House debates

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Ministerial Statements


12:17 pm

Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for External Territories) Share this | Hansard source

It's my great pleasure to make a contribution to this discussion. At the outset I want to endorse very strongly the remarks which were made in the main chamber in response to the statement from the Minister for Health, the Honourable Greg Hunt, member for Flinders, by the shadow minister for health, the member for McMahon. I don't want to repeat the comments he made other than to acknowledge and thank, again, Minister Greg Hunt for his work. He first consulted with me over the impact of COVID-19 at the opening of the detention facility on Christmas Island. He was very forthright in those discussions, and I was very pleased that he was able to have them with me.

I also want to acknowledge the numerous discussions I've had with Commonwealth officials over the months including Professor Brendan Murphy and the input he's provided to all of us. In particular I want to thank Dr Lucas de Toca. He's someone I've known for some years. Prior to coming to Canberra, he worked at Miwatj Aboriginal health service in north-east Arnhem Land. He's provided invaluable insights and received our comments most readily when they've been made by myself and others, including the shadow minister Linda Burney, the member for Barton, Senator Pat Dodson and Senator Malarndirri McCarthy. I want to thank them and all of the people they work with for the outstanding work they've been doing, as I thank all those involved in working with the Australian community to keep us safe. Whether they're health workers in the hospitals—the nurses, the doctors, the cleaners, the administrators—or those people stacking shelves in Woolworths or the transport drivers providing logistical support, all of those people need to be given our acknowledgement and thanks. I want to most particularly acknowledge the leadership shown in the Northern Territory by Chief Minister Michael Gunner; his minister Natasha Fyles; and the chief medical officer, Hugh Heggie, and thank them for all their discussions with us.

I want to raise the forbearance of the community in dealing with the isolation they've been forced to suffer, and that's been really very important. The closure of the borders by the Northern Territory government has meant that we've effectively had no community cases of COVID-19 in the Northern Territory, so we're effectively free of COVID at the moment. And we want to keep it that way. The Northern Territory government has now got a road map to our new normal, which I'm happy to show you, Deputy Speaker Mitchell. That's important, and that will lead eventually—on 18 June, if not sooner—with the lifting of the biosecurity boundaries, which are affecting the ability of Aboriginal people to travel into main centres. But it's a very, very important initiative which they've undertaken to control the spread of the virus, if it were to come into the Northern Territory.

The issue I want to spend just a few minutes talking about is the question of contingency planning should there be a case or cases arising in remote parts of this country and impacting on the most vulnerable people in the Australian community: Aboriginal people in remote communities. I want to particularly make an observation about a document which has been released by AMSANT and the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress in the Northern Territory entitled 'The COVID-19 contain-and-test strategy for remote Aboriginal communities'. For some weeks now I've been most concerned about what these contingency plans might look like should there be an outbreak of COVID-19 in an Aboriginal community. A contain-and-test strategy, which this is, is about a first response. It flows out of the experience of the community of Vo in northern Italy, and is about dealing with a specific communicable disease emergency for a strictly defined location for a strictly defined period. And, in this case, it would only be in areas which have got the support and acknowledgement of the Aboriginal organisations and Aboriginal communities in northern Australia. I do note that this strategy has the strong support of acknowledged public health experts, such as Dr John Boffa in the Northern Territory, and Dr Paul Torzillo from Nganampa Health Council in South Australia.

I just want to tell you what a contain-and-test strategy is. This is important in getting your heads around what this means in an isolated, remote community. It means confining all community members to their households until two rounds of testing are completed—up to 14 days—and that's a significant requirement; multiple rounds of testing for COVID-19, except children under five; offering relocation of particularly vulnerable elderly or sick people to safe quarantine accommodation outside the community; restricting all movement in and out of the community; everyone in the community wearing masks; and relocating people identified with COVID-19 out of their households to safe accommodation outside of the community, including those with significant vulnerabilities to be relocated as close as possible to hospital based care. That in itself may present an issue in remote parts of this country, because the availability of hospital beds for this particular purpose will be limited. I think of my own community in Alice Springs where the hospital has done extraordinarily good work.

But the importance of this is it's an evidence based approach. It's built on what's happened elsewhere, and in this case it's been called for by Aboriginal organisations across the north of Australia. And it's very different. There's a problem with how we think about this stuff as there's a hangover from the intervention of 2007 by John Howard and Mal Brough into the Northern Territory where people were compelled to do things, and having the Army present, et cetera. Well, this is not like that. This is about engaging with the Aboriginal community through their organisations, them coming up with a plan in this instance—and we call it a contain-and-test strategy—and having it implemented and supported by government.

It means selling a hard message to those communities, because what we're effectively doing is locking them down. So, if there is an occurrence in a remote community, you take out those people who have been impacted initially, then you test all the households, effectively. You isolate people and you isolate the community. This creates all sorts of issues around logistical support, around what the public health requirements might be and the health hardware that's required. And I note there's a proposal, which I only saw yesterday for the Commonwealth, state and territory housing infrastructure response to COVID-19, put out by a number of people, including Healthabitat, the Nganampa Health Council, Housing for Health Incubator and the Fulcrum Agency, which has some merit. What it's talking about is how you provide the health hardware to deal with instances like this.

So, whilst we've got to talk about the broader issues—and we should—around food security, access to logistics, and isolation, what we've got to understand is that there are a whole range of other measures which need to be thought of when we're talking about contingency plans for an outbreak of COVID-19 in a remote part of this country. And this approach, which has been advanced by AMSANT with the support of Aboriginal health organisations in the Northern Territory, around a contain-and-test strategy, is something I applaud and something I would seek support of from the government.

I know it's something which is being discussed right now but, as I say, I've been raising questions about contingency planning for some weeks. I'm most concerned to make sure that we have input into those processes, understanding the expert health advice which we've got to receive and act upon, and that's what I'd be saying we would be doing in this case. And so I commend the approach which they are proposing.

That's not to say it's not without difficulties because there would be. But I am sure that, if this nation wants to grapple with what could be into the future—bearing in mind, in the Northern Territory's case and in South Australia, their boundaries are closed. The possibility of importing a communicable case of COVID is very limited at the moment, but that's not to say it's not there. And if it were to appear in a remote place, it would provide all sorts of difficulties for us all. So I commend the approach which is being proposed by AMSANT with the support of the Aboriginal health organisations, particularly congress from Alice Springs. (Time expired)

Debate adjourned.


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