WEDNESDAY, 8 SEPTEMBER 2021
MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGEING: It's been another shocking day in the national fight against COVID with more than 1,700 new cases and nine deaths reported in New South Wales. Labor’s condolences are extended to the families and the loved ones of the nine people reported by the New South Wales government to have lost their lives over the past 24 hours to COVID.
Labor has said, on a number of occasions over the course of this year, that Scott Morrison had two key jobs: a speedy, effective rollout of the vaccines and the implementation of a safe national quarantine system. Today, we have seen shocking revelations of the depth of Scott Morrison failures on vaccines in particular. He assured the Australian people back last year that we would be at the front of the global vaccination queue, and the Australian people saw at the same time that so many other countries including the US, the UK, Canada, Japan, Israel and, all of Europe were securing supply deals with Pfizer as early as June and July. Meanwhile, Scott Morrison didn't sign a deal with Pfizer until Christmas Eve 2020, five months later. Scott Morrison has flatly denied revelations across industry over the past several months that his Government had deliberately adopted a so-called “wait and see approach” to vaccine procurement and has refused to release details of their precise negotiations with Pfizer.
But today, papers secured through a Freedom of Information application lodged by my colleague Ged Kearney, reveal and confirm the depth of Scott Morrison’s failure to secure an early supply deal with Pfizer. These papers released under FOI, confirm that back in June 2020, Pfizer initiated contact with the Government, not the other way around. It also confirms that the Government inexplicably rejected an offer by Pfizer to have a high-level meeting, including with the global leadership of the Pfizer company. Thirdly, it confirmed that Pfizer indicated that an early supply deal could see millions of doses supplied to Australia by the end of last year. And finally, Pfizer indicated that there was higher levels of global competition for these supply deals, confirming in their email exchange that the US and the UK had already secured supply deals while frankly the Morrison Government was still bogged down in bureaucratic quicksand.
These papers confirm that Scott Morrison simply didn't take Pfizer seriously enough when he should have, while every other developed country on the face of the planet was busy securing early supplies of Pfizer vaccines for their people. Scott Morrison’s failure to secure an early supply deal with Pfizer means that right now, more Australians are in lock down and fewer are fully vaccinated than any other developed country in the world. That is the price being paid by the Australian people for Scott Morrison's failings. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: Mr Butler, given the complex nature of vaccine supply deals. How do you justify the claim that Greg Hunt and the Government were too slow to act?
BUTLER: Just look at the comparison with pretty much every other developed country in the world. It's clear that Pfizer approached Australia at the same time they were approaching the US, the UK, the European nations, Israel, Canada. Those countries managed to secure a supply deal in June and July, while Australia did not have a deal signed by their Prime Minister until December. It's quite clear, just look at the papers that have finally been secured against the Government's wishes, through a Freedom of Information application, the Government went on a go-slow. It's always too little, too late with this Prime Minister.
JOURNALIST: Why isn't it appropriate for health bureaucrats to start those discussions? Given that they have the expertise to nut out such deals?
BUTLER: Because we're in a once in a century pandemic, an unprecedented crisis that required dramatic leadership from our political leaders. That's what other prime ministers, other presidents around the world were doing. We've heard these stories, we know that it wasn't until about July this year that Scott Morrison finally had a conversation with the global head of Pfizer, while prime ministers and presidents around the world had been frankly busting down, the Pfizer company’s door to get an early supply of vaccines for their people in a once in a century pandemic. This Government just took a too little, too late approach to an urgent way in which to address this global crisis.
JOURNALIST: Do you believe the Minister was negligent in waiting to meet with Pfizer?
BUTLER: I think it's absolutely clear that up to the Prime Minister there should have been every effort possible to have a discussion with the global leadership of Pfizer that was offered to the Government. It was something that pretty much every other developed country was doing and resulted in those countries securing supply deals back in June and July. It meant that instead of being at the front of the queue, which was the promise by Scott Morrison, we've had the slowest vaccine rollout in the developed world.
JOURNALIST: There's a difference between a promise, though, and negligence. Was it negligent that they didn't meet with Pfizer at that time?
BUTLER: I think Australians are now paying the price for their failures, their negligence. They're paying a price through these never-ending, debilitating lockdowns, that see 14 million people still in lockdown today, fewer Australians fully vaccinated than any other developed country. That is the price that Australians are paying for the failures that have been confirmed through these shocking revelations today.
JOURNALIST: On a slightly different topic, the international vaccine passport, how do you think these passports should work?
BUTLER: Labor supports a strong system of vaccine passports that will be able to be used for international travel but also for domestic travel and entry to a range of different venues. We're seeing an avalanche of businesses, day after day, saying they want to introduce a system of a vaccine pass, a health pass, or a vaccine passport. Obviously, Australians first need to get access to a vaccine, and that's still too far behind, but once that access and supply issue is sorted out, we support a system that firstly, is reliable and accurate - and we are seeing widespread reports that people’s vaccine history is not being uploaded properly to the immunisation register. Scott Morrison needs to fix that. Secondly, we need it to be secure. We've seen reports that the Medicare app can be forged in as few as 10 minutes. And thirdly, it needs to be private so that venues using these passport arrangements, sure can check the vaccine status, but those details aren't collected in any sort of permanent way by businesses. So Scott Morrison needs to put his shoulder to the wheel and ensure there is a sensible national system of vaccine passports, and if he does that, he'll have Labor’s support.
JOURNALIST: Are there any other countries that you're aware of that we should seek to replicate in terms of such a passport system?
BUTLER: That's really the work that Scott Morrison should be putting before the Australian people. He should be putting it before business, sitting down with unions and with health groups and sorting through these details. All of those groups, businesses, unions, health groups have been crying out for weeks and weeks now to have an engagement with the Prime Minister to set up this system. Again, it's just too little, too late with this Prime Minister. Business is ready to go, there is demand for international passports from our airlines, from other countries, but we don't have a plan from Scott Morrison to actually make it work.
JOURNALIST: Given that there's no clear timeframe for international borders reopening and international travel restarting, is the Government getting people's hopes up by announcing this at this time?
BUTLER: What we also need to see is the system that will apply domestically, and that's more likely to be a reality for the Australian people before international travel comes back. This is an urgent issue. We're seeing states like Victoria and NSW fill a vacuum left by Scott Morrison, but I don't think anyone wants to see eight different systems set up in our federation. There should be a national approach to this and a national approach requires some action by the Government, but we haven't seen that yet from Scott Morrison.
JOURNALIST: Just one more question, when should the Federal Government rollout vaccine passports and does Labor support home quarantine?
BUTLER: We obviously want to see, on home quarantine, the results of the trial that National Cabinet has agreed to take place here in my state of South Australia. We're keen to see the results of that, and we're keen to see the results sooner rather than later so that there's many options for quarantine are on the table as possible. We need those options because Scott Morrison has failed his job in setting up lots of good, safe national quarantine arrangements. We only see one so far and that is in the NT. So yes, we support the trial. We want to see the results of it. The second question requires Australians all to have access first to a vaccine. Still too many Australians who want to get vaccinated simply can't get an appointment. So once the supply issue is resolved - the supply issue that goes back to these failures that have been revealed today of Scott Morrison's slowness in securing supply deals - the Australian people I think will be ready for a sensible, secure, reliable system of vaccine passports. Thanks everyone.