DOORSTOP: 13/5/21

May 13, 2021


MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER HEALTH AND AGEING: Labor has been calling, for months now, for the Australian Government to strike a deal with Moderna for access to their state-of-the-art mRNA vaccine. That's a position that the Government has consistently rejected as recently as the last few weeks. We do welcome the Government's decision to strike a deal with Moderna, finally, for access to that vaccine, but we ask the question why has it taken this long? The Moderna vaccine has been a mainstay of the vaccine rollout strategies of almost every other nation to which we usually compare ourselves. The US struck a deal with Moderna as early as August 2020. Deals were struck last year with Canada, with the UK, with the European Union, with Korea, Japan in January, Israel well into last year, tens and tens of millions of doses of this state-of-the-art vaccine have already been delivered to the people in those countries. A mainstay part of their vaccine rollout strategy. If the rest of the world struck deals with Moderna as early as last year for access to this state-of-the-art vaccine, why do Australians have to wait to the end of this year? What happened to Scott Morrison's promise that Australians were at the front of the vaccine queue?

I also want to address the utter confusion within Government ranks about the vaccine rollout strategy and its connection to our economic recovery. The Treasurer, when he was releasing his Budget on Tuesday told all of the good people of the Press Gallery here in Canberra, and the Australian community, that the Budget was squarely framed on an assumption that all Australians would be fully vaccinated, having received both doses of a COVID vaccine by the end of this year. The Prime Minister, the Health Minister and others have backed away from that commitment, which raises two important questions. What on earth is the Government's vaccine rollout strategy if the Prime Minister and the Treasurer of all people can't agree on it? And secondly, how can people trust the paper on which that Budget is written if the Prime Minister himself has backed away from such a central assumption that the Treasurer assured the Australian people of?

Thirdly can I just quickly address the news last night that we've seen the 17th outbreak now of COVID from hotel quarantine in the last several months with confirmation through genomic testing that the outbreak for the case detected in Victoria happened through hotel quarantine in Adelaide. These outbreaks are costing Australians enormously. We've seen lockdowns in cities, we've seen restrictions placed on people locally, restrictions based on travel between borders. When is the Prime Minister going to admit that hotels are built for tourism, not medical quarantine and act on the recommendations he's received for months now to build purpose built quarantine facilities that will take the pressure off our CBDs and keep Australians safe? Happy to take questions. 

JOURNALIST: Mr Butler, just on the aged care announcement, obviously Labor has doubts about whether the Government can fix the system, but the actual quantum of funding, do you think that is appropriate? Will Labor be able to fix the aged care system within the same amount of funding. Or will you increase funding for the sector?

BUTLER: Let me deal with a couple of points, Greg. The aged care system is in crisis. A crisis that emerged under this government and was particularly aggravated by $1.7 billion in cuts to aged care funding that Scott Morrison made while he was Treasurer. 

We know had to fix the system because the Royal Commission set a very clear pathway, based around 148 recommendations, and the Prime Minister needs to explain why on Tuesday night he rejected some of the most important central recommendations. Things like the minimum hours of care provided to residents, he rejected that and to the extent he’s delivering any improvement he’s delivering it much later than the Royal Commission recommended. He said nothing about increasing wages for aged care workers. The number of packages he'll deliver for home care fall short of the waitlist and so many other recommendations that were central to the pathway that the Royal Commission set to pull this system out of crisis. The Prime Minister needs to explain why he rejected those recommendations which were central to the task of fixing this system. 

JOURNALIST: So will you go to the election promising more money for aged care? 

BUTLER: We’ll take our time to work through the package that was announced on Tuesday night. We’ll talk to seniors’ groups, aged care unions, providers, clinicians and others over coming weeks. We’ll consider it carefully, but the first thing that needs to happen is for the Prime Minister to come clean with older Australians and their families and aged care workers and explain why those central recommendations were rejected by him.

JOURNALIST: The Health Minister seems to suggest earlier today that this order of Moderna is going to be reserved, that Pfizer and AstraZeneca will continue to be the mainstay vaccine candidates. Do you see the logic in that? 

BUTLER: We need to understand when the Moderna vaccines will arrive. This is a deal announced by the Government and the company very late in the day from a global perspective. As I said, all of those other countries to which we usually compare ourselves struck these deals well into last year, as early as the middle of last year, or at least over the Southern summer. Understandably, because the Government has been so lax, so slow in striking these deals as they were with Pfizer - a deal struck months after the UK and the US had struck their deals with Pfizer, we are going to have to wait for those supplies to arrive in Australia. 

