Thursday, 14 May 2020
It's great to rise today and speak about Australia's health response to COVID-19. What we've seen over the last few months, not just here in Australia but around the world, has been unprecedented. We've never seen anything like this in our lifetimes, and governments right around the world have tried to deal with this health crisis, this pandemic, in the interests of their citizens and to make sure that they're kept healthy. Australia has done extremely well. We've had a low death rate, a low infection rate and high testing rates, and that's great, but I know that the government wants to ensure that we maintain that great health record and ensure that the economy opens up again.
I spoke to some of my constituents recently about how they're feeling about these issues. I've been working hard in my office talking to people on the phone and I've had a bit of feedback from local people online as well. Jules Lawrence said: 'I think our Prime Minister is doing an amazing job.' Jules, thank you for that. Quite a few people 'liked' that comment. It's pretty clear that the Prime Minister has led by example, and Australians do appreciate it. I have passed that on to him. Kelly Logan said: 'Thanks for the opportunity to answer. I think the long-term economic downturn caused by the virus will be much deadlier than the virus itself. Stress, suicide—we will not learn the true effect for a few years yet, although not entirely our government's fault, they were following orders or recommendations from the top.' Kelly, you're absolutely right. Mental health is a big issue. One of the biggest contributing factors is employment outcomes. If people lose their job or lose their business, that can have a huge impact on people's mental health. I note that the Prime Minister and our health minister, Greg Hunt, made a statement yesterday. Simon Benson wrote an article with the headline, 'PM puts mental health at top of medical agenda'. The article says:
Scott Morrison will appoint the country’s first deputy chief medical officer for mental health to steer a new pandemic plan for a feared second wave of the COVID-19 crisis.
The Australian can reveal the role—to be discussed by national cabinet on Friday—will sit alongside the Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, who has been leading the country’s response to the pandemic and has recommended mental health be elevated to a tier one issue.
So, Kelly, I want you to know that the Australian government recognises that mental health is a big issue. There has been lots of mental health support, and not just in this week's announcement, which will be discussed at national cabinet on Friday. The Morrison government has announced some $1.1 billion to support more mental health services, Medicare and domestic violence services. More help will be given to millions of Australians battling the devastating impacts of coronavirus with a $1.1 billion package which boosts mental health services, Kelly, as well as domestic violence support, Medicare assistance for people at home and emergency food relief. There are a whole lot of different supports. One is the 1800RESPECT number, the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service, which already answers around 160,000 calls a year. There is MensLine Australia, a line specifically for men who want to discuss how they're feeling. There are programs to support trafficked people, and there is support for women and children.
In my role as assistant minister in social services, we're building some $60 million worth of new housing for safe places to support 6,500 women and children a year. So there is a lot happening around mental health. The other thing that really affects people's mental health, of course, is housing. If people lose their home, often that can have a big impact on their mental health. Safe and secure housing has been a key defence in the fight against coronavirus. Obviously the Morrison Government, in partnership with state and territory governments, is making sure Australians struggling to put a roof over their heads continue to get the support they need, and more than $1.3 billion of housing loans, through the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation, is delivering more than 1,500 new social and affordable dwellings right now and refinancing a further 5,000 existing dwellings. Housing, of course, is a prime responsibility of state and territory governments, and I've been working closely with state housing ministers on what they're doing and how they're investing the more than $1.6 billion that the federal government gives them each year through the NAHA agreement. We also invest another $4½ billion a year to community housing organisations and the private sector with Commonwealth rent assistance, just to mention a few things that we're doing in this area.
Bradley Husband, a constituent, said: 'I get giving extra money to those who are forced onto unemployment because of the government shutdown, but I'm disappointed that we are throwing money at the long-term unemployed. Their circumstances haven't changed, so they did not need to be given extra money. I pay my taxes, because at the end of the day, the taxpayers who go to work every day are the ones paying it back,' and so forth. Bradley, I hear what you're saying, but, not everyone who has found themselves unemployed has done so through their own choosing. Lots of people are actively looking for work. We've seen, through the coronavirus crisis, literally tens of thousands of new people on the jobseeker payment.
