DOORSTOP: 16/3/21

March 16, 2021


MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGEING: The latest information this morning indicates that about 389 million doses of COVID vaccine have been delivered around the world. That's an increase of about 50 million doses from just last Friday, when I made some remarks back in Adelaide. In the US, 109 million doses have been delivered, in the UK, 26 million doses have been delivered, more than half of the adult population in that country have already received at least their first choice of a COVID-19 vaccine. But here in Australia only 164,000 Australians have received the COVID vaccine. Well over 99 per cent of the Australian population is still to receive even their first dose of the COVID vaccine. 

Now I've said many times before the Prime Minister promised that 4 million vaccines would have been delivered by the end of this month. A target that they long ago decided to slip into April, then into the end of April and have now dropped altogether. I've seen other targets, announced over the last little while, a target of 6 million vaccines by the 10th of May, and perhaps as many as 11 million by the end of May - 6 million by the 10th of May, 11 million by the end of May. But what we've seen this morning is that the systems to deliver this strategy are remarkably still not in place. We’ve seen from the College of General Practitioners, their President, Doctor Karen Price remarks this morning, just reflecting again what I've said, that the national booking system, the way in which Australians books their vaccine is still being built. We’ve known for months that we would need a National Booking System and still if you look at the Department of Health website it is still being built. Doctor Price described the National Booking System this morning as “a little bit of a mystery.” Well, more than 6 million Australians are due to be able to book their vaccines from next week without a National Booking System, without a National Booking System. This is utterly remarkable and irresponsible. 

Also, we've seen not just from Doctor Price but other GPs this morning as well, a complete lack of certainty about how many doses GP practises will be delivered next week to start that new phase. The over 70 year olds and others as well in the population GPs have no idea whether they will be provided doses next week, they are being inundated by phone calls to their receptionist asking whether their patients can book with them and they're not able to provide any information whatsoever. This vaccine rollout is fast becoming a complete mess. It is way behind schedule and the systems that we need in place are still remarkably still being built. At the same time, though, the government is quick to pull out JobKeeper, losing as many as 250,000 jobs we heard this morning, while the vaccine rollout strategy that is intended to undermine confidence in the economic recovery is way behind schedule. Quick to pull the economic supports, way too slow, a snail’s pace vaccine rollout. 

Can I also say that this morning we've again seen divisions within the coalition about the fundamentals of this vaccine roll out. The Deputy leader of the National Party in the Senate, senator Canavan has made some deeply irresponsible comments that directly undermine the authority and the integrity of the Therapeutic Goods Administration. One of the best regulators of medicines and other therapeutic goods in the world. Remarkably, I've seen nothing from the Prime Minister, nothing from the Minister of Health to counter those deeply irresponsible comments from Senator Canavan, but I can say on behalf of Labor that we have full confidence in the ability of the Therapeutic Goods Administration to monitor any adverse events information from around the world and to provide appropriate advice to the Australian community and to the Australian Government. These comments from Senator Canavan are dangerous, they are divisive and further undermine a vaccine rollout that is already way behind schedule. Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: So to be absolutely clear, you and Labor don't want any kind of pause to look at what the concerns in Europe. You don't want any kind of pause, you want everything to go on its normal rollout as was indicated by the Treasury this morning?

BUTLER: We have full confidence in the TGA's ability to monitor any adverse events information for any of the vaccines that will be delivered here in Australia and to provide appropriate information to the Australian Government and most importantly to the Australian Community and will listen to the advice of the TGA and our public health experts. 

JOURNALIST: Do you think that you know, given that in Australia at the moment the you know we don't really have a huge risk of COVID at the moment given our cases are so low? So you really think that speed is paramount here, given that we don't have those sorts of concerns, why not just, you know, slow it down a bit, make sure that all the processes are in place and that we're actually doing it safely rather than doing it as fast as possible.

BUTLER: We supported a full consideration of all information for the TGA to approve these vaccines. But we've said once they are approved by the TGA vaccines should be rolled out as quickly as possible. We have full confidence in the TGA. We supported the full consideration Unlike the emergency approval processes followed in some countries in the Northern Hemisphere. But now that approval has been given it is time to get this vaccine rolled out. We know from the cases we saw just in Queensland and NSW this week that frontline quarantine workers and others in the community are still exposed to COVID being brought back from returned Australians another travellers and we also know that confidence in the economic recovery seriously dependent upon a successful rollout of the vaccines. We heard that from business group after business group over the last several days complaining about the slowness of that vaccine rollout. 

JOURNALIST: Papua New Guinea, there are some serious concerns what is going on there with a spike in cases. Pat Conroy spoke to your party room this morning about 40 per cent of pregnant mothers in that country have Coronavirus. What should the Government be doing about Papua New Guinea given its proximity to our doorstop?

BUTLER: You rightly make the point PNG at its closest point is only a few kilometres from Australia up near the Torres Strait. It is in our national interest as well as a good neighbour that COVID does not get a hold in PNG. Pat Conroy gave a comprehensive report to our party room this morning and he's already called for three things to be considered by the Government. First, an urgent release of PPE, personal protective equipment, particularly for frontline health workers in PNG who are really on the frontline there, but also the ability to get further testing kits available to PNG and finally to consider a release of some vaccines to be given to frontline health workers that are most at risk but are also the most the most obvious potential spreaders of infection in the general community. This is a very serious concern. Now I’ve seen reports in the last few hours the Commonwealth and the Queensland Governments are in consultation about a response. I support that, it needs to happen sooner rather than later.

JOURNALIST: Back on the comments from Canavan and Craig Kelly this morning, is it dangerous that they’re undermining the TGA and our medical experts?

BUTLER: One of the fundamental pillars of our vaccine rollout strategy is respect for the authority and the advice of the TGA. That is a fundamental pillar and when you have people like Craig Kelly, and now, more worryingly, a member of the National Party leadership team, undermining that authority and saying that his views, after looking at some websites, should be substituted for the advice of the TGA and authority the TGA has for monitoring adverse event information from overseas is deeply irresponsible. At a time when the vaccine is already way behind schedule, when we know how important a successful rollout is for economic confidence, the economic recovery, as well as the Australian people. This is something the Prime Minister needs to jump on. We’ve seen nothing from him over the last several hours, nothing from the Minister for Health, the only spokespeople from the Government on the vaccine rollout this morning appear to be Senator Canavan and that is deeply irresponsible.

JOURNALIST: Circling back on PNG there are concerns that given Australia is behind in its rollout to divert our resources to help them would further slow us. Do you think that’s a cost/benefit that the Government should pursue that will potentially delay our rollout even further to make sure that where the risk is, is vaccinated?

BUTLER: This is a judgement the Australian Government are best positioned to make. Obviously it’s important that we get the vaccine rolled out through our own country. But PNG, as you know is only a few kilometres from the tip of Cape York at its closest. There’s a deep national interest that Australia has in preventing COVID from getting out of control in our closest neighbour. I support the Commonwealth and the Queensland Government discussions which I understand have been taking place this morning. We've said that a release of PPE (personal protective equipment, testing kits, and potentially vaccines for a small group of frontline health workers, that really are the critical element of controlling this vaccine spread in PNG should be considered by the Commonwealth. Now we've made a contribution as a country to the Covax facility, as you know that will potentially release vaccines to PNG and a range of other countries, but that won't be for several weeks now and the reports we’re getting is, but this is a burgeoning emergency in PNG that needs to be brought under control now, not in several weeks.