MONDAY, 10 MAY 2021
KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Joining us now is Mark Butler for his thoughts ahead of budget 2021. What’s your view on when we should reopen again internationally?
MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER HEALTH AND AGEING: International borders should be open when we get the best public health advice that it is safe to do so. That really requires two things as an absolute free condition. One, the Australian population needs to be vaccinated and we are a very, very long way from that at the moment. And two, we need to have safe national quarantine arrangements and we don't have that either. In spite of the fact that people have been saying for months and months, including the government's own expert adviser, Jane Halton, that the Commonwealth needs to grab its long standing responsibilities to put in place that quarantine system.
GILBERT: When it comes to the vaccines, we are seeing it steadily improve. Significant announcements from New South Wales and a few other states in terms of opening larger mass vaccination hubs. So with that, surely, the numbers will climb more quickly?
BUTLER: Well you'd expect the numbers to climb, but they need to skyrocket. We're at about 400,000 vaccinations a week, people have got to remember when they do this maths, everyone needs two doses. So at 400,000 a week, after three months of this rollout, it will take us two years to finalise the vaccination of just the adult population. We are nowhere near the rate needed to get this vaccination in place in a time that will allow us to have the debate about opening up the economy. But just as importantly, from a health perspective, we are almost certainly going to need to consider booster shots for the variants, the fact that this virus is mutating all around the world. The UK Government, for example, is already planning a booster shot for September or October to deal with the variants that are now showing that some of these vaccines designed around the original version of the virus are not going to be as effective.
GILBERT: So are you saying we need something like you know, stadiums and so on to be used, is that what we need that sort of level?
BUTLER: I’ve been saying now for some time, we need to consider mass vaccination centres at scale. This is going to require buy in from the state governments who have the experience and the capability for mass delivery of health services. It's good to see some of those states started to step up to do that, but they need to do it in substantial scale. Otherwise, we're simply not going to get to the sort of numbers we need, which are more like one million, two million per week to get vaccinated by the end of this year.
GILBERT: Are you worried about the vaccine hesitancy? Is that something that you’re picking up?
BUTLER: I think everyone's picking that up. GPs are reporting patients cancelling their appointments, people being reluctant to make appointments. We're even getting stories among health workforces that people are reluctant.
GILBERT: How do we turn that around?
BUTLER: You need a strong information campaign. The fact is that AstraZeneca by any measure is a safe, effective vaccine. What I've been complaining about, though, since these cases started to emerge, and the changed advice from the TGA about the AstraZeneca vaccine is we've seen nothing from the Government by way of a community information campaign to build that confidence back up. And I really would like to see the Government do more on that level.
GILBERT: Your critique, it makes sense at one level, but you've also got a situation where, thankfully, we're in a very good position when it comes to COVID-19?
BUTLER: That's why we should be making hay while the sun shines. I mean, our economy, our society is fairly open, people can travel to get vaccinations, you know, we're not burdened with pressure on our healthcare system with large numbers of COVID, distracting from the ability to vaccinate the population, we should be doing this more quickly, more easily than any other country on the face of the earth. You do, of course, have to battle that sense of complacency - the sense we don't need to rush this because we don't have community transmission. But that requires the Government to talk to the community openly about the fact that this this virus is mutating. We are going to need to get the original generation of vaccines into people's arms quickly, so that we can one, have the discussion about when we open up the economy based on good public health advice. But two, also consider those booster shots that are already in clinical trials in the Northern Hemisphere.
GILBERT: Will the budget reply, obviously we wait for the budget, but I assume that the budget reply will include major quarantine facilities given that you and Mr Albanese have made it such a key point in terms of responding to the gap, that you'll be stepping up that policy, is that right?
BUTLER: It's not my place to indicate what will be in Anthony’s speech. But Anthony has already indicated very clearly, our commitment as a matter of principle, to building or supporting the building of safe national quarantine facilities. We've seen, for example, this very detailed proposal from Toowoomba, from business people in Toowoomba, that would be supported by the Queensland State Government fall over in recent days because of a complete lack of support from the Commonwealth. Hopefully they'll take a more constructive approach to the proposal in Victoria. We're going to need a number of these large purpose built facilities to take the pressure off our hotel system which, after all, was built for tourism, not medical quarantine.
GILBERT: Those facilities you would think, it’s a once in a century event, but there are warnings that we will see more pandemics in our lifetime. So it won't be mothballed?
BUTLER: It’s a strong investment to protect us from the sorts of irregular lockdowns and other restrictions that have been put in place because of the pretty regular outbreaks that we're seeing from hotel quarantine. Just to take one example, the Western Australian Hotels Association said that that lockdown on the long weekend a couple of weeks ago, cost that industry, just that industry, $150 million. There was lost wages, other industries were hit, veterans were unable to gather on ANZAC Day in Perth and the Peel region. So there is a risk of false accounting here. That investment to do the job that the Commonwealth has had for more than 100 years, provides safe national quarantine around our international borders will help us keep our economy strong and allow businesses to plan their economic recovery.
GILBERT: Would you like to see, you've said that we haven't hedged our bets well enough in terms of the vaccine, should they be acquiring more now? Or is it too late?
BUTLER: They should be at the negotiating table with companies like Moderna and Johnson and Johnson to spread the risk. What we're seeing is when you put your eggs in too few baskets, and something unforeseen happens, that almost inevitably is the case in emergencies like this, you don't have the fallback options we were saying last year the Government should have had. Moderna is probably among the leading vaccines around the world already adapting their original vaccine to deal with the variants, the South African variant –
GILBERT: Can you they make it here?
BUTLER: We don't have mRNA manufacturing capability here and again, we've said for some time now the Government should be considering building Commonwealth support to build that.
GILBERT: Surely we can do it here?
BUTLER: The Victorian Government has said they want that. The New South Wales Government has said they want it. We're hearing nothing from the Commonwealth. I hope to hear something tomorrow night.
GILBERT: Shadow Health Minister Mark Butler. Thanks. Appreciate it. Talk to you soon.