I was speaking to someone this morning online who has worked with Virgin, or a company affiliated with Virgin, who's now found herself on jobseeker. She just lives down the road from me. She's a hardworking person. Many people I've come across in my own role and in my electorate are actively looking for work. That's why I run jobseeker boot camps in my electorate to connect people who are actively looking for work with employers who hire people and give them the skills and knowledge on what to do. So please be assured that people before this coronavirus impact was in place, people on Newstart—and we had some of the lowest numbers in the country ever, so our unemployment rate before coming in was in the very low fives, about 5.1 per cent nationally. So not everyone that finds themselves on Newstart is not actively looking for work, I can assure you of that.
Michelle Scalan says on Australian ownership and manufacturing that government needs to lead by example and purchase manufacture in Australia rather than buying cheaper overseas. The reason it's cheaper overseas is because their minimum wage is lower. With the advantages of workers' rights here in Australia come the disadvantages of higher costs. We all need to be buying Australian and the government needs to prioritise this and incentivise and support local manufacturing.
This is coming through very clearly to me from people in my constituencies in my electorate of Petrie that they want to see more local manufacturing, they want to see Australians supporting Australian manufacturing. I have a bit of manufacturing in our electorate. The minister for science yesterday, Karen Andrews, spoke in the parliament about Packer Leather that employs more than 100 people in my electorate. I've got other people like East Coast Bullbars in Clontarf that manufacture bullbars, and I've spoken before about the Evolve Group that are reshoring products from China back here.
Manufacturing can be done. Obviously, we need to make sure that with innovation and new advancement in technology that we take advantage of that to make more companies in Australia manufacture here. Some of the boundaries, as you said, Michelle, are higher wage costs and of course higher electricity costs and the government has focused on higher electricity costs.
I think all members in this place, in the opposition, the government and the crossbench, need to find common ground when it comes to manufacturing. So often the opposition will accuse the government:' Oh, you want to have more flexibility in business. Therefore you want to reduce workers' rights.' The fact is that that's what small businesses say to us—they do need a little bit of flexibility, and if they don't get that through the Fair Work Commission that's why more casuals are hired.
We've also seen the government dealing well with and listening to unions. I think as a parliament we can learn from this. We need to be working together to support more manufacturing here. Ministers and everyone, I think we also need to look at government procurement and get more of that in place where we can.
There are a whole lot more messages, and I only have 30 seconds to go so I can't get to everyone. Don Anderson spoke about easing restrictions in relation to restaurants. National cabinet have said that 10, 20 and 100 people are the stages. Obviously, 10 people in a small cafe or 10 people in a pub and club is hugely different. That was put in place mainly around the waiter, not the social distancing, but a waiter dealing with 10 people, then 50. State governments have the power in this place and obviously the states need to move as quickly as possible to get places open.
Morning Speaker and colleagues. As you know, we are in unprecedented times and the responses to deal with the coronavirus require unprecedented effort. We are only going to achieve this by working together. I just want to reflect a little on the contribution from the member for Petrie. It is something we need to learn from the way we approach this coronavirus. It is not just a matter of defeating this virus; we need to actually make sure that we set the platform so that we can address challenges like this into the future and ensure Australia's continued viability.
We must remember that we've got to stay focused on our national interests. We've got to stay focused on the welfare of Australian people. It is not just about addressing the coronavirus; it is about ensuring the ongoing development of our economy and hence why we have supported the government in the various markets they've laid down in the administration of stimulus packages.