JOURNALIST: Just following up on that, it sounds like the Health Minister is saying that Moderna will be kind of like the booster shot or this sort of reserve kind of part of our vaccine rollout. So why does it really matter that it's come so late, given that you know, once they actually do get those vaccines they’ll probably, just maybe, sit around, waiting for kind of being booster shots and later in the vaccine process. 

BUTLER: Let’s leave aside the booster shot question for the moment. The 10 million doses that the Government assures us will arrive before the end of the year are not booster shots, they’re vaccines to deal with the original virus that emerged from Wuhan. What we've been saying since the middle of last year is the Government should have been striking more deals than they did so that when circumstances arose, for example, like the circumstances that we confronted with AstraZeneca several weeks ago, there would have been other options to fall back on. What we have now is a circumstance where because of the TGA’s advice around AstraZeneca we’re simply challenged with the number of doses that we have for the under 50 population. The more vaccine deals you have, the more options you have to deal with unforeseen circumstances. So when, for example, the UK had to take the same decision we've taken in relation to under 50s around AstraZeneca, they were able to fall back on Moderna. These are the fallback options we were saying last year the Government should have negotiated deals around. Instead they waited until middle of 2021.

JOURNALIST: I think the booster shot thing, I mean boosters can cover you for the same – 

BUTLER: Sorry, I didn't address the booster shot question. We welcome that the Government has struck a deal to get access to booster shots, which are still subject to clinical trials, as I understand it, happening in the US. I have been calling for at least several weeks for the Government to recognise the need for booster shots to be available to Australians to deal with the variants that are emerging around the world. I've said weeks ago that the UK Government, for example, is planning to have to use booster shots as early as September or October this year. Next year is very late in the day, but at least, finally we've got the government to recognise the need to access some booster shots for Australians. But let's come back to the fundamental challenge, and the fundamental challenge is how slowly our vaccine rollout is proceeding. To have booster shots, you have to have received the original shots in the first place. At the moment, after almost three months of this vaccine rollout strategy ramping up to use the Prime Minister's language, we're running at a weekly or a seven day average of 400,000 doses per week. Now at that rate, it is going to take almost 100 more weeks to vaccinate just for the original dose. We’d be well into 2023. Booster shots need to follow having completed the full population vaccination and still we can’t get a clear answer form the Prime Minister or Treasurer about when that’s going to happen. 

JOURNALIST: The Health Minister was pretty confident that the Pfizer dose that was being ordered, that late order, would arrive by the end of the year. And he said that they would be more than enough to vaccinate the under 50s. Do you share this optimism?   

BUTLER: Frankly, I am very sceptical about any of the assurances this Government has given on vaccinations. We’ve received so many promises. ‘We’ll receive 4 million doses by the end of March’ – that didn’t happen. We were assured that all the priority groups, the most vulnerable in our community or those caring for the most vulnerable would be vaccinated by Easter – we’re not even close to that still weeks after Easter. We were told then 6 million doses would be delivered by Monday the 10th of May, the beginning of this week – not even half of that has been delivered. So, forgive me if I take any assurances from the Minister with a grain of salt. 

We just need to see this ramp up quickly. At the moment we are flat lining at about 400 000 doses per week. That is going to see us still vaccinating Australians with the original vaccines well into 2023. Simply not good enough. 

JOURNALIST: Is there a risk now that we have the Pfizer, we’ve got a deal with Moderna. Even though the Government wants that for booster shots the people are going to want to wait and get a Pfizer and Moderna shot instead of having the AstraZeneca if they are over 50? 

BUTLER: Well that is a risk because the Government hasn’t outlined a vaccine rollout strategy since they were unable to meet their original promises. They have refused to at least publicise if they have it privately, a clear vaccine rollout strategy that tells Australians, clinicians, pharmacists, what doses are going to be delivered and in what timeframes. 

Now just to be clear, the original delivery of Moderna vaccines are not booster shots. The vaccines we are getting ‘this year’ apparently, so Greg Hunt says, are vaccines for the original virus they are not booster shots.

JOURNALIST: Yes, but they can still be a booster. If you were vaccinated at the start of the year your vaccine might run out. Then you might need a booster of the original. It can still be a booster if it is a new variant or the old variant.  

BUTLER: We’ll it’s not a booster if it is for the original virus. 

JOURNALIST: I mean it is, as far as I am aware, you know how for the flu vaccine you get a shot for different variants? As far as I am aware vaccines run out in terms of the potency in your body and you need a booster shot (inaudible)  

BUTLER: We simply don’t have the evidence about that. About how long the original vaccines last for. That’s obviously something we are going to learn more about over the course of this year. Certainly, from countries that are much more advanced in their vaccine rollout than we are. 

