May 03, 2021

PAT CONROY, MEMBER FOR SHORTLAND: It's a pleasure to welcome Mark Butler, the Shadow Minister for Health and Ageing to Valhalla lifestyle community. Valhalla has 760 residents, it's the biggest over 50s community in the electorate. Shortland is proud to have more manufactured homes than anywhere else in the country and the residents here have for over an hour and half been passionately talking about the rollout and the need to get vaccinations urgently administered so they can resume something close to a normal life. So welcome Mark and I'll let Mark say a few things.

MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGEING: Thanks Pat. It's been great to have a session here with residents from this great village at Valhalla. There's a lot of frustration in the room about the slow pace of the vaccine rollout and some very pointed questions about the crisis in our age care system as well.

Over the weekend we've seen further evidence that the vaccine rollout and the quarantine systems we have in place in this country, are just not fit for purpose. The latest daily vaccine numbers, published by the government this morning, show that on the last day they were published, less than 20,000 vaccines were administered. We need more than 200,000 vaccines every single day, seven days a week if we’re going to have any hope of vaccinating the Australian population over the course of this year.
Remember that Scott Morrison promised there would be 4 million vaccines delivered by the end of March. We're well into May now and barely 2 million vaccines have been delivered. 60 per cent of aged care facility residents are not fully vaccinated. 99 per cent of residents in disability facilities are still not fully vaccinated, in spite of Scott Morrison's promise that that would happen before Easter. This vaccine rollout is way off the rails and the Prime Minister needs to focus on getting it back on track with clear targets and clear timelines.

Over the weekend we also saw the 15th outbreak of COVID within hotel quarantine, this time over in Western Australia. Thankfully that has not resulted, according to medical advice, in another lockdown in Perth, but there have been significant restrictions that were imposed in Perth as a result.  Border restrictions to other states travelling from Western Australia are also in place.
The hotel quarantine system is not a long-term option for safe, national quarantine. The Commonwealth is responsible for quarantine, that's clearly set out in the constitution, it's been recognised as the case for more than 100 years, but this Prime Minister is doing nothing to set up purpose-built, dedicated facilities outside of our hotel system for people returning from overseas who might be at risk of COVID-19.

He's done nothing to put in place national standards in our existing hotels quarantine system. Standards like requiring all staff to wear personal protective equipment and, importantly, ventilation standards as well. As a result, we continue to see outbreak after outbreak in this hotel quarantine system that was always a short-term fix and not a long-term solution.

Lastly, can I just point to further confusion about the government’s arrangements around travelling from India. We've seen different advice this morning given about the level of advice provided to the government, about whether imprisonment should have been a part of the border restrictions in terms of travel from India. Very confusing advice now.

It's completely unclear to me as to what the basis of this decision was.  We've also seen an outbreak from the coalition leadership team in the Senate with Matt Canavan pointing out that we should be helping people come back from India rather than threaten to gaol them. This decision announced after midnight by Greg Hunt to impose terms of imprisonment on Australian citizens seeking to return home is nothing more than a desperate attempt to grab a headline from a government that's not doing the hard work to get the vaccine rollout back on track and put in place a safe national quarantine system. They should focus on the basics.

JOURNALIST: In terms of Australians who try to come back to Australia from India, the fact is they could face prison time. Are you comfortable with that?

BUTLER: I think this is a desperate attempt to grab a cheap headline. It's not a serious attempt to put in place safe national quarantine arrangements that will allow the 10,000 or so Australian citizens and permanent residents currently stuck in India, who want to come home. We accept that there may be a need for a short temporary border control put in place. But let's use that time wisely. Let's use it to put in place a safe national quarantine system rather than these cheap attempts at media spin.

JOURNALIST: Do you think that flights from India to Australia should resume in mid-May?

BUTLER: They should resume as soon as possible. At the end of the day, the Prime Minister has access to up to date health advice.  However, flights should resume as soon as possible, because our fellow citizens, permanent residents of Australia, are stuck in India. They want to come back home and we want them to come back home, but to be able to do so as part of a safe, national quarantine system.

JOURNALIST: Some lawyers have raised concerns around the legality of this travel ban. Do you share those concerns?

BUTLER: This was really sprung on everyone over the course of the weekend with a media release released from Greg Hunt after midnight on Saturday morning. I'm not sure how carefully this has been thought through by the government in terms of getting legal advice about these sorts of things. Our focus at the moment is making sure this temporary suspension of flights from India is as short as possible, and to ensure we can get our fellow citizen’s home.

JOURNALIST: Do you agree with some of the other commentary that’s out there, that hotel quarantine is almost at a breaking point and it can't handle a large number of cases concurrently?

BUTLER: Hotel quarantine was put in place last year as an immediate solution to a challenge we had with citizens returning home from overseas, sometimes with COVID, and it worked effectively for that period of time, but it's not a long-term quarantine system.