I think it's reasonable to say that what has plagued the nation are the levels of uncertainty. They certainly affect the health and the livelihoods of all those we hold dear. I see it in my own family where they have been laid off work, where work has slowed up and where businesses are now having to make various amendments to the way they're doing business or trying to do business. We supported, for that very reason, the JobKeeper package. I know there are various issues that flow from it—if you're a university student working one shift, getting paid $50 per shift a week, you qualified for the $1,500 a fortnight as part of JobKeeper; whereas if you were actually a university lecturer who's been laid off by the university, you got nothing. There are issues associated with that, and the member for Petrie, I think, is right: we must show more flexibility. But the flexibility wasn't being shown at that point. I think we've got to realise there are issues in the system that can be improved, and simply because it's been advanced by the opposition doesn't mean the government needs to turn a blind eye to it.
We are not unfamiliar with the issue of stimulus packages to meet economic challenges. You recall in the global financial crisis of 2008, we received advice—probably similar advice that the government has received from Treasury—that we needed to go hard, go fast, go early. On this occasion, I give credit to the government: they have moved in that direction. When Labor moved in that direction in 2008 and 2009, do you realise how many late-night sittings we had in this place? Every piece of legislation giving effect to stimulus packages was opposed outright on every occasion. The then opposition moved to frustrate every aspect of stimulus packages. By the way, they've dined out on that ever since. The issue about debt and deficit has become almost a catchcry for those opposite.
No, you won't hear a jot of that any longer, Member for Werriwa, because they now know what it's like to be in government when you have to address the hard decisions. But it's a lesson that they've only just learnt, or should have learnt. Just a few months back—this year, in fact—addressing the Business Council of Australia, the Prime Minister described Labor's approach to the global financial crisis as 'wasteful' and 'ill disciplined'. That's a direct quote. A month before that, the current Treasurer was reflecting on Labor's approach to the GFC when he said that Labor were 'panic merchants' and 'economic neophytes'. I had to go and look up what 'neophytes' means, and it means people who are new to a situation. Boy, have they become new to a situation over recent times! Let's go back to the 2013 election. What was one of the core issues there, apart from issue of debt and deficit? They wanted a royal commission into what they called the Pink Batts fiasco. The first thing that Tony Abbott did when he formed government in 2013 was exactly that. He made good on his promise to the community—a royal commission into the stimulus packages and roof insulation. I haven't heard those opposite say anything about a royal commission into the Ruby Princess yet—not a word, nothing about the fact that it accounts for more than 200 cases of the coronavirus in our community and, regrettably, over 20 deaths. By their own standard—provided they don't want to be tarred as hypocrites—wouldn't you think they'd have something to say about that?
By the way, I think Gladys Berejiklian is doing a very good job. I know there is a police investigation occurring into the Ruby Princess. She ensured that there would be a judicial inquiry into this. She is a person who has shown leadership. As a matter of fact, I commend all those who serve on the national cabinet, because I think what we are seeing from them as a group is national leadership.
Having said all that, I want to talk about the jobseeker payment. It is going to be very important to us. I cannot see that, as a community, in six months, on the designated date, this is going to be halved. That would cause sheer devastation across all communities. And we still need to look at wage subsidies, because businesses are not going to just snap back on that six-month date set in the initial legislation. It's clear to me that, despite the government's predetermined date for the subsidies to conclude, businesses, jobs, households and the economy are not going to automatically snap back. We need to make sure that we are investing in the future of this country, and that's not just the future that extends to what we do in six months or to the next election. We need a long-term commitment now to ensure the viability of our industries, to ensure they can re-establish themselves, employ Australian workers and get out and compete on the international scale, supporting our economy. It is going to take a lot of heavy lifting, for generations, by whoever is in government. This will not stop at the next election or the one after that. This is going to take a significant commitment.
There is one other thing I'd like to raise in the short time I have left. Deputy Speaker, you've heard me say on many occasions that my electorate is very multicultural. As a matter of fact, I probably receive, with the member for Werriwa, the majority of refugees that come into this country. There are many refugees currently living in our communities supported by charities like St Vincent de Paul, Food Angel, Inspire Church and other groups because they are getting nothing and yet, like everyone else, they are trying to survive. It reflects badly on us, because these people can't be sent somewhere else. They're here. They're human beings. We must look after them as well.
