MARK BUTLER MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGEING
MEMBER FOR HINDMARSH
LABOR SENATOR FOR QUEENSLAND
MONDAY, 11 OCTOBER 2021
SUBJECTS: Wuchopperen; Far North Queensland; Vaccination rates; Safely reopening.
ELIDA FAITH, LABOR CANDIDATE FOR LEICHHARDT: Excellent, thank you everybody for coming out today. My name is Elida Faith and I’m the Labor Candidate for Leichhardt and I'm joined today by Labor’s Shadow Minister, Mark Butler, Shadow Minister for Health and Ageing, and also Cairns’ very own Senator for Queensland, Nita Green.
Today, we're at Wuchopperen and we've just had an opportunity to sit down and have a really great chat with the staff here and hear about the services that they provide in the community, what their barriers are, what's working, and it's been extremely informative for us, especially for me as the Labor candidate for Leichhardt. Wuchopperen is a community-led health service that works really hard on improving the quality of life for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Cairns. We know that our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are more susceptible to chronic disease. We know that they have a lower lifespan than non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and now we're adding that extra layer of COVID-19. Wuchopperen work really hard in educating and getting out into the community and addressing a lot of the fears and the unknowns when it comes to getting the jab.
That is one of the reasons why I asked Mark to come up here, because I wanted him to hear and see first-hand from organisations like Wuchopperen that are our eyes and ears in the community. I really appreciate the fact that you have come up today, Mark. Before I hand over to Mark, I just want to let you know that Wuchopperen are having a really fantastic community event this Wednesday night. So, come along! There's prizes, there's food, there's bands, and if you haven't had your jab, come and grab it on Wednesday night. I'm going to hand over to Mark, thank you.
MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGEING: Thanks Elida and thanks Nita, and particular thanks to Wuchopperen for hosting us this morning and talking to us about the wonderful services they've built up here over 40 years. They're such a great testament to the power of the community-controlled health organisation model that delivers wonderful Indigenous health services around the country.
Today has been another very difficult day though in the fight against COVID, with more than 2,000 new cases recorded down south and 16 people reported to have lost their lives to COVID. For New South Wales, for the people of Sydney and beyond, this is an exciting day, as lockdown ends after 106 days of millions of people in New South Wales being locked down. Our thoughts are with the millions of people in Victoria still in lockdown now. About half of the population of Australia has been languishing in lockdown for the last several months. We have said, though, that the move to the next stages of the National Cabinet plan, the end of lockdowns in the south and the consideration of borders starting to be opened over time, requires four tests to be satisfied by the Prime Minister. The first is that Scott Morrison must make sure that testing, tracing and quarantine systems are ship-shape, that they are continuing to operate at optimal levels to protect communities like this one, which has been able to operate relatively free of COVID in Far North Queensland.
The second, though, so important to this community and Wuchopperen, the medical service that services it, is that no group can be left behind. As we consider the national vaccination rates and the speed with which they are climbing across Australia, we must make sure that the whole of community is getting the protection from the vaccination programmes. We know that across Australia the gap between the national average of vaccination and Indigenous Australia’s vaccination rate is around 30 per cent and it's about that gap here in Far North Queensland as well.
The Prime Minister promised that all Indigenous Australians over the age of 55 would be fully vaccinated before the onset of winter. We're now deep into spring and still far too few vulnerable Indigenous Australians have had that promise fulfilled by the Prime Minister. Equally, the Prime Minister promised that Australians living with a disability would be fully vaccinated by Easter, understanding just how vulnerable those Australians are to respiratory illnesses like COVID, but still 1 in 3 Australians living in a disability residential facility is still not fully vaccinated and protected against this insidious disease.
The third test we've set is that Scott Morrison must put in place a plan to protect our kids, to protect our teenagers, and still less than 1 in 10 Australians aged between 12 and 15 are fully vaccinated right now. We're very glad that the vaccination rates of teenagers is climbing quickly, but still less than 1 in 10 are fully vaccinated, while well more than 70 per cent of the equivalent age group in Canada is already fully protected.
And fourthly, so importantly for this community, is Scott Morrison must make sure that our hospital systems remain safe and strong as the lockdowns end and as we consider opening borders, state borders and international borders. We know that hospitals across Australia, even in the COVID-free states like Queensland, are under very real pressure and we know that business-as-usual hospital arrangements are simply not going to cut it in a once in a century pandemic. Doctors and nurses, hardworking healthcare professionals can't afford for Scott Morrison to pretend, yet again, that this is all someone else’s responsibility, it's all up to the states, just as he's done right through this pandemic. Scott Morrison should be sitting down with all of the state governments, including Premier Palaszczuk, and working constructively on a plan to make sure that over the next several months, as we move into the next phase of the National Cabinet plan, our hospitals are kept safe and strong, instead of simply picking another political fight. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: There's been a lot of discussion within some of our local Indigenous communities about offering extra incentives to get some of those vaccination rates up, especially in communities like Yarrabah, where the Mayor had called specifically for extra incentives. But last week David Littleproud and Warren Entsch both ruled that out. What's your call on that situation?
