we normally compare ourselves, is there's been a high level of respect for the science. A high level of respect for the public health advice that's been received by state and federal governments, even when sometimes it's politically difficult. Even when it involves making politically difficult decisions, like lockdowns. You can't tamper with that. That's been a very important set of guard rails if you like as we negotiate our way through this pandemic. I think what the Prime Minister did today and what he's done before, frankly, about the AstraZeneca advice from ATAGI, jeopardises that tradition that we've built up over a long time in this country of the respect for the science.
KARVELAS: You think this is unfair pressure from the Prime Minister that he's trying to get himself out of a pickle? Scott Morrison has celebrated one million Australians getting a dose of COVID-19 vaccine in the past week and that is good. He says the rollout is now on track. It's two months behind but that we will be getting to where they want to get by the end of the year. Do you accept it's back on track?
BUTLER: No, I don't. We are languishing last in the table of developed countries. Only 11 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated. Perhaps even more concerningly, the most vulnerable groups in the community who were supposed to be vaccinated early, particularly before the beginning of winter, still remain heavily and dangerously exposed to the highly infectious variant. Only 30 per cent of Australians aged over 70 are fully protected. Have received both doses. In the UK those figures are over 95 per cent. A quarter of residents in disability care facilities have been fully vaccinated. Three quarters are still exposed. That's a group that was supposed to be fully vaccinated by Easter. I think the Prime Minister should spend less time patting himself on the back and more time recognising and admitting to the Australian people we are still way behind. There are 14 million Australians in lockdown. The delta variant that came from an outbreak caused by yet another failure in Scott Morrison’s quarantine system and is racing through the country and nine out of 10 Australians are not fully protected.
KARVELAS: I don't want to get into a linguistic, semantics kind of argument, but he does say it's regrettable. What's the difference  between sorry and regrettable? He's not happy. He's not happy it's behind?
BUTLER: Of course he's not happy. Nor should he be. But it reminds people, this is the Prime Minister who says “I don't hold a hose, mate.” When is he going to take responsibility and face up to his own failures? That's what the Australian people want. I think I said earlier in this interview, the Australian people are a forgiving group. They recognise that negotiating a once in a century pandemic is not easy and misjudgments will be made, mistakes will be made. What they expect of their leaders is honesty and some courage and taking responsibility. That's what we're not getting from this Prime Minister. When he mouths the word “regrettable” or “takes responsibility,” in the same breath he points to other people and says it was their fault. I think people are getting sick of it. I know I'm getting sick of it.  I wish he'd take some responsibility.
KARVELAS: Let's do this stuff quickly because I got overly excited over language. JobKeeper. He's been asked about JobKeeper and the push for it to be restored. He said that solved last year's problem. Is he right that we're at a different phase now?
BUTLER: I’m not sure what the difference is. Sydney is into an extended lockdown. I think we all hope that Victoria is able to start to wind things back at the end of the 7-day extension and things are looking pretty hopeful. I cross my fingers in my state of South Australia. But things are very difficult right now in Australia. I think it's not just Labor calling for JobKeeper or something like it that maintains that connection between an employer and employee. We have seen big parts of the hospitality industry that are right on the front-line of this, often the first to have to close down and the last to get back on their feet, they've been calling today for the return of something like JobKeeper. If the Prime Minister's pride doesn't let him call it that, let's put in place something that allows that relationship of employee and employer to be maintained.
KARVELAS: Let's talk about what the rest of 2021 will look like. South Australia has entered lockdown last night with a total of five cases at the time. We're seeing this snap lockdown approach because of the delta strain. Level with Australians as you analyse it based on what the experts say, should Australians now just be prepared for rolling snap lockdowns potentially for the rest of the year?
BUTLER: I don't know whether it's the rest of the year. I’ll be frank with you Patricia, I don't know. The Budget Papers assume there will be a lockdown, a substantial lockdown, every month for the rest of the year. We're seeing with this new variant it is highly infectious. It's passed on in a way previous variants weren't, the so-called fleeting transmission. The New South Wales Premier again said today while you have got such low rates of vaccination, no responsible government can do anything other than lock the place down in the face of a highly infectious dangerous variant. We're a long way from having substantial levels of vaccination when we're just at 11 per cent now. And we're a long way from having purpose built quarantine. We were seeing very regular outbreaks through hotel quarantine through the course of June and there's no reason to expect they won't happen over the course of the year as well. I think we're in for a very tough few months because our quarantine system wasn't put in place properly by Scott Morrison and our vaccination rates are too low. As to when Australians can start to see some light at the end of the tunnel, I think we're all desperately waiting for the modelling that National Cabinet commissioned from the Doherty Institute to start to look at what levels of vaccination are appropriate to start thinking about alternatives to hard lockdowns. But we haven't even got that modelling yet. We’ve got the lowest rate of vaccinations in the developed world. I think unfortunately it's a little way off.
KARVELAS: When we have got high rates of vaccination which we want to get to, it seems there's massive consensus on that one. And every single Australian that possibly can, we will see what happens with children of course, but adult Australians are offered a vaccine. Should we be prepared to let this virus into our country, and to deal with the inevitable deaths even if they're at a lower number than originally would have been the case without vaccination? Is that just something we have to be prepared to deal with?
BUTLER: At some stage life will have to return to normal. All of the experts say this virus isn't simply going to disappear into a puff of smoke any more than the 1989 novel influenza virus disappeared. It stayed in various forms for decades. It's about finding vaccines that allow us to keep a step ahead of the virus as it mutates. And making sure the most vulnerable members of the community are protected against it. I think everyone sees that we’re going to have to have life return to normal. We'll have to do it in a deliberate way, in a stepped way, in a way that's informed by the sort of modelling I talked about, that we want the people from Doherty Institute to provide, and looking frankly at countries overseas and some of the experiences that we're going to see, particularly out of the UK, over the coming couple of months and what that means. We're at an early stage of trying to understand what needs to be done for under 16s, teenagers. Clinical trials are already underway in the US about Pfizer being used for under 12s. There's still a way to go to understand some of the detail about that.
KARVELAS: Mark Butler always good to talk to you. I hope you're ok in lockdown.