It's a great pleasure to rise in the chamber today to commend the efforts of the government on the COVID-19 pandemic response and to commend and thank all Australians, and particularly the residents of my electorate of Ryan, for all the sacrifices and work that they have put in to ensure that Australia has been a success in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a lot of work still to be done, by any measure, but I don't think it is inappropriate to take the opportunity to take stock of just how well Australians have rallied together and helped us achieve a flattening of the curve after the initial health crisis.
I'd particularly like to thank our frontline workers and all residents of the Ryan electorate. If you're not a frontline worker—if you're not working in the supermarket or in the respiratory clinic, or whatever it may be—your job is probably being affected and, to keep your fellow Australians safe, you are probably making incredible sacrifices in terms of your employment prospects, your work and your financial situation. So thank you to all Australians.
I very strongly support the approach that the Prime Minister and the Minister for Health, Minister Hunt, took to set the priority for our nation when COVID first started to really bite. The priority was that we were going to make sure that the health response came first. We were going to prioritise the health of every Australian. We were going to work together as a community to make sure that we protected the health and lives of our fellow Australians. Every death that has occurred because of COVID-19 is horrible, and we grieve with those families who have lost loved ones as we would grieve for members of our own family.
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Proceedings suspended from 11:00 to 11:11
As I was saying, I'd like to thank all the residents of the Ryan electorate for the work that they have put into banding together with their fellow Australians to help us tackle this COVID-19 crisis. The government stands firmly with them, with over $300 billion in support—an unprecedented level of support—to help Australians rally together and make sure that we tackle the health crisis, as we have done, keep the virus suppressed, and also now get our economy up and going again. I think it's fair to take the opportunity to take stock of the results we have achieved. They are simply the envy of the world. Our preparedness and our comprehensive, swift and decisive action early on have seen a flattened curve and a health system, as Minister Hunt outlined in his ministerial statement, that now has the capability to deal with future outbreaks and, most importantly, to save lives, as we need to. The response has led to the ultimate goal: saving lives and saving livelihoods. When we look around the world at the terrible impact that the virus has wrought on nations that are close to our heart, like the US and the UK, we realise how truly lucky we are to have achieved what we have. Minister Hunt and his team, along with the Prime Minister, have led us through this unprecedented crisis and achieved results that many thought impossible just a few months ago. I thank them, as I have thanked all Australians and members of the Ryan electorate.
They didn't act alone. We have all had to make huge sacrifices. It's had a huge impact on people's lives. They've stayed at home; they've followed advice from government and medical experts; they've taken up hygiene practices; they've downloaded the app; and they continue to live in a COVID-safe way. We are also well ahead when it comes to testing. This is an incredibly important element for keeping our nation safe. It's through our hardworking health professionals across the country that we have been able to enhance and increase our testing regime to the extent that we have and the extent that is needed. We are relying on them now more than ever, and they have truly stepped up to the task. This week we opened our 100th respiratory clinic across Australia, funded by the federal government. These clinics now allow for anyone experiencing respiratory symptoms that are mild to moderate—these are a sore throat, a cough, as you saw with our Treasurer earlier in the week, a runny nose—to go and get tested. Being on top of testing means that we are on top of the virus, which we are, and we can keep it suppressed.
I'd particularly like to acknowledge the respiratory clinic in my own electorate of Ryan, which opened up a few weeks ago. It's led by Kenmore Clinics and the fantastic team there of Dr Nick Bourke and others, who are doing a great job of getting it up and running so fast for our community. I had the opportunity to tour through the clinic with them before they opened to patients. They took me through all the requirements, systems and processes that they had in place to keep their patients safe and to keep the medical team safe as well. They're doing a fantastic job. As I said, they're truly at the front line, but they do it willingly, and they do it because they are as keen as we all are to make sure that they support the health of their local community.
