January 10, 2022


MANDY PRESLAND, HOST: As that vaccination rollout starts, there are still concerns about the pace of the COVID booster rollout in the nation's aged care homes. Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt says just over half of Australia's 2,600 Commonwealth aged care facilities have received vaccine boosters, with the remainder scheduled to be received by the end of the month. The CEO of Aged and Community Services Australia has told the ABC more than 500 homes are currently experiencing COVID outbreaks. In response, the Morrison Government has provided 5 million rapid antigen tests to the aged care system and sourced staff from private agencies to work an additional 60,000 shifts to cover the furloughed staff. Mark Butler is the Shadow Health Minister and he joins us now. Is the aged care sector in crisis, Mark Butler?

MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER HEALTH AND AGEING: It is, yet again, really a tragedy in this pandemic has been that the most vulnerable members of our communities, those who are living in residential aged care facilities keep getting hit the hardest by each wave of this pandemic. And the fourth wave, this dreadful exploding fourth wave that we're currently experiencing here in Australia, is no different to the previous three waves which hit residential aged care pretty much harder than any other part of our community. 
It is unbelievable, nine weeks into the booster program, that there are still hundreds and hundreds of aged care facilities that haven't received booster shots for their residents, let alone their staff members. We know how crucial booster shots are in providing protection against this Omicron variant which evades two doses of vaccines in a way we've never seen before.

PRESLAND: So as I mentioned there, the Government has provided extra staff to fill in for those that have had to be furloughed, 60,000 shifts are being covered. Is the Government doing enough?
BUTLER: They're not. Their first and foremost obligation was to get boosters into the arms of our 250,000 or so residents of aged care facilities as soon as they possibly could. We're nine weeks into the booster program and there are still thousands and thousands of residents who have not received this crucial booster shot and as a result, we've gone from having 50 facilities on Christmas Day who had outbreaks to 500 facilities in just two weeks, hundreds and hundreds of facilities hit by outbreaks, with tens of thousands of residents now locked down in their rooms, unable to receive visitors. Many of them who are experiencing cognitive impairment like dementia and such like will be feeling very bewildered, very distressed at why they've been locked in their rooms yet again. This is an unspeakable tragedy and the Government's frankly got to tell us what their plans are to get these booster programs back on track in aged care.
PRESLAND: Surely though those booster programs won't stop the infections from outside getting into the home? If staff are catching it outside, they're still going to take it into the homes?

BUTLER: That’s right and we need to see what other measures that the Government is considering to protect aged care. Unfortunately, this is not a new experience. We've seen this before in each of the waves where the Government has shown itself unable to provide the protection to aged care that really it should. Whether it's the early waves and the failure to provide personal protective equipment, or later waves where staff are allowed to work across more than one facility. So what is the Government's plan to provide the protection given all of the tragic experience we've had over the past two years? There should be very clear arrangements in place to make sure that staff are getting boosters as well. But again, staff appear to be being left to their own devices to get these crucial booster shots rather than getting the support they should be getting from the Federal Government. And what are the arrangements around staff working across multiple facilities that were seen as so crucial in the previous waves of this pandemic?

PRESLAND: New South Wales and Queensland have now relaxed isolation rules for critical workers to get them back to work. Is this something Labor supports?

BUTLER: Obviously it's critical to ensure that there are as many qualified staff as possible working in aged care facilities and there frankly, with a staffing shortage even before this pandemic began because of the billions of dollars that Scott Morrison cut from aged care when he was the Treasurer. That staffing shortage has been exacerbated by the international border restrictions, which obviously all of us support, but has hit aged care hard. And now because of the enormous number of people having to isolate because of this disastrous fourth wave age, aged care is getting a triple whammy impact. So all sensible measures supported by public health advice to maximise the staffing availability for aged care is something we support but we need to tread carefully here. As I say these are very, very vulnerable members of our community who, tragic experience demonstrates, can be hit very, very hard by this pandemic.

PRESLAND: Ninety-two per cent of people aged 16 and over and now double vaccinated in Australia. We are one of the most protected nations in the world. Doesn't the Federal Government deserve credit for that?

BUTLER: Australian people deserve credit for the hard work in getting out and getting the two doses of vaccines. We had the slowest rollout in the developed world because Scott Morrison was too late in accessing the supply of vaccines that other countries had accessed months and months before Australia. But over the course of the second half of 2021, Australians performed magnificently and got those two doses. But we know that you need a third dose to protect against Omicron. And so yet again, even though our infection rates now are among the highest in the world, we’re higher than the UK, higher than the US, Canada, and many European countries with the possible exception of France. We are experiencing a devastating fourth wave here in terms of case numbers. But we still have one of the slowest booster rollouts in the world. Huge infection numbers and a terrible booster program thanks to Scott Morrison.

PRESLAND: Given the number of infections currently in the community, where do you stand on the start of term one being delayed for school children?

BUTLER: Again, unfortunately, I think we're really staring down the barrel of yet another bungled vaccine rollout from Scott Morrison for our primary school children. I heard the excerpts from the interview with General Frewen and I must say it's all well and good to have millions of doses sitting in warehouses somewhere around the country, but there are widespread reports from GPs, pharmacies and most importantly, parents that they simply can't get the appointments they want to ensure that their children have at least one dose of the vaccine before school returns later this month. Simply GPs are not getting enough supply. They're just not getting the volume of the doses that they need. They might be getting 100 doses per week, they might have as many as 1,500 5 to 11 year old children on their books. And many, many GPs are saying the vaccines aren't just turning up. So they had bookings for today for parents who wanted to bring their primary school children in to get their vaccine The vaccines didn't turn up on Friday. So those bookings have had to be cancelled. This has the potential to be a complete debacle. It is obviously important for parents and also for school communities that as many children have had at least one dose of vaccine before the return to school later this month.

PRESLAND: Just finally, as we go to air Novak Djokovic’s lawyers are arguing the tennis player had grounds for medical exemption from COVID-19 vaccination requirements. What do you make of this saga as it continues to unfold?

BUTLER: Obviously, we'll wait to see the result of the court hearing I suspect later today. But this has been an embarrassing soap opera of Scott Morrison’s making. He tried to pretend that this was all the responsibility of the Victorian State Government as to who crossed our international borders, when very clearly, it's the job of the Commonwealth Government. And it would appear from the evidence that there have been very, very mixed messages being delivered by our Commonwealth Government. So this is something I think that Scott Morrison needs to explain very clearly to the Australian people, how we ended up in this position, and he should be releasing all of the documentation, not just having the Australian people see this in the newspapers because of court proceedings. He should be releasing all of the documentation that shows what representations were made by the Commonwealth Government to end us up in this position that we find ourselves in.

PRESLAND: Mark Butler, I appreciate your time. Thank you.

BUTLER: Thank you.