DOORSTOP: 17/3/21

March 17, 2021


SUBJECTS: PNG COVID-19 support; AstraZeneca concerns; online booking system chaos, vaccine rollout.

MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGEING: I want to say a few remarks firstly about the Government’s announcements in relation to the emerging COVID crisis in our closest neighbouring country, PNG. As you know the Labor Party, through Pat Conroy, had made some comments about this issue over the last couple of days, calling for a very strong, coordinated response from the Australian Government. Labor welcomes the response announced this morning by the Morrison Government. There is an emerging crisis on our doorstep, this is the right thing to do as a good neighbour and the right thing to do in our national interest and we support the measures announced today.

I also want to make a few remarks about the press conference that was conducted just before Question Time by Minister Hunt and also the head of the TGA and the Secretary of the Department about a number of adverse events that have been reported after the administration of the AstraZeneca vaccine in Queensland. In particular, four events of anaphylaxis amongst four different Queensland patients. I’ve read the advice that’s been provided by the TGA. That advice essentially says that the batches of AstraZeneca that were administered in Queensland, batches that have been administered across a number of jurisdictions are regarded by the TGA as safe and batches that should continue to be administered appropriately, in accordance with the advice of the TGA into the future. The TGA has also reiterated standing advice that any patient that does have a history of severe allergic reaction to vaccinations, particularly a history of anaphylaxis should have a discussion with their treating doctor before seeking a COVID vaccine. This seems to us to be the proper advice from the TGA and we support the advice of the TGA and the decision by the Government to continue the implementation and administration of both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines in accordance with and subject to those pieces of advice provided by the TGA.

Finally, I want to make remarks about the National Booking System. That system has finally been announced today weeks after it was first suggested by the Prime Minister. I say finally because this is a system that should have been in place well before the commencement, particularly, of phase 1b of the vaccine rollout strategy. Already, we are seeing widespread confusion and widespread frustration on the part of GPs and patients right across the country. The health system website continues to drop out, people are continuing to have problems logging onto a website that is the gateway to the vaccine rollout strategy. We are finding that GP practices that were announced through various newspapers this morning as GP practices where patients can access the vaccines are not appearing on the Department of Health website. We are also hearing from a range of GPs that they don't know how many doses of the vaccine they’re going to receive as one of the first 1,100 or so GP practices rolling this vaccine out. In some cases they are told they will only receive 50 doses of the vaccine despite having hundreds and hundreds of patients who are already on their books who will be eligible under phase 1b. We’re are also hearing story after story of patients who are ringing GP practices listed in the newspapers and on the website as being eligible but being told that their books are closed and so they will not be able to get a vaccine through that practice. We are also hearing stories even of patients of those existing practices, so existing patients of those practices, that they will have to ring back much later, as long as a month later, to be able to make a booking. This is simply not good enough. These systems should have been tested and finalised weeks ago. Instead all we are seeing out there today is chaos and confusion.

Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: We’ve spoken to a lot of older Australians today who are very stressed because they haven’t been able to get an appointment. Do you think it’s a communication breakdown or is it something that’s always going to happen with a vaccine rollout this large?

BUTLER: This is much more fundamental than a communications breakdown. We’ve been saying for weeks now, that these key systems, particularly the system that drives how people can book a vaccine should have been in place weeks ago. We knew last year that we were going to have to conduct this sort of mass vaccination, the Government should have had these systems tested and finalised weeks before the first phase of broad community rollout, which is phase 1b, was anywhere close to being initiated. They’ve been too slow, too late putting these systems in place and unfortunately no surprise that there’s the sort of chaos and confusion that you see out there. It’s incredibly frustrating for GPs an the staff of GP practices that are being inundated with phone calls today that they’re not able to respond to, clearly, and particularly the frustration for patients.

JOURNALIST: Do you think this will have an impact of public confidence? Maybe even disincentivise people from booking because it’s all too hard?

BUTLER: I really hope not. I really hope that people can be patient. Unfortunately these systems should have been in place earlier. They should have been rolled gold systems that should roll out smoothly as soon as phase 1b was ready to go. Now that’s not the case, but I hope that doesn’t result in any increase in vaccine hesitancy. The position of Labor is that everyone should, as far as possible, and as soon as possible, get access to this vaccine and take the vaccine. We just want the systems to work properly, we want the commitments that the government has made to be implemented.

JOURNALIST: Moving ahead with phase 1b, but 1a is continuing, would you hope that from the first week of 1b that the Government would, and states, would be reporting the data of the rollout in both of those phases separately, so it was possible to see where each state is at rather than one homogenous total?

