THURSDAY, 9 SEPTEMBER 2021
PETER STEFANOVIC, HOST: Let's bring in the Shadow Health Minister Mark Butler now to get his thoughts. Mark, thanks for your time this morning. So, the Health Minister points out that it's not the full story here that he actually engaged Pfizer with an email on May 10. So, is the data that you acquired through FOI not completely accurate?
MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGEING: It's not the full story because still there are a range of documents that the Government has kept secret. All of the scientific advice that the Government received, for example, they're still refusing to release, but the papers that were released under FOI yesterday tell a damning story of a colossal failure by this Government. How can it be that all of those countries to which we usually compare ourselves, like the UK, the US, Japan, Canada, the European nations, in those middle months of 2020 signed supply deals with Pfizer, but Australia wasn't able to do it until November. This is a colossal failure, which really explains why we've had the slowest vaccine rollout in the developed world, and while right now, this morning, there are more Australians in lockdown and fewer fully vaccinated than any other developed country.
STEFANOVIC: Is it a colossal failure though? Because Pfizer has said overnight that the deal did in fact progress as fast as possible, so it seems as though the Health Minister has got a supporter there?
BUTLER: Yeah, but read Pfizer’s language very carefully. Of course it proceeded as fast as possible because there was a go-slow put in place by the Australian Government. For weeks and weeks and weeks as these documents show, the Government was haggling over the terms of a non-disclosure agreement while all of those other countries had signed deals. Really, bureaucratic quicksand we were stuck in, while all of those other countries were busy securing these lifesaving vaccines for their people. So yes, from Pfizer’s point of view, it went as fast as it possibly could because there was a deliberate go-slow in place. Now, we we've heard about this for months and up hill and down dale Scott Morrison denied this was the case, but the papers revealed yesterday tell the truth and that is it was too little, too late by Scott Morrison and Australians this morning are still paying the price.
STEFANOVIC: The Health Minister has been interviewed a few times this morning and has refused to say why he didn't just meet with Pfizer representatives, pretty simple question really but there's no answer on that front. I mean is that one of the questions you've got as well?
BUTLER: Absolutely. We've heard stories of other prime ministers, other presidents really sort of tearing a hamstring to get into see the Pfizer heads, the global heads, who were offered up as a meeting opportunity. They were rebuffed by the Morrison Government through the course of July. These other countries recognise how critical it was to sign a deal. The emails from Pfizer make it very clear it was a very competitive environment, there was this amazing opportunity offered up to the Australian Government, and while other countries were grabbing that opportunity with both hands, it was being rebuffed by the Morrison Government.
STEFANOVIC: Okay, but like they say though it was only in trial phase at that particular point in time, so the Government has pointed out that there were actually no jabs available at that point in time. So, was it right to pursue other options such as AstraZeneca as well as locally manufactured jabs as well from the University of Queensland?
BUTLER: Absolutely that was the right thing to do, but we were saying at the time they needed to do more than that they couldn't just put all of their eggs in these baskets. The best practise advice was to do five or six deals. That's why we were saying last year to do a deal as quickly as possible with Pfizer, do a deal with Moderna. They didn't do that until the middle part of this year. They didn’t do a deal with Johnson & Johnson because we don't know what's going to happen over the course of the coming months in a global crisis. But you need backup options. The University of Queensland unfortunately didn't come through with their option. You had issues with the health advice around AstraZeneca and we were left with just too few options to fall back on.
STEFANOVIC: Sure, but shouldn't some leeway be granted there because nothing was ever going to go perfectly?
BUTLER: Exactly that’s why they needed as many backup options as possible. Just look to the rest of the world, every other developed country recognised you needed to spread your options as widely as possible, because you're right, you don't know what is going to happen in a once in a century crisis, that's why as many fall-back options should be put in place. Have no doubt, this is a colossal public policy failure by Scott Morrison and Australians are paying a very high price for it.
STEFANOVIC: Mark, New South Wales is pushing on with freedoms on the 18th of October, at 70 per cent vaccination rates, the Chief Health Officer of New South Wales had been going for 85 per cent. Is it too soon?
BUTLER: I'm not going to second guess that. That is a matter that the state government based on the health advice they receive. They really need to decide themselves. I'm sure a relief to these lockdown arrangements will be enormously important for the people of New South Wales who've suffered through this for weeks and weeks now, but Labor said very clearly, we support the safe implementation of the National Cabinet plan to end these constant debilitating lockdowns. But there are tests that the Prime Minister needs to satisfy to ensure that this is a safe, not a reckless implementation of the plan. We still don't know what the Premier is going to announce this morning. I'm sure some easing of restrictions will be of great relief to Sydneysiders and the people of New South Wales more broadly, but we still do need to make sure that our testing and tracing systems across the country are robust, that our 12 to 15-year-olds are looked after, that we don't leave any group behind, and we've seen the appalling immunisation rates that the Indigenous Australians play out tragically in the West of New South Wales and we need to make sure our hospital system is prepared because the New South Wales system is already a breaking point.
STEFANOVIC: Are you concerned about border leaks though? If say New South Wales goes ahead of the other states, would you be concerned that say an unvaccinated courier or a truckie can somehow cross a border and then, away you go?
BUTLER: I'm sure the other states are going to be watching this carefully. They’re two very different lived experiences in Australia right now. The lockdown in in Victoria, New South Wales and the ACT is one very difficult experience, but in states like mine of South Australia, WA, Queensland and Tasmania where we're relatively COVID free we need to ensure that in the implementation that this plan we’re able to bring those two lived experiences together in a safe way. And I know that state governments with borders around New South Wales will obviously be watching that carefully.
STEFANOVIC: Okay, and just finally onto international borders. It looks as though those closures are going to reopen in November. When it comes to returning travellers perhaps, how long would you like to see home quarantine last if someone is double vaxxed and also say tests negative on arrival?
BUTLER: I'm going to leave that to the public health experts to give advice on. It will be, again, an enormous relief for the tens of thousands of people who were stranded overseas and their loved ones here in Australia who have missed them so deeply to see them able to return home, we want to do that safely, obviously, without risk to the Australian community but it will be of enormous relief. Snd there is a home quarantine trial underway in my state of South Australia, that will be monitored very closely, I'm sure, by other states. But we want to see the results of that and then make sure we're able to see Australians return back home in a safe way.
STEFANOVIC: Okay, Mark Butler, thanks for your time. Talk to you soon.
BUTLER: Thanks Peter.