DOORSTOP: 15/2/21

February 15, 2021


MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGEING: Our thoughts remain with the people of Victoria today. As they endure another day of lockdown in response to the latest outbreak from the Holiday Inn at Melbourne Airport. Over the past three months all five of our major cities have been impacted by outbreaks from hotel quarantine, all causing very serious social and economic disruption. Outbreaks from quarantine are right now, the biggest failing Australia has in its COVID-19 response, and it is a failing for which Scott Morrison as the country's Prime Minister, is constitutionally and legally responsible. Australians are fast losing patience with the impacts and disruption caused by a failing hotel quarantine system and it's no longer acceptable for Scott Morrison to continue to duck shove responsibility for this onto eight different state and territory governments.
Last week the AMA called for urgent national action to deal with this issue, and this week Scott Morrison must outline the steps he intends to take to bring this matter back under control. What dedicated national facilities are able to be put in place to take the pressure off our CBDs with quarantining return travellers? What national standard will be put into place? And driven from a national level to deal with the issues that are being well traversed over the past several months, around staffing arrangements, around access to PPE, particularly masks, and also around ventilation - given the vast and broad view of health experts that this disease to the degree it has become airborne? We want to see that detail from Scott Morrison over the course of this week.
On vaccines, Australians remember that back in August, Scott Morrison promised, to use his words, Australians will be “among the first in the world to receive a COVID-19 vaccine” and in November he promised again that Australia was “at the front of the queue”. Well, we are now in the second half of February and still not a single Australian has received a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Around the world figures indicate that more than 170 million people have already received their vaccine. In America, more than 52 million Americans have received their vaccine, and in the UK, more than a quarter of the adult population has been vaccinated. In those countries, in the US, in the UK and across Europe, the Pfizer vaccine was being delivered to people in less than a week after their authorities approved it.

Today it is 3 weeks since the TGA approved the Pfizer vaccine, and still that vaccine is not even in the country. Critical details remain utterly unclear. When are we going to receive these vaccines and in what quantity? How will they be distributed to the states? Still, the training arrangements have not been finalised for staff who for the first time in Australia will be using multi-dose vials. The online booking system is not yet completed. And we read a story in the newspaper this morning that Greg Hunt and Brad Hazzard, the New South Wales Health Minister, can't even agree on which level of government is responsible for the vaccine rollout in the state of New South Wales. Scott Morrison promised Australians that 4 million vaccinations would be delivered by the end of next month. It's time now for him to outline clearly how he's going to deliver on that announcement.

JOURNALIST: Does Labor regret offering bipartisan support for full TGA approval given that emergency approval could have helped prevent these outbreaks by vaccinating frontline staff?

BUTLER: No, we think giving the TGA its proper remit to consider these issues carefully, to consider the impact of the rollout that had been happening earlier around the world was the right thing to do. But I say again, it's three weeks since the Pfizer vaccine was approved by the TGA. In the US, the UK, in Europe those vaccines were ready to go, being put into people's arms in less than a week after the approval was given. We’re three weeks on, the vaccine is not even in the country, we don't know what the training arrangements will be, what the delivery arrangements, what the booking arrangements are. Brad Hazzard and Greg Hunt can't even agree who is responsible for this rollout in our largest state. So it's not that the TGA was going through the wrong process - Labor continues to support that process. It’s the Government wasn’t ready to deliver on the approval once it was given.

JOURNALIST: I understand you’ve had some briefings off and on over the last few weeks and months. How long does batch testing take, according to the evidence or information you're given?

BUTLER: Well, the briefings I've been given, and I’ve only been in the portfolio as you know Andrew for a short while, but the briefings I was given recently by the CMO indicated that batch testing will take in the matter of days. Again, there are other testing arrangements that need to take place around the temperature control of the Pfizer vaccine, around the sealing of the vaccine and suchlike. As I say again, there’s still enormous confusion in the health sector about who was going to receive how many of the 80,000 doses that are intended to be received, apparently this week. Remember, that its only 80,000 doses that are being received in Australia this week. That is not a big number in the context of the huge number of healthcare staff, frontline hotel quarantine and border staff, residents of aged care facilities that are intended to be vaccinated in the first phase of this strategy.

JOURNALIST: We read some horrifying details about an alleged rape that happened in Parliament House two years ago, given that it was alleged to have happened two years ago and that the PMO and the Minister were aware back then, how crucial is it that they make comment or at least address this issue today?

BUTLER: Well, I think we're only still absorbing the details of this story, which has emerged out of the last few hours. Firstly, can I say that all of our thoughts are with the victim of this horrific event. This horrific crime that was perpetrated on her. It's the responsibility of everyone in this building, particularly those of us in positions of leadership to ensure that this workplace, Parliament house, like every workplace across the country, is a safe workplace, One that protects our staff and supports them. This is a horrific story, I think we're still absorbing the details of it and I'm sure there will be more to say about it over the course of this day.
JOURNALIST: Would you say that Parliament House is currently a safe workplace for women?

