Thursday, 14 May 2020
I rise to speak about something that's very close to my heart and very close to the heart of many members in this chamber, including the member for Bowman and the member for Lyne. I'd like to acknowledge the good work of the members of this House who have been members of our medical profession and of the research sector, because we have had bipartisan support with regard to our COVID response, and we are very proud of what the Morrison government has achieved, right from the very get-go, with the coronavirus pandemic.
Let's just wind back to the end of January—in fact, earlier than that, because as early as early January reports were coming through about an unknown novel virus, the coronavirus. We should be very proud of the fact that our medical research community, which has been well funded over many years—although I will always advocate for more funding for medical research; it is an area that we can continue to grow and develop and it is hugely resourceful about the funds that it does have—had a very quick response to developing a test so that we could identify the coronavirus case load here in Australia. In fact, we were way ahead of the rest of the world. Looking at the US, they were six weeks behind the development of a test to identify whether coronavirus indeed had a foothold in their community.
Australians were on the front foot with regard to testing, but we were also on the front foot in identifying the impact that coronavirus was going to have on the whole world. In fact, two weeks before the WHO decided to call this a COVID-19 pandemic, Australia had already identified that it was going to be a problem. From a public health research point of view—speaking as someone who has experience in public health—I was incredibly pleased that we were on the front foot with regard to containing coronavirus from reaching our shores.
There are many public health measures that we took very early on, to some level of criticism from the international community, which are now looked on as being a very thoughtful, considered and prepared response. The first one was to ensure that those Chinese Australians who were returning from Wuhan were offered quarantine on Christmas Island. That was followed shortly after by the Diamond Princess cruise ship passengers being offered quarantine at Howard Springs—and actually I have a number of constituents who were on the Diamond Princess. We worked hand in glove with the authorities to make sure that those citizens were safely returned to Australia. We then had a number of border controls put in place with regard to travel from mainland China, followed quickly by Iran, South Korea and Italy. I firmly believe that those measures were probably the most important measures in ensuring that Australia managed to carve its own curve.
The second set of measures, which we should congratulate all Australians for engaging in, was the public health measure of both quarantining those who have coronavirus and those who are at high risk of coronavirus—at the moment they include cruise ship passengers and international travellers returning from overseas—and the physical and social distancing that all Australians have undertaken with, I would say, a good deal of grace. It is not easy for people to have had to undertake social distancing and physical distancing. It's had a profound impact on people's lives, on their mental health and on their ability to enjoy their lives with their families. It has also had an impact on people's ability to run their businesses or to have jobs. We know that the social licence that has been lent to the government to undertake good health practice measures is something that all Australians should feel very proud of.
Moving on from those important public health measures, we should congratulate the Minister for Health; the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy; and the national cabinet, which has been informed by good health advice, good medical advice and good public health advice and which has included both the federal and the state and territory authorities, for ensuring that our flattening of the curve has provided us time to prepare for the future. If we wind back, even just two months ago, it was very clear that COVID-19 was taking off overseas. We did not know whether it was going to be problematic here in Australia, but we needed to prepare. With a huge amount of focused and directed work, the Department of Health has prepared our healthcare system for what might lie ahead. That has included a huge amount of investment and preparedness in three areas.
The first area is the area of intensive care. We increased our capacity from 2,200 ventilator beds to 7,500. It's a wonderful problem to have that we haven't yet had to use those ventilator beds. But, if we wind back simply two months, there was a great fear that we were going to have an overwhelmed healthcare system. If we look to Italy and to the UK and now to the US, we can see that that is exactly what has happened. We have all heard the horror stories from New York and from Italy, where they have been triaging people who have been at very critical stages of their health, and the terrible decisions that have had to be made by healthcare practitioners around the world, which has been very worrying. But, because we've been prepared, because we've flattened the curve, we've been able to make sure that those ventilator beds will be available.
The second issue is PPE equipment. We should be very proud of the investment that has been made in ensuring our supply chain will ensure that there is enough PPE equipment. The third area of great importance is telehealth. Australians will have a legacy going forward with regard to telehealth. I think Australians understand that having to take hours off work in order to go and sit in a waiting room to see a doctor can sometimes be rather inconvenient. Telehealth has provided an ability for frontline doctors to get off the front line during this COVID-19 pandemic. It has allowed patients to not have to go to an environment where they might be at risk of coronavirus, and it has ensured that we were able to protect our PPE supply when we had some critical issues with the supply chain. So, those factors that have been very important.
The fourth factor that has been very important is our testing capability. Again, I congratulate this government for the resources that have been put into making sure we have sufficient testing to be able to assess who is at risk of coronavirus, and to expand the testing capabilities. I know, personally, of colleagues around the world who have great admiration for our ability to test our general and highly symptomatic population. I have colleagues in the UK who themselves have had coronavirus, both the wife and the husband. They have three children who have had symptoms. I asked them, 'Did you go and get testing for coronavirus for your children?' They said, 'No, we didn't bother.' We know that there's a lot of undertesting going on in other places because they haven't had the supply chains, they haven't had the resources, and they haven't had the investment by Health in the acute healthcare sector.
Finally, I would like to talk about the significant investment that the Department of Health has made in support of the health and wellbeing of Australians. We should really congratulate this government in ensuring that we understand the long-term implications that the changes to our economy might have on the mental health of all Australians. We've worked in conjunction with peak organisations, including Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute, to establish the support services to help people through the pandemic, including targeted initiatives for frontline health workers. We've bolstered mental health support providers, who are facing an unprecedented surge in calls, through a $10 million investment to expand their capabilities, and we've provided extra support for senior Australians to help them connect online. We've also provided extra support for headspace, which is such an important mental health support institute. For their digital work, we were able to provide a $6.75 million investment. We've also developed culturally appropriate mental health and wellbeing resources for Indigenous Australians, and increased support for Commonwealth community mental health clients with a $28 million investment.
Overall, the Morrison government has invested $8 billion in our COVID health and mental health response. This is unprecedented. It has been targeted. It has had very clear outcomes for what we have been aiming to achieve. Three months ago it would have been hard to imagine what we are seeing the devastating outcome around the world, with hundreds of thousands of coronavirus cases and tens of thousands of deaths. It isn't over overseas. It isn't over around the world. But Australia has contained this epidemic, and, with the COVIDSafe app—which I encourage everyone watching this to download now—we have, for the first time in the history of mankind, an ability to contain, control and track COVID-19, if we are to get outbreaks going forward, to prevent a resurgence and to help keep all Australians safe now and into the future.