I'd now like to turn my focus to an area of health that will no doubt be an ongoing focus—I know it's an ongoing focus for myself, but I am certain it will now be an ongoing focus for this government—and that is mental health and our mental health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This week, I reached out to every resident of the Ryan electorate via their letterboxes to let them know about the mental health support that is available to them, both from the government and also from some fantastic private and community not-for-profits that are doing great work. It's something that I'm particularly passionate about, in particular at this time when so many Australians are doing it tough. So many of them are anxious about the future. But, as Minister Hunt said yesterday:
Just as the Government is modelling the spread of COVID-19 infection to continue flattening the curve, we are also closely monitoring mental health service usage so that we can respond quickly and thus lessen the mental health impacts of the pandemic …
As Australians know, this means that we are not out of the woods yet. We also know that the impacts of COVID-19 will be felt for many months and many years ahead. So it is vital that we have a plan for the mental health of Australians and their wellbeing as we continue on the road out.
On Friday, at the national cabinet, some more detail around this will be presented. We'll be working in conjunction with state governments, using all the resources that the Commonwealth and our national federation has available to it to make sure that all Australians know that there is help available for them. Just as we did with the health aspects of this crisis, we are getting ahead of the curve when it comes to tackling the mental health impacts that this pandemic is having and will continue to have. We are lucky to have incredible support agencies in this country: headspace, Beyond Blue, Lifeline, Kids Helpline and the Black Dog Institute, to name just a few. They are doing a brilliant job in these heightened conditions, and this government will continue to make sure that they are well resourced so they are up to the task.
Not long ago in my electorate of Ryan, prior to the coronavirus, I visited the local headspace centre at Taringa as they celebrated their fifth birthday. It was really a moving occasion. Several past patients of the centre spoke about their stories, which was incredibly courageous of them—talking about their journey from day one, when they decided to take the step to seek help. They sought that help with headspace. They found a home and a place where they felt comfortable to talk about their anxieties and their concerns for the future, and they found that support and that confidence that they needed. For some of them, it has truly transformed their lives. So, in a time when many of us are facing uncertainty—whether it be through a concern for our health or the health of our family, our financial security or our job security—it is so important that each and every Australian knows that whatever their concern is, they do not have to face it alone.
There has been much talk of a simple phrase used throughout the world during this pandemic: 'Isolation does not mean you're alone.' We understand that Australians who are staying at home and doing their part are feeling removed from their friends, their families and their support networks, and that is why we are quick to put in place a range of additional resources to better connect Australians. At the end of March, we announced a $74 million commitment to support the mental health and wellbeing of Australians. We established Head to Health, a digital portal for all Australians, a single source of information and an important online tool to seek help. It has some key focuses for Australians: maintain a healthy lifestyle, stay positive, stay informed and access support. I encourage all residents of the Ryan electorate and all Australians who need that support to go to Head to Health, our digital portal. We are all here to support you.
I rise to join many of the colleagues here in these quite extraordinary and historic times to take note of the ministerial statement on the COVID-19 pandemic provided by the Minister for Health and responded to by the shadow minister for health. These are extraordinary and historic times. These are times that few of us could have predicted we would be living through in 2020. It got off to a really devastating start for many Australians, through the bushfires. Only a few months later, Australians find themselves in probably the largest health and economic challenge that we have ever faced in all of our collective lifetimes. It has dramatically changed life as we know it in Australia.
Today there are a few people that I want to say thank you to, and I want to talk about some of the ways we can use this pandemic to improve our country and our society. But, first of all, I think it's worth saying: this is obviously not an easy time to be in government, but it is possibly the most important time to be in government. I know that many members on the other side, including the minister and senior government ministers, would have worked pretty hard over this period. Their staff would have worked pretty hard too, and I haven't heard them being acknowledged enough in this discussion. I'm sure there are a lot of government staff who have put their own lives on pause for the last few months. As someone who's been a government staffer for a period of time, I know it can be a pretty demanding and thankless job at times, and I just want to acknowledge the work that many of them have done.
