SKY NEWS: 17/2/21

February 17, 2021


ASHLEIGH GILLON, HOST: Joining us is the Shadow Health Minister Mark Butler. Mark Butler appreciate your time.

We've just had the news through this hour that AstraZeneca has now been given TGA approval. We know the Pfizer vaccines arrived despite risks posed by delays in production in Europe. The Government seems to be ticking a lot of boxes here. Are you willing to give them some credit on this front?

MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGEING: It’s great news. It's a real credit to the work of the Therapeutic Goods Administration staff, The TGA. We're very lucky to have them, one of the great medicines approval authorities in the world, so we're delighted. We’ve now got two vaccines that are approved for use here in Australia. We just now want to see them starting to rollout, particularly to get in the arms of Australians.

GILLON: You have been a bit critical that this has taken a bit longer when you compare with other countries overseas. Is that really fair criticism though when it comes to Australia and where we were in the queue? I mean the pandemic, obviously, as we know is pretty much under control when you compare our situation to other countries overseas. There's been a finite amount of vaccine available. If Australia had started rolling out the vaccine programme earlier, morally, would that have actually been the right way to go if it meant taking vaccines away from other countries with much higher infection rates?

BUTLER: We've been very careful all along to support the work of the TGA and to make sure they go through their usual processes and they've done that. Really, my criticism has been the gap between Scott Morrison's announcements, his regular media releases about these issues and the reality. He's the one who said in August last year that Australians would be “among the first in the world to receive a COVID vaccine”. And in November he said we're “at the front of the queue”. As of today there are more than 170 million people around the world have received their vaccines, well more than 50 million in the US, a quarter of the UK population. The point I've made is that once the approvals are given the vaccine should be rolling out very quickly. In the US, in UK, in Canada and Europe within six days of the Pfizer vaccine being approved by those medicines authorities they were being put into people’s arms. We’re more than three weeks now since the TGA approved the Pfizer vaccine and they are still not rolling out to where they need to be. We will make the criticisms of the Government where we think we need to in the interests of the Australian population but we're delighted at the approval today by the TGA. It's a credit to great work being undertaken under real pressure by them over the last several months.

GILLON: Let's just look at what's happening in Victoria today. The Daniel Andrews’ Government now looking at establishing these remote facilities. Are you supporting at a federal level this plan being proposed for centres based at Avalon Airport, for example, there's another proposal for Toowoomba? Do you think it's time to shut down the city hotels and purely focused on these purpose-built facilities? 

BUTLER: We need more of the focus to be outside of our CBDs this is a point I’ve been making, really, now for some time. It's a point Jane Halton made to the Prime Minister last year when she prepared a report for him. He was briefed on several occasions by it. The point I've been making is that quarantine around our international borders is a federal responsibility. It has been for many, many decades. All the quarantine stations around the country, including one in my electorate in Port Adelaide, were always run by the Commonwealth. But we've seen Scott Morrison wash his hands of this issue. Instead the states again are having to fill a gap or step into a gap, being left by Scott Morrison, we see that in Queensland, with Annastacia Palaszczuk thinking about facility near Toowoomba. Now down in Victoria with the facility near Avalon, the Prime Minister should be driving this. It's always been a Commonwealth responsibility and they are coming too late to the party on this. We know the Prime Minister talked about an expansion of Howard Springs up in the Northern Territory, but apparently that won't be able to take place until after the cyclone season in April. That should have been an expansion that the Commonwealth Government was putting in place months ago. 

GILLON: So as an idea concept that you obviously thought through the for some time now if you were in Government, would you actually be building dedicated quarantine facilities, or would you be outsourcing that and having others build a facility and then have guests reimburse the government for any fee paid by the Commonwealth? How do you actually see that sort of setup working? 

BUTLER: Whether the Commonwealth builds them directly or engages others to build is more detail – 

GILLON: It's a pretty important detail, isn't it? 

BUTLER: The critical issue is the Commonwealth has got to make those decisions. The Commonwealth has to put money behind this. The Commonwealth has to drive issues of national quarantine. They've always done that in the past. Scott Morrison, who for so much of his career made so much about the Commonwealth responsibilities for managing our borders, appears to be washing his hands of what's been along Commonwealth responsibility in the middle of a global pandemic. That's the criticism that we've been making. It's a criticism that means the state governments yet again have to fill a void that's been left by a Commonwealth Government. 

GILLON: Is it time for those hotel quarantine spots which are in such high demand to be only given to those who need them on compassionate grounds?

BUTLER: Well, I guess the point we've made is that Scott Morrison knew these issues were coming. He received a report last year. He should have had a proactive programme in place to build facilities as much as possible outside. 

GILLON: Sure Mark Butler, but I'm asking for your view on that as the shadow health spokesperson. Do you think that we've reached the point now the situation is as it stands that we need to be just focusing on the people who need to get here on compassionate grounds first. This is an idea that Daniel Andrews, your Labor colleague in Victoria has floated. Is it something that at a federal level, Labor thinks deserves real consideration?

BUTLER: We think what we need is a quarantine system that ensures that Australian citizens can return home, subject to a quarantine system that ensures that the broader community is not exposed to risks of public health issues and the enormous economic and social disruption that's been caused over the last several months as we've seen outbreak after outbreak from hotel quarantine in all of our five major cities. Now it shouldn't be beyond the wit of Commonwealth government to manage those two twin imperatives. But instead we've seen a Prime Minister wash his hands of it 

GILLON: Talking about those lockdowns, would you be urging Dan Andrews to lift that lockdown tomorrow as planned? Can you see how the lockdown could continue with such low numbers being reported? Can continuing the lockdown be justified?

BUTLER: Well, the thing that has marked Australia out from some other countries around the world is that in all of these areas we have taken public health advice. Governments have considered carefully the information and the advice provided by their public health officials, and they've followed it. I think that's what the Victorian Government should do. It's what every government at federal and state levels should do, it’s served us very well so far.

GILLON: Do you have confidence in Victoria's ability to stave off a third wave?

BUTLER: I think that's a matter for the public health experts. I think governments around the country are doing a fantastic job of considering the public health advice and communicating that properly to their communities.

GILLON: You know, as a South Australian just the logistical challenges these sort of lockdowns pose when borders are closed, particularly on the border between South Australian and Victoria. Did regional Victoria really need to be locked down? Do you think? Would you have preferred to see that ring of steel, would that have been a better way to go this time around?

BUTLER: Look, I think the preference of politicians at a federal or state level shouldn't be driving these things. Obviously, these decisions pose enormous disruption to communities across Australia, enormous disruption to communities in cities and in regional areas. I think, though it is incredibly important that all politicians stick to the discipline that served us so well over the past 12 months of following the public health advice.

GILLON: Mark Butler joining us live there from Canberra. Appreciate your time. 

BUTLER: Thanks, Ash.