DOORSTOP: 24/4/21

April 21, 2021


MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGEING: Good morning, everyone. As of this morning, we've received the latest global update on the vaccine rollout around the world. 925 million doses have been delivered of COVID-19 vaccines around the world; 925 million, just one and a half million here in Australia. In the United States, they've reached 213 million doses, just one and a half million here in Australia, and 43 million doses have been delivered in the United Kingdom. 

Yesterday, we also heard some shocking evidence in the Senate Committee into COVID-19 from the Department of Health. You'll remember that phase 1a, the vaccination of our most vulnerable members of the community aged care residents, disability facility residents, and their staff was supposed to be completed by Easter that is what Scott Morrison promised. Evidence before the Senate Committee yesterday confirmed that two-thirds of residents of aged care facilities still haven't been fully vaccinated. And shockingly, more than 99 per cent of residents of disability facilities still have not been fully vaccinated. Australians living with a disability have been abandoned by Scott Morrison in this vaccine rollout. 

Still the Government won't release data on how many of the frontline workers caring for Australians in aged care and disability facilities have been vaccinated. Again, they were promised full vaccination by Easter. A union survey released this morning indicates that 85 per cent, almost all workers in aged care facilities, still haven't even received a first dose of their COVID-19 vaccine. 

Yesterday, we also heard evidence from the Government department that modelling has been prepared for new targets and new timelines for Scott Morrison's vaccine rollout. Scott Morrison has to release those new time frames. He has to release that modelling. Every single target and promise that Scott Morrison gave to the Australian people about this vaccine rollout has not been fulfilled. Australians deserve to know when they are going to be vaccinated. Australian business deserves to know that they can plan their recovery with confidence. Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: What do you make of Victoria's plan to put $50 million towards the mRNA vaccine and does it make sense for states to be going their own way?

BUTLER: As we have seen time and time again in this pandemic, state governments have had to step in where Scott Morrison has been too slow to act. The Australian Academy of Science and many other experts have been calling for months now for Australia to build an mRNA manufacturing capability here in Australia. Germany, for example, recognised that having secure, local supplies of this state of the art vaccine capability was a critical question of supply security and they built that capability in just six months. All we have seen from this Government is millions of dollars handed over to private consultants to prepare a business case that they won't release to the Australian public but no real action. We welcome the announcement by the Victorian Government but Scott Morrison should have acted on this before now.

JOURNALIST: Denmark has dropped AstraZeneca altogether and we are seeing empty vaccination halls and mass vaccination centres across Europe in response to the AstraZeneca issues, do you think it is time for us to drop that vaccine altogether?

BUTLER: No, I think it is important that we do, as we have done for the whole of this pandemic, and that is follow public health advice. That has served Australia very, very well over the course of the last 12 months and I think marks us out very favourably in comparison to some countries where that public health advice has been the subject of political dispute. What we have done as a Labor Party, as an Opposition, is to follow the advice of groups like the Therapeutic Goods Administration and the Advisory Group on Immunisation and we intend to do that in the future.

JOURNALIST: The duration of the rollout plan the Prime Minister seems to be indicating what he calls a final sprint, three months for everybody under 50 to be vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine when it finally arrives here in bulk. Is he dreaming? Is that possible given what we have seen so far? What do you say about the ambitious target?

BUTLER: Unfortunately it is not a target. We have seen over the last several days as all of his promises have fallen by the wayside, thought bubble after thought bubble. What Australians need is a clear plan with a clear set of targets and milestones over the course of the coming months that will give them confidence that they will be vaccinated, give Australian business confidence that they can plan their economic recovery with confidence. We haven’t seen that. Apparently the modelling has been done by the Government but is being kept secret and Australians deserve to understand what that modelling says.

JOURNALIST: Another thing that the Government has spoken about potentially is CSL moving towards producing mRNA vaccines, do you think that is achievable and what time frame?

BUTLER: The Government has spent millions of dollars of taxpayers' money on a business case handed over to private consultants. We want to see what that business case says. Greg Hunt has hastened very slowly on this and because they have been so slow to act at a Federal level the Victorian Government has had to step in as we have seen time and time again in this pandemic. Having a local mRNA vaccine capability is critically important. That is what the Academy of Science and so many other experts have said. These cutting edge will be very important not only in dealing with the first phase of this pandemic but we know the booster shots that are likely be necessary to extend immunity and deal with the variants that are racing around the world are going to depend very heavily on mRNA vaccines.

JOURNALIST: The has been a lot of discussion in the last week about the Australian Olympic Team and plans for fast tracking to get their vaccines and yesterday Mr Hunt indicated that was almost about to get the green light. Where do you stand on that?