We've had piece after piece of advice stating we need dedicated, purpose-built facilities. The Prime Minister will have received briefings on that well into last year. We received that advice, yet again, from the Australian Medical Association last week.

There needs to be purpose-built facilities; there needs to be strong national standards around staffing and ventilation. That is how the community can be confident we're not going to see these regular outbreaks of COVID from hotel quarantine that have devastating economic consequences for people.

Even if we manage to get control of the health issues, we see how these lockdowns that cause millions and millions of dollars of damage to business, lost workers’ wages. The Western Australian Hotels Association estimated the lockdown last long weekend in Perth cost that industry alone, $150 million. Veterans were unable to gather on ANZAC Day, workers lost wages all because the Prime Minister failed to face up to his responsibilities and put in place a national quarantine system that is purpose built and is safe.

JOURNALIST: Do you think with the numbers that we're seeing, it's almost inevitable that a larger outbreak will come from hotel quarantine in the next weeks or months?

BUTLER: We've seen now 15 in the last several months. 15 outbreaks from hotel quarantine. Fortunately, we’ve managed to get on top of all of them before there was serious transmission of COVID through the community, but there has been devastating economic consequences, businesses have lost millions of dollars, workers have lost wages. We need to prevent these outbreaks from happening in the first place and the only way to do that, in a long-term sense, is for the Commonwealth to build purpose-built, dedicated quarantine facilities.

JOURNALIST: Just on the vaccine rollout, Australians over 50 are now eligible for the AstraZeneca. What do you make of this step?

BUTLER: We're already hearing stories of people on the phone for 3 hours trying to get an appointment with their GP. GP practices were already overwhelmed trying to cope with the demand from people over the age of 70, when many of them are only getting 50 doses per week to administer. Some of these GP practices have six, seven, eight thousand patients on their books, but are only given 50 doses per week.
My concern is there's not enough supply of vaccines into the system to ensure that level of demand is going to be able to be met. What we see in the interim is GPs, and their staff, overwhelmed by demand, that they simply can't meet because the Commonwealth is not giving them enough doses.

JOURNALIST: We're hearing that some older people are reportedly going to wait until later in the year to get the Pfizer vaccine. Is that concerning to you?

BUTLER: My concern is the government hasn't done enough to reassure people about the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine, particularly for people over 50, which includes me. There obviously was a very significant hit to confidence after the reports globally about clotting events, mainly among young people associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine.

But I've seen nothing from the Commonwealth, from the Prime Minister, from the Minister or any information campaign to continue to reassure people about the safety and the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca vaccine. It's really important they focus on these sorts of hesitancy issues that have grown over the last several weeks. Thanks everyone.

JOURNALIST: Can I just ask you a couple of questions?


JOURNALIST: Just based on what you've heard inside here, what are your constituents saying about their concerns around the rollout and how it’s going here.

CONROY: They’re very frustrated, in fact a lot of them are quite angry about how it’s being rolled out. Phase 1b, which is everyone over the age of 70, we have 11 GP surgeries in our electorate, getting somewhere between 50 and 100 doses.

Just to get the first jab for 24,000 people in Shortland for those over the age of 70 would take to the end of September, let alone everyone over the age of 50 - let alone the whole adult population.
It's a disgrace, we've seen vaccines being delivered to the wrong surgery, which meant, for example, the Cardiff GP practice couldn't vaccinate anyone for a whole week. My constituents are crying out for a better arrangement. It was raised in this room they've got 750 residents here. Why couldn't the federal government arrange for a team to come here vaccinate everyone in a day or day and a half, and have it done?

That is much more efficient than those 750 residents spreading out across 10 to 20 GP surgeries. There's a lot of anger, there's a lot of consternation and there's a lot of worry about what will happen if we don't get vaccinated.

JOURNALIST: Had many of them being vaccinated? Had they revealed that to you today?

CONROY: Not a single person had revealed it. Some had revealed they had tried to get on the waiting list, and they were waiting to hear from their GP. There might be some in there, but as I said, we've got 24,000 over the age of 70. About 1,000 being vaccinated each week at best, so not many already.

JOURNALIST: Are regional areas being short-changed here in favour of big vaccine hubs in capital cities?

CONROY: I've raised this with Paul Kelly and Brendan Murphy when we saw the rollout of Phase 1a. Phase 1a, which was aimed at nursing home residents, showed there were five nursing homes listed for rollout on the southern Central Coast around Woy Woy, Umina and the peninsula around Gosford but zero from North of Gosford all the way up the Hunter Valley to New England. So why was one electorate getting 5 nursing homes vaccinated, whereas 5 electorates to the North, that happened to be all Labor seats, got zero? There's just a complete lack of confidence about the rollout and the logistics behind it are being bungled and that means constituents in areas like the northern Central Coast and Lake Macquarie are suffering.