BUTLER: We want as much information as we possibly can get. We're not obviously party to the discussions that happen within National Cabinet between State & Territory Governments and the Commonwealth about that but we want as much granular detail about how this strategy is being implemented as possible. We want to know how it's rolling out in aged care. We want to know how the remainder of phase 1a is rolling out. It is so critical that our border quarantine workers and frontline health workers, particularly those who might be exposed to COVID patients are getting vaccinated very, very quickly. So you're right, that granular detail is absolutely critical, can’t all be lumped in one single number that the Minister or his bureaucrats roll out every day.

JOURNALIST: Mark, 8,000 vaccines for PNG, a country with 9 million people, is that enough?

BUTLER: We have said that advice from ACID, among others, is that the critical emergency challenge is to get the frontline health workers in PNG vaccinated. And we've been told that 20,000 vaccines would be a better place to deal with that task. 8,000 is a very good start. We know that this is a difficult measure for the Australian Government to take because we've got our own challenges in rolling out the vaccine here in Australia. So we’d just like the Commonwealth, the Morison Government to monitor this very closely. We support broadly the package that announced this morning, obviously there's going to have to be close attention paid to whether or not these measures are sufficient, or whether they need to be increased over time.

JOURNALIST: You’ve criticised delays in the rollout, government not meeting its targets. But they are handing substantial numbers of doses to states to administer and we've learned only about 30 per cent on average of getting into people’s arms. Do you agree that to some extent these state health jurisdictions do have to take responsibility that there's clearly delays at their end of the delivery as well?

BUTLER: Everyone's got to do their job here. My role is as the opposition federal health spokesperson, I get paid to hold the Federal Government accountable for commitments that've made and responsibilities that they hold. But beyond that, look, all of us, every person with a responsibility to roll out this strategy successfully needs to do their job properly. They need to play their part in getting this strategy implemented safely, effectively, and quickly.

JOURNALIST: Is it starting to get away from the Federal Government? There's been quite a few problems. This is only the latest in that series and the AMA today says unrealistic expectations could be a problem.

BUTLER: I think this Government has a record of over announcement and under delivery well beyond the health portfolio unfortunately. We support the vaccine rollout strategy. I heard the Prime Minister make some very partisan remarks during Question Time. We support this vaccine rollout strategy. We've been utterly united in supporting the idea that principle that people in this building should follow the advice of bodies like the TGA. I can't say the same for the Coalition party room, which continues to be divided on core issues like that. But that doesn't mean we're not going to hold the government accountable for implementation. They are the ones, I didn't make this commitment, they are the ones who said there would be 4 million vaccinations delivered by the end of March. Now, Greg Hunt called 200,000 today, a milestone. There is well over 350 million vaccines that have been delivered around the world more than 110 million in the US, 26 million in the UK, 200,000 is simply not good enough. We've got to do better. We've got to start scaling this up quickly. And the failure, the acute chaos, the confusion we're seeing with the National Booking System today is just one more problem this government has essentially presented in the successful rollout of strategy.

JOURNALIST: The Federal Government is allocating 1 million vaccine doses from the AstraZeneca supply from the EU. Clearly the EU is saying we are going to deliver them well down the track. If PNG needs those doses should we really be helping them provide more than that? Is it appropriate for the Federal Government to put the pressure on the European Union in order to give our closet neighbour access to AstraZeneca right now?

BUTLER: It's obviously important that we continue to monitor this we've got to assist our closest neighbour, a dear friend that PNG is, to be able to scale up a response to what is this emerging crisis, as I said, the most immediate urgent action needed is to vaccinate the frontline health workers. And I think the Commonwealth Government’s made some good announcements in relation to that today. The announcement the Prime Minister made about the further 1 million doses from the European supply of AstraZeneca is something we also support. But we'll have to continue to monitor the adequacy of all of these commitments because it's not just as a good neighbour that we undertake these actions for PNG, it's also in our national interest. As Greg Hunt said, there is a clear and present danger posed by an uncontrolled outbreak of COVID on our doorstep.

JOURNALIST: So if there was an outbreak that could be linked back to PNG, would you then criticise the government for not doing enough then?

BUTLER: We support the measures that they've taken today. We would obviously encourage them to monitor them and I think they will do that to make sure those are adequate, make any refinements to the announcements they’ve made based on good advice from non-government organisations on the ground as well as our own bureaucrats.

Thanks, everyone.