DOORSTOP: 2/6/21

June 02, 2021


MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGEING: The Prime Minister has said that the race to quash this virus, particularly around vaccinations and hotel quarantine, is not a race. Yesterday he refused to back down on that comment, indeed, he backed it in, doubling down on the idea that this is not a race. Last night we saw yet another breach from hotel quarantine. The 21st breach, according to evidence provided by the Government's own officials at Health Estimates yesterday. Over the weekend, we also saw response to the statewide lockdown in Victoria, the Business Council chief Jennifer Westacott described this as a, “failure to get the basics right, including our quarantine system.” This morning, the Government's advisor on quarantine, Jane Halton, described the latest outbreaks, which were seen on a weekly or fortnightly basis, as “disappointing to say the least.” Remember her report recommended two critical things, firstly, to set up purpose-built, dedicated quarantine facilities outside about CBD systems. And to the extent we continue to have to rely on part on hotel quarantine to put in strong national standards including around ventilation. Because yet again, last night, we learned that there was a room to room transmission within a hotel. Hotels are built for tourism, they were not built for medical quarantine. We should be putting in place dedicated, purpose-built facilities and yet the Prime Minister continues to drag his feet on this. How many more outbreaks in hotel quarantine is it going to take for Scott Morrison to just do his job and put in place a safe national quarantine system?

We also keep learning more and more of the profound failure of the vaccine rollout in aged care. We've learned overnight, hearing more data again this morning that only about 10 per cent of aged care staff has been fully vaccinated. A much smaller number again in disability residential care. Scott Morrison promise to vaccinate these people by Easter, because we know how important they are in preventing transmission of the virus from the community into aged care facilities where they can have devastating and tragic results. The only Commonwealth action that we've been able to glean from the officials are firstly, to put in place pop-up clinics, but we've learned that only three of those clinics that they were promised by the end of May, only three clinics are operating now and they're all in Sydney. Not a single clinic in Melbourne or in any other capital city. The second thing the Commonwealth has said it would do is to contract private providers to go into aged care facilities and provide aged care staff vaccinations. But again, the tender for that service doesn't even close until the 30th of June, so that service wouldn't be available well into the middle of winter.

This is exactly the sort of dangerously complacent approach you'd expect from a Prime Minister who still maintains this is not a race. Unsurprisingly, state governments across the Federation are working out that they have to step in, they have to take action and vaccinate the aged care and disability staff who are so critical to providing care for and protecting our residential aged care and disability residents.

Scott Morrison has failed his promise to vaccinate aged care staff and yet again, states are having to step in and fix up his mess.

Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Just on what you were saying about how important those aged care staff are in preventing transmission into facilities. Do we know that the vaccines do prevent transmission yet? I don't think that's something that we necessarily have sure on yet. Isn't that correct?

BUTLER: We're seeing rolling data coming largely from overseas where there have been 1.8 billion doses almost of COVID vaccines delivered. On a very regular basis, we are seeing more and more studies about the effectiveness of the vaccines. Particularly against the new variants, because they're now dominant, and also their effectiveness, not just in preventing disease, but preventing transmission. Our public health agencies are monitoring that data as they've come in. The latest data I’ve read shows that the key vaccines, including the ones that we have access to in Australia do have a strong effect, not a complete effect, but do have a strong effect in preventing transmission in the sense that they prevent asymptomatic infection in the person who's received the vaccination, but they're certainly not 100 per cent effective.

JOURNALIST: Just on purpose-built facilities, the Federal Government has all but confirmed it's backing the Victorian proposal. Does it need to be looking at other states proposals?

BUTLER: We've heard so many mixed messages from the Government. Remember Peter Dutton, the Defence Minister described the Victorian proposal as smoke and mirrors and yet now it would appear that the Commonwealth Government finally is putting some effort into giving a proper assessment to the Victorian proposal. Last night we heard from the Health Department that they had not even been asked to assess the Toowoomba proposal. The proposal that those proponents say could be put in place in a matter of two or three months. The Government just needs to recognise, the Prime Minister particularly, it's not his job to sit back and wait for proposals to come forward. The Commonwealth is responsible for quarantine. They've received advice after advice about the need for purpose-built facilities. The former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett said over the weekend, we need at least two or three other facilities in addition to Howard Springs. The Commonwealth should be out there proactively seeking ideas, seeking proposals, for a network of purpose-built quarantine facilities around the country to take the pressure off our hotel system, which is built for tourism, not medical quarantine, and which is leaking the virus almost on a weekly or fortnightly basis.

JOURNALIST: Should it be mandatory the aged care and disability care workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine? And if you don't believe that's necessary, what should we do when staff refuse to refuse to get one?