JOURNALIST: Mr Butler. Is it right for the Government to go to the next election still promising stage 3 tax cuts? 

BUTLER: That’s obviously a matter for them. 

JOURNALIST: What’s your view on stage 3 tax cuts? 

BUTLER: Jim Chalmers has outlined Labor’s position on that, I fully support what Jim has said over the course of today. 

JOURNALIST: Which is what? What is your position on it, what is your personal position? 

BUTLER: I’ve said I agree entirely with what Jim Chalmers has said in relation to stage 3 tax cuts earlier today. He speaks for the Opposition on matters of tax. We’ll be announcing our position in relation to income tax well before the election. 

JOURNALIST: On the health portfolio, obviously big spend ahead of the last election which did force Labor to go with extra revenue measures, such as franking credits. Chris Bowen, when he was in the portfolio indicated that he would have a far lower spend than the last election, spending a bit more than the Government. Is that going to be your approach in the portfolio as well? 

BUTLER: We’ll outline our health policies well before the election.

JOURNALIST: Mark can I just ask one about mRNA production? Obviously Moderna is interested in taking up the Governments approach to market – might be other ones as well. Greg Hunt has said that we would see an mRNA factory as being privately owned. Would you like to see it be a publicly owned asset? 

BUTLER: We just want to see it delivered. Obviously, that’s a matter for the Government and private operators to negotiate about but we’ve again been calling for this for months. The Government said, I can’t remember if it was October or November last year, that they were looking at this and we we’re 6-7 months down the track and still nothing has happened. Other counties have recognised that the domestic or sovereign capability around mRNA vaccines is good for the local workforce and local industry. But most importantly, it gives security of supply to the state of the art 21st Century technology. The Government again has been utterly flat footed on this. Germany largely built that capability in a matter of months so they’re able to manufacture those sorts of vaccines there. We just want to see the Government get on with it. 

JOURNALIST: Would it be helpful to have it publicly owned though like CSL used to be? Do you think, it’s fair enough to have it as private? 

BUTLER: I think it’s going to have to be Government supported. I think it is very clear Government is going to have to come to the table and provide public support to get this happening as quickly as it possibly can. Labor has indicated if we were in Government, we would be doing that. We’ve got the jobs reconstruction fund that would give us the ability to provide financial support to get this thing happening as soon as possible. Enough talk from the Government about this we want to see some action. 

JOURNALIST: The committee on Question Time has recommended shorter questions, shorter answers, restricted Dorothy Dixers, restricted use of phones during Question Time. Are they recommendations that you would support? 

BUTLER: We’ll work our way through that report.

JOURNALIST: Would you like to see Dixers restricted though? 

BUTLER: We’ll work our way through that report. 

JOURNALIST: Mr Butler, Tony Blair has written an article. He’s voiced his concerns about Centre-Left parties around the world facing extinction, potentially. He says they are too wedded to old fashioned economic ideals and also, woke identity politics which he says repels the electorate. Do you share his concerns? 

BUTLER: I have to say I haven’t read that article. I usually read what Tony Blair writes with great interest, I have a great deal of respect for him. But I am very confident that the Centre-Left party in Australia that has been around since the centaury before last, has got a very long and promising future. 

JOURNALIST: You mentioned a 17th leak out of hotel quarantine and the reliability of that system. Will Labor give funding to more federally owned quarantine facilities?

BUTLER: We’ve said for some time now and Anthony Albanese has repeated this in his speech to the  McKell Institute last week that we think there is a role for Government to support construction or the refit of purpose built quarantine facilities around the country. The Commonwealth has been responsible for quarantine for more than 100 years, it is set out in the constitution very clearly I can’t remember a politician in recent memory who has made more of the role of the Commonwealth in securing its borders than the former Immigration Minister Scott Morrison but when it comes to a global pandemic, he washes his hands completely of the Commonwealth’s responsibility to put in place safe, national, quarantine facilities. 

The recommendations have been clear. The AMA repeated their calls from this over the last couple of weeks. Purpose built, national facilities, and safe, national standards. Standards around personal protective equipment, around vaccination for staff working in quarantine facilities and perhaps most importantly, particularly for hotel quarantine to the extent we continue to have to rely upon it, ventilation standards. I think what we will see again is that some of those standards or the lack of those national standards will be at play yet again here in this latest outbreak.