BUTLER: I'll let Nita to respond to the situation in Yarrabah, I know she's got something she wants to say there. But what we've learned from the tragedies in western and far western New South Wales, where COVID did get into those communities during this disastrous third wave, and we found vaccination rates way, way below the state average there, is that we know that the best way to get those communities vaccinated is to back-in organisations like Wuchopperen. Back-in the local communities themselves to find the solutions to vaccination, instead of a top-down approach from, whether it's Brisbane or Sydney in New South Wales, or Canberra for the whole country, back-in organisations like this that have been delivering results, in this case, for four decades. They will come up with the answers about the best way to vaccinate their community and we just haven't seen enough of that from Canberra.
NITA GREEN, SENATOR FOR QUEENSLAND: Thanks very much. I visited Yarrabah a couple of weeks ago and I spoke to the health service there and it's clear that there are some issues on the ground in getting vaccinations into people's arms. But what is also clear is that the community has ideas, like incentives, like going out and door knocking, doing an outreach programme, but they need the resources to back them.
It's pretty pig-headed of people like Warren Entsch and David Littleproud not to be listening to community leaders on the ground. That's what we have encouraged the Federal Government to do. This is not a new problem. This is something that they have been fully aware of for months and months now, so it's time for the Federal Government to listen to these communities. Yarrabah is a proud town, we saw that on the weekend with their fantastic win in the rugby league grand final. This is a community that cares about each other and wants to get through this pandemic together. If you're in Yarrabah, if you're in Cairns, go and get vaccinated, but I want to see those community leaders listened to by the Morrison Government.
JOURNALIST: Labor’s candidate for Higgins, Michelle Ananda-Rajah, used a tweet to indirectly blame the Prime Minister for an individual suicide. Do you agree with their views and should be disendorsed for those sorts of comments?
BUTLER: Sorry, I haven't seen the tweet. I haven't seen any reports of that tweet. I can't comment on that. I'm happy to do so in due course when I've seen those reports, but that's news to me, sorry.
JOURNALIST: You also mentioned before about Scott Morrison looking to open borders, both state and international. Should we be trying to push for international borders to be open?
BUTLER: We've read reports that the Prime Minister is considering advancing the opening of the international border, it wasn't originally intended to happen in mid-November and it appears that he's considering bringing that forward to the 1st of November, obviously, that will depend on state government approval as well, so at the moment the opening of the international border essentially means the opening of the New South Wales border to international arrivals.
We're keen to see the results of home quarantine trials that have been underway in South Australia for some time, but the main thing we do say, though, whether it's about the lifting of the lockdowns, the opening of state and international borders, is no one wants to see those restrictions kept in place a day longer than they need to be. We want to see life start to return to normal across the country, but it must happen in a safe way, and that's why we've set those tests for the Prime Minister.
He needs to explain to the Australian community how he's going to make sure that those quarantine arrangements in relation to international arrivals, but also making sure no group is left behind, making sure our hospital systems are in good shape, if the Prime Minister is going to advance those arrangements, then he needs to explain how it will be done safely.
JOURNALIST: In our current state is our health system ready to cope with what might happen if we open the international borders?
BUTLER: The Prime Minister commissioned modelling weeks ago, after Federal Labor, the Australian Medical Association, and a number of other groups, said that we wanted to know what was going to come down the track. What was going happen to the hospital system as COVID became endemic across the country, not just in New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT.
And the National Cabinet did agree to do that modelling, but the Prime Minister won't release it. He's keeping it secret. He's not bringing the Australian community, and importantly, he's not bringing hard working doctors and nurses and other health professionals, into his confidence and telling us what is coming down the track. So again, as I've done for weeks, I call upon Scott Morrison to release the modelling, take the community into your confidence. Let us know what is coming down the track in terms of additional pressure on our hospital systems and the primary care health system as well. And then sit down with the states and make sure that we're ready for that pressure.
JOURNALIST: The findings into specifically the one by the Health Department boss, Brendan Murphy's investigation, given that New South Wales is opening up, I mean should that modelling have already had been released?
BUTLER: We have said for weeks now that hospital systems, our hard working doctors, nurses, health workers need to know what is coming down the track.
We know that there is going to be additional pressure on our health system as COVID becomes endemic as we lift the restrictions in New South Wales and Victoria. As border restrictions at some point in coming weeks and months are lifted as well.