BUTLER: I'm glad that the Government has asked the committee, made up of all of the jurisdictions chief medical officers, to review their earlier advice given in January that the vaccine not be mandatory. In response to an earlier question I said that there's been a welter of additional evidence from around the world about the effectiveness of vaccines and preventing disease and preventing transmissibility. I think it is timely for that committee to reassess the evidence and decide whether new advice should be delivered. I'll wait until they've done that and consider their advice then.

JOURNALIST: What's your understanding of the number of current vaccine doses available in Australia? Is that part of the problem? Do you have concerns?

BUTLER: For some weeks now the Government has protested that this is a supply issue, the terribly slow pace of this rollout. We're not even in the top 100 countries of the world. Their protest that this is a supply issue have sounded increasingly hollow, because we have known for some weeks now that the Commonwealth has been delivered, pretty reliably, 1.4 million doses every week, more than a million doses rolling off the lines from CSL down in Melbourne, and also 350,000 doses being delivered reliably every week by Pfizer. This is not a supply issue, way less than half of those doses are ending up in people's arms, for some time, it was only about one third. There's not a supply problem, it's a distribution challenge. It's a systems challenge because the Government just is not doing its job.

JOURNALIST: On building the network of purpose-built facilities. We're already heading towards, you know, record breaking debt. What we'll be doing with these facilities potentially once everyone is vaccinated, so you might be not needed in the years to come is that the best use of taxpayer money?

BUTLER: What we're seeing now is yet another lockdown in Victoria. Now there are different estimates from different economists and different banks about the cost of this, but it's broadly agreed that a week lockdown from Victoria is costing about a billion dollars. And if it's extended, it will be hundreds and hundreds of millions additionally. We saw a three-day lockdown only a few weeks ago in the Perth and Peel region. The hotels industry in WA says that cost them $150 million just over three days. Treasury said in estimates yesterday that they have factored into their budget estimates that there would be, on average, three weeklong lockdowns every quarter over the course of the coming year. The economic cost of these lockdowns is there for all to see. And that doesn't mention the distress, the mental anguish, the isolation involved in this. Just on economics, it is false accounting to say we're not going to spend a dime to stop these weekly or fortnightly breaches from hotel quarantine in spite of the constant advice for us to so, when we see the broad economic cost, let alone the non-economic costs of these lockdowns. We also know this pandemic is not going away anytime very soon. And we know, from advice, that there is always the risk of future pandemics. We should spend a dime now to prevent these regular breaches from hotels that were built for tourism and not quarantine and be prepared for this to take a while to settle through.

JOURNALIST: Just in Senate Estimates, Minister Colbeck was being questioned about quarantine. And one Liberal Senator made a quip that perhaps it would help if Dan Andrews got back to work. Do you think that is helpful or fair?

BUTLER: Every time this Government comes under pressure, they seek to blame someone else. Sometimes it's you good people in the media, and sometimes it's the states. Frankly, I think Australians are getting mightily sick of this Prime Minister not taking responsibility for his own job. He had two jobs this year, a speedy effective rollout of the vaccine – and he's clearly failing on that – and his second job, a safe national quarantine system and he’s failing on that as well. As we only saw last night with yet another breach from hotel quarantine, when he's had so much advice about how to fix that problem. No one should take cheap shots from Members of the Government seeking to get the pressure off them from doing their own job.

JOURNALIST: Should the ban on aged care staff working multiple facilities apply nationally, and should that ban be permanent, in your opinion?

BUTLER: The Government still has given no proper explanation as to why they lifted their support, because we recognise that the poor pay, the low hours in aged care mean that workers have a financial incentive to try and grab shifts wherever they can and they have to make ends meet. If the Government is going to, in the interest of public health, say that they don't want workers working across multiple sites understandably those workers expect the Government to come to the party and provide them with financial support. Now, the Government recognised that finally last year, but then just for some reason unilaterally lifted it in November. Now they say they'll put it in place when hotspots are declared. That is closing the stable door after the horses bolted. There should be an ongoing national arrangement that means the Commonwealth provides financial support to aged care workers not to have to work across multiple sites simply to make ends meet in their household budget.

JOURNALIST: Mathias Cormann has used his first speech as the head of the OECD to call on the world's richest nations to develop more ambitious plans to achieve net zero by 2050. Your response to that?

BUTLER: Labor's position on net zero by 2050 years is well known. We've had that position for a long time and in that position we join with every state government, Labor and Liberal alike, every serious business organisation in Australia, our biggest airline, our biggest bank, our biggest mining company, our biggest telecommunications provider, and so on and so forth. I'm very glad to see Mathias Cormann at least come to the party and recognise that it is in our economic interest and in the planet's interest to adopt net zero emissions by 2050 as a national goal. I just think he should pick up the phone and talk to his former colleague, Scott Morrison.
Thanks, everyone.