BUTLER: I think all Australians are really keen to see the Australian Olympic Team compete in Tokyo and do their absolute best. We need that at all times, particularly during a pandemic. So we await some advice from the Government about how they intend to ensure that the Australian team has the ability to do so while also obviously being able to continue the vaccine rollout here in Australia. When we get a briefing from the Government about that, the detail about, we will be in a position to say something further.
JOURNALIST: Do you think they should be able to jump the queue to get those vaccines to protect those young Australians?
BUTLER: I think all Australians will want to see the Australian Olympic team compete in Tokyo if possible, and if that means being able to make sure that they and their staff are vaccinated I'm sure Australians would support that. But again, we haven't seen any detail from the Government about that yet so we'll await that further detail.
JOURNALIST: I thought a couple of weeks ago the ALP was saying they didn’t think they should jump the queue to be vaccinated. What’s caused that change? 
BUTLER: What we don't want to see is the focus taken off those most vulnerable Australians, we want to see a better vaccination rate than we've seen, testified to the Senate Committee yesterday for aged care residents and disability residents. But I'm sure with good planning, we can make sure that we get better vaccination rates into those communities, while also vaccinating a relatively small number of Olympic athletes who've worked so hard over so many years to try and be ready for the Olympic Games. We need to see some detail from Greg Hunt about how he manages to achieve that balance. But if the advice is that we can do that, then Labor would support that.

JOURNALIST: Given your focus here on the vulnerable groups, particularly the slow rollout in phase 1A and 1B does it surprise you and do you support the Government now deciding tomorrow to outline to National Cabinet the idea of bringing forward the over 50s? That every shot that goes in over 50s arm is one shot not going into an over 70s arm? Where do you stand on that?

BUTLER: The priority must be to vaccinate phase 1a, which is those vulnerable groups.

JOURNALIST: Can you do both?

BUTLER: Again, we need to see a plan from the Government not just these thought bubbles coming from the Prime Minister because he's under so much pressure, having failed every single promise every single commitment that he's given on this vaccine rollout. Rather than just save these thought bubbles roll out in a sequence, we need a clear plan. If they are going to bring forward the over 50s. well, that's fine so long as it doesn't damage the ability to vaccinate the most vulnerable members of our community well before winter. That was supposed to happen by Easter. We heard evidence yesterday that it's far from being done. Two-thirds of aged care residents still haven't been fully vaccinated, 99 per cent of disability facility residents haven't been fully vaccinated. So if we are going to start shifting some phases ahead, what is the Prime Minister going to do to convince Australians that our most vulnerable members of the community will be protected before winter?

JOURNALIST: What's your response to Greg Hunt’s statement that the Government had always planned to prioritise aged care vaccinations over people with disabilities?

BUTLER: I don't think he ever made that clear to Australians living with disability or their families or their care staff. The promise that was made by Scott Morrison and Greg Hunt is that all Australians living in aged care facilities and disability facilities would be fully vaccinated by Easter. This idea of sort of trying to rewrite history is just a Minister under pressure because he hasn't been able to deliver his promises.

JOURNALIST: On another topic, do you support the Government's announcement of more than half a billion dollars to so-called clean energy projects?

BUTLER: Chris Bowen has been up talking about this. But what I will say is that this is a Government either re-announcing commitments they've already given or backflipping oppositions they've held for some time. Take carbon capture and storage, for example, one of the first things this Government did seven years ago, was cut half a billion dollars in funding that had been put in place by John Howard and Kevin Rudd for carbon capture and storage projects. This is a technology that all groups, all scientific groups around the world recognise as a critical element of the fight against climate change. But one of the things that Tony Abbott did, in his first budget was kill half a billion dollars of funding to that. So we're not going to take lectures from Scott Morrison about his support for carbon capture and storage, given the vandalism they engaged in on that critical area of research and development. And as to hydrogen projects, when the Labor Party released a far reaching hydrogen policy, their ministers described it as snake oil. So look, it's good to see some level of catch up. But what we want to see is a Government that's united around a renewable energy plan that harnesses our ability to be a renewable energy superpower. They still can't do that, because they're fundamentally divided.

JOURNALIST: Given the slow pace of vaccine rollout and the apparent failures attached to it, does it worry you then the poll results are still not giving you any kick along with Anthony Albanese still far behind?

BUTLER: We’re not focused on the analysis of polls, we're focused on doing our job, which is to provide constructive support to the Government in the fight against COVID-19 and hold them accountable when their promises don't come to pass. That’s I think, what the Australian community expects of an Opposition during a period of crisis and that's the job that we've done over the last 12 months.

JOURNALIST: In the appointment yesterday of the Commodore to the position of vaccine overseer, if you like, does it it worry you that he's being set up as a fall guy, potential scapegoat of the program if it keeps going wrong?

BUTLER: I hope that's not the case. I hope that this is not simply a bit of media spin from the Government to try and put someone in the position that they should be in really, which is holding responsibility for the promises they've made but haven't been able to keep. But I wish I wish the Commodore well in this job. It's an important job. Thanks, everyone.