The modelling has been done for good reason, so that we can be prepared, and we can't be prepared if Scott Morrison continues to keep that modelling a secret. A couple of weeks ago, through the COVID Senate Committee, Labor asked Brendan Murphy, asked the Head of the Department of Health, whether that modelling could be provided and the Government again came up with some spurious notion of Cabinet confidentiality. The Federal Court has thrown out the idea that National Cabinet is able to use a Cabinet-in-Confidence defence.
So again, I call upon Scott Morrison to stop coming up with excuses. Come clean with the Australian community and the health sector about what is coming down the track, and then sit down with the states and work constructively to make sure we're prepared.
JOURNALIST: Just one last question for Nita, if you don't mind. Just in terms of Yarrabah, you mentioned more resources, I know a lot of the issue is messaging and the confusion over social media. What specifically would you like to see happen in Yarrabah? I mean, they're going door knocking, I don't know what else they can do, but what would you like to see happen down there?
GREEN: So just overcoming those issues around social media has been huge for health services like Wuchopperen here today, but also the health services on the ground throughout the Cape, Torres Strait, and Yarrabah. Let's be clear though, the Government has been on notice for a really long time that the social media issues needed to be overcome and instead of doing anything about it, Scott Morrison has actually let people in his own Party spread lies about the vaccination, spread lies about COVID-19, so we need to see leadership from Scott Morrison when it comes to messaging on vaccines and around COVID-19.
What I'd like to see delivered to the Yarrabah community and the community here in Cairns is the resources to be able to allow those conversations to happen. You are not going to overcome what is being said and spread on social media by just an ad in the paper. You need a trained professional, a culturally appropriate person, to go and have those conversations one on one.
That is what Wuchopperen here is doing today. I'm sure that's what the health professionals in Wuchopperen are doing, but it takes time. It's not something that you can do in thirty seconds, you can't do that through a drive-through vaccination clinic. This is something that we need to have done over time, with people who are trained, and make sure that we get as many people vaccinated as possible. That's why we should have started this process a long time ago.
If Scott Morrison had had these vaccinations in people’s arms when he said he had, if he ordered those vaccinations earlier, if we had started our vaccination programme in places in like the Cape and Yarrabah early when we needed to, then we would be overcoming these issues already. It's too little, too late from the Federal Government and unfortunately what they've done is left fantastic health professionals who are working their guts out to get this done, on their own to find the solutions and that's just not good enough for our community.
JOURNALIST: A comment just specifically on some of the suggested incentives, like those that have been used on Cape York with things like grocery store vouchers and free barbecues, those sorts of things that are being suggested as potential options for communities like Yarrabah.
GREEN: Well, Indigenous health professionals have always used a combination of community engagement, incentives, conversations, going out there and having conversations with people, making sure that people understand how important it is to get health checks and to get vaccinations. Why should we tell those health professionals that what they have been doing for over forty years is the wrong way to go about getting vaccinations into people's arms.
They know how to do this. We should back them, whether it might be an incentive, it might be a water bottle or a t-shirt, it might be something just like I'm coming to here, the community event on Wednesday. Getting a feed, listening to a band, having a good time.
These community members who are leading our health response know what to do, they know how to deliver these vaccinations, they just need help and they need to have the resources to be able to do that. They're not being listened to at the moment, and I would like to see that change. Certainly that's what we've been calling for, for some time now.
JOURNALIST: Can you tell us, how important is Wuchopperen in getting vaccinations into the arms of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders?
RACHAEL HAM, DEPUTY CEO WUCHOPPEREN HEALTH SERVICE: It's 100 per cent absolutely very important. The urgency is right now. It's very real. We need more and more of our Aboriginal and Torres Islander people to come to Wuchopperen, or any of the health services, just like Nita had said, to get the jab.
JOURNALIST: Has it been difficult to get that message across, to encourage people to get through the door?
HAM: I think the messaging has been fine and we've been very consistent at getting our messages out to our community. I think the hesitancy is just getting them through the door, so things like putting on our community event, are the ways that we're getting the messages across to our community.
JOURNALIST: Those barriers, is it mostly just getting people to physically come out? Is it the hesitancy around concerns around the vaccine? What are the main barriers that you think people are facing?
HAM: From Wuchopperen’s point of view, the hesitancy is around people just coming through the door. With our community events, and transport also is one of the gaps that we're putting a lot of effort into with our community as well. Once people are here, we have the opportunity to talk to them, make them feel comfortable, have a cup of tea with our community members and that has helped for sure.
JOURNALIST: So you're hoping that people, even if they do have some doubts, to come in and talk about it?
HAM: Yes, if you're not sure, if you have hesitancy if you've got questions, please, the message is to come and speak to our health professionals, our health workers. I think one of the other big things that's been working really well for us more recently is the partnerships that we have with our Health Department, so with Queensland Health and with the Commonwealth Department of Health, including QAIHC, we're all working together to get this message out to all of our mob to come and get vaccinated.