BUTLER: I think all workplaces need to do better in this respect, and this story shows that this workplace is no different. The Australian Parliament House must be a safe workplace for everyone working within it. A lot of those are young women, the hours are extended, the pressures are enormous, there are particular responsibilities I think we have in this building to ensure that everyone working for us, delivering on our democracy is safe and is supported.

JOURNALIST: Do you know which vaccine you'll be getting and is it appropriate for the Prime Minister and other politicians to be getting the Pfizer vaccine when it's actually AstraZeneca that most people need more reassurance on?

BUTLER: No, I don't know what vaccine I'll be getting. I'll be taking whatever vaccine is on offer of the portfolio so far that we have which is Pfizer or AstraZeneca. That's not a matter for me. I'll take what is offered to me. I have strong confidence in the TGA’s approval process. I think down the track we do need some more information from the Government about what they're doing to diversify our vaccine portfolio. Particularly, I've said a number of times, I'd like to know some detail about the Government's negotiations with Moderna, which produces the other highly effective mRNA vaccine. Australia doesn't appear to have any arrangements with that company that's delivering a vaccine around the world in the US, in Europe and other places with an effectiveness or efficacy rate of 95 per cent. I think we need some more detail from the Government about that, but personally I will take whatever vaccine is offered to me at the time in accordance with the vaccine strategy.

JOURNALIST: Further to Mr Karp’s question, do you think we are becoming a bit too brand focused when it comes to vaccines? Given that a lot of who take the flu shot every year would have no idea who makes it and its effectiveness, it’s probably less than the effectiveness, supposedly the effectiveness of any one of the COVID vaccines on offer?
BUTLER: As I said I will take whatever vaccine is offered to me of the portfolio the TGA approves. I don't accept the comparison with seasonal flu. This is a global pandemic, It's caused enormous disruption. There is obviously a lot of community interest in the different efficacy rates of different vaccines and making sure we have the broadest possible portfolio available to us. We've seen again, the enormous social and economic disruption being caused right now for the people of Victoria, businesses in Victoria, students in Victoria of this pandemic and its broader impact, so having the most effective vaccines, a diverse portfolio available to us, I think is the right way to go. 

That's why we criticised the Government last year for not having the world's best practise of five or six different vaccines on the table. But , AstraZeneca assuming it is approved by the TGA, Pfizer, both of them are vaccines which I would happily take.
JOURNALIST: Mark, Greg Hunt said yesterday that they would hope to get all of phase 1A, which is about 700,000 people vaccinated in the first six weeks that will be somewhere in the realm of mid-April. Do you think that that mark that was set out a while ago of getting 4 million people vaccinated by April is in jeopardy? Do you think they could still be on track?
BUTLER: That's a matter for Greg Hunt and the Prime Minister to outline clearly to us. We might receive 80,000 doses sometime this week. So we're deep into February by the time we received the first vaccine in country, only in the tens of thousands, and that has to be batch tested and then we have to be clear on how it's being distributed around the country. 

Time is moving on. As I said, millions of vaccinations are being delivered around the world everyday in countries very comparable to Australia: the UK, the US, other European countries, the vast bulk of Israel's population is already vaccinated.

It's time that the Prime Minister told Australians clearly, when this will start, how we will get to his promise of 4 million vaccinations by the end of March?
JOURNALIST: 80,000 jabs in that first shipment, who among that first cohort group should be getting priority for it? Obviously its border workers, hotel quarantine, aged care and frontline healthcare, who should be getting the first 80,000?
BUTLER: My view is that that's a matter for health experts. These decisions must be taken by experts who work out who is the most vulnerable and who is most in need. I think the population cohorts identified in phase 1A seem very sensible to me, but there's 685,000-odd of those, and there's only 80,000 doses arriving in Australia, potentially later this week, so experts are going to have take the hard decision to prioritise among those groups.
JOURNALIST: Should there be a significant expansion in the number of returned Australians coming back into Australia once quarantine workers are all given the jab?
BUTLER: I think all Australians want Scott Morrison, who is responsible for our borders, to be able to reassure them that our quarantine arrangements are going to operate effectively and safely. Australians are losing patience with the regular failings in our hotel quarantine system and particularly losing patience with the Prime Minister's inability or refusal to take responsibility for that. I don't think anyone can remember a politician in recent times who has made more of the Commonwealth's responsibility for our nation's borders than former immigration Minister Scott Morrison. But in the midst of a global pandemic, he wants to wash his hands and pretend this is all the responsibility of state governments. He is the one who promised that all stranded Australians will be home by Christmas. He's the one who has constitutional responsibility for setting up a safe, effective quarantine system that would allow that to take place. To the extent that these debates now emerge about what's happening with return travellers, what's happening with hotel quarantine, that is a responsibility of the Prime Minister. 

Thanks everyone.