ABC Radio 27/04/2021

April 27, 2021



SUBJECTS: Quarantine; India's Covid crisis. 

ALI CLARKE, HOST: We're now joined by the Shadow Health Minister federally, Mark Butler. Good morning.


DAVID BEVAN, CO-HOST: Mark Butler. If you were health minister and the Anthony Albanese was Prime Minister, what would you do today?

BUTLER: I would, last year, have taken the advice that was given to the Prime Minister to do two very important things around our quarantine system. Firstly, to put in place national standards for the hotels to extent, they continue to be used, including particularly around ventilation. Ventilation has been really the key driver in the outbreaks have seen in every one of our major cities now.

BEVAN: Yes, but the question wasn't if you had a time machine, and you were health minister, the question is, you’re health minister today, that'll give us an insight into what you think the government should do today.

BUTLER: What I think they should do today is catch up on last year and start to move to plans to build dedicated quarantine facilities outside of our major cities as soon as possible. The AMA has said that they should have started to do it last year, but if they haven't, at least start to do it today. I saw Greg Hunt in the media yesterday saying he was still waiting for detailed proposals from one proponent, at least in Toowoomba in Queensland. That's not good enough just to sit back and wait for proposals. The Commonwealth has always had responsibility for quarantine arrangements around our borders. They should proactively get out and do it. In the meantime, though, we are going to have to still use our hotels around the country until those facilities are ready in spite of the fact that our hotels weren't built for quarantine they were built for tourism. So to the extent we are going to use them, we must make sure that there are national standards in place to protect people who are in there, to protect the staff and ultimately, to protect the broader community from things like the lock down with saw over the long weekend in Perth and that particularly covers things like ventilation, personal protective equipment and making sure that everyone working in those hotels are vaccinated and we haven't done either of those three things yet.

BEVAN: We're sending help to India, which is obviously what we should do, but has it got to the point where that's really a sad joke? Because if you've got 300,000 cases a day, you just can't send enough oxygen. You can't send enough aid to try and get hold of this thing. In those cities where that is happening, the system looks like it's collapsing.

BUTLER: It breaks your heart to see what's happening in India; there are 350,000 reported infections every day. There are probably many, many more actually happening, as well as many more deaths than are being officially reported. We must do everything we can. Sometimes things in a country as big as that look overwhelming to a country like ours, with much smaller numbers. We have to do whatever we can and I'm really pleased to read reports this morning that the government is likely today to announce plans to send ventilators, to send medical equipment, I hope to send oxygen, which is in dire shortage over there, as should every other, particularly, rich country around the world be sending whatever support we can to India. It really just does break your heart to see what's happening over there.

CLARKE: Do you think we should have been allowing people to go to India for things like weddings or even to play sport?

BUTLER: No. I mean this has snuck up on us a bit. The numbers were nowhere near as bad as this a little while ago, but I think the government should have been a little bit more careful about the reasons for which people went to India and came back. Ultimately people come back, and they pay for their own hotel quarantine. But when an escape happens or an outbreak happens, it's the whole community that pays. Over the weekend Perth businesses were shut down, losing millions of dollars, people lost shifts, no one was able to come together for ANZAC Day in Perth and the Peel region. I think we've got to be a little bit more careful, particularly for those countries where COVID is running rampant and I heard your interview with Nicholas Spurrier as well. We've got 9,000 Australians in India out of 36,000 around the world who have registered wanting to come back to Australia. Well they’re in India now, Australian citizens who are in India, at risk. And not having proper quarantine arrangements in Australia means I think it's likely we're going to put in place further restrictions on their ability to come home and be safe.

CLARKE: Do you think that should happen?

BUTLER: I think it should. If the public health advice is that our quarantine arrangements right now are not able to cope with that level of potential risk, then obviously we need to protect the broader Australian community. We've done that with other countries like Italy and China and South Korea and Iran over the course of this pandemic. But I do make the criticism, frankly, our quarantine arrangements should have been better by now to allow us to deal with that risk. I suspect the public health advice will be we need further restrictions, maybe a temporary pause altogether in arrivals from India, and if that is the public health advice, my view would be we have to follow it and that's what we've done over the course of the last 12 or 13 months consistently and it served Australia very well.

BEVAN: That's a tough call. That’s saying to Australian citizens in India, you look at your window and there are cremation fires burning, but you can't come home because you might infect the rest of the country. That's a tough call.

BUTLER: That's an incredibly tough call, but ultimately it will be a decision for our public health experts who balance the risk right now. Scott Morrison has already reduced the intake by 30 per cent. The Western Australian government has requested a reduced intake overall. These are hard decisions that are taken temporarily. Ultimately, I'm not calling for any particular decision, all I say is that we've got to approach these things based on our best public health advice. That's what we've done in the past. But if we do it, it's because we haven't got our quarantine arrangements up to the quality we should have and that ultimately, is a Commonwealth Government responsibility, and I will continue to call on Scott Morrison and Greg Hunt to do better on this.

CLARKE: Mark Butler, Shadow Health Minister, thank you.

BUTLER: Thank you very much.