I also would say that there has been an air and a tone put by the government that they've done a great job, that this is all over and it's all in the past now. But, to be honest, I don't think that could be further from the truth. This pandemic is only just beginning, and we are at the foot of the mountain. Hopefully the number of cases in Australia will remain at a low level, but I fear that that might not be the case. I fear that, as restrictions are now being lifted around the country, we will see an increase in cases, which means we will see people losing their lives to this devastating virus. It also means a prolonged economic hurt, which, as many speakers have outlined before, has a range of other personal and health consequences that we need to acknowledge. One good thing that the Prime Minister did was establish a national cabinet. I think the premiers' contribution to the national cabinet has been profound throughout this whole entire pandemic. I especially want to acknowledge the leadership shown by the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, and the Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, who have had the 'go hard, go early' approach to this. They haven't waited to be right in order to act, and to act decisively, to protect and save as many lives as possible, and that is absolutely the right approach.
I also want to acknowledge the nurses, the doctors, the cleaners, the health workers and the mental health workers—the people who have picked up the phone at Beyond Blue. They are the people on the front line of this health crisis, who, in many ways and on many days, have put their own personal health and wellbeing on the line in order to save other people. We've heard many instances, both in Australia and around the world, of doctors and nurses having to potentially put themselves in harm's way in order to save others. It is a truly remarkable thing to see our health workers fight in the same heroic spirit as our firefighters did during the bushfires, and they should be recognised for such.
Personally, I want to thank David Forbes, a professor of mental health who joined me for a conversation a few weeks ago to talk about some of the ways in which we can all cope with the mental health challenges and the anxiety that people are facing. He, along with many of his colleagues, are doing a fabulous job helping people adapt to the changes of society that we're facing.
Our supermarket workers and our delivery drivers have done their job stoically. They have been turning up to work in the face of probably some of the most difficult days of this pandemic, when people have really been feeling the panic and the anxiety of what it means to be living through this pandemic and have been taking it out on some of our workers, who are literally keeping us alive and keeping the supply chains to people alive. I absolutely want to recognise the job that our supermarket workers, our restaurant workers, our food suppliers and our delivery drivers have done so stoically in Australia. They have fed Australians; they've kept Australians at home safely. They've done a wonderful job, and we thank them.
I'd like to thank our aged-care workers. It's been really hard; we haven't been able to see my grandmother throughout this entire pandemic. Nor have we seen my parents, but we can speak to them on Zoom, which has been far more accessible. But my grandmother has been isolated throughout this entire pandemic. It's been really hard, but I thank all the workers who have been looking after her and all the other residents who are finding themselves in a pretty vulnerable position in aged-care homes, as we've seen.
Our teachers and early educators were right to be nervous at the start. I'm really glad, obviously, to see kids slowly coming back to school, but this is a nervous time for them. As someone who's spent a little bit of time in the classroom, trying to and get four- and five-year-olds to socially distance is akin to herding cats. They can be, at times, unruly. I think many parents have had a new-found sense of appreciation for our teachers throughout this crisis. To parents and kids who are going through this: thank you for all your efforts. Throughout the country it has been a collective experience and a collective effort for us all to get through it.
I think that there are some things to mention before we move on. The No. 1 preventive health measure that we have needed throughout this pandemic has been our housing. We've all been instructed to stay at home in order to protect ourselves and each other throughout this pandemic. But that is simply impossible if you don't have a home, and it's simply impossible if your home is not a safe place to be. This pandemic has shone a spotlight on how important housing is to our society and how important housing is to our individual health and sense of safety and security. To be frank, our housing system was broken before this crisis. Our waiting lists were too long. It took far too long to be able to get into a house if you needed one. There simply isn't enough housing in Australia. One of the things that we can do, coming out of this coronavirus, is to build more homes. We need to build more homes—not just homes that can be bought as investment properties but homes that young people can purchase as their first homes and affordable homes for people to live in in order to protect themselves and society—because this isn't going away.
We're also going to need economic drivers and stimulus inside Australia, and building homes is going to be the perfect thing. That happened after the Great Depression. FDR, the great president, started a huge investment in housing in order to make housing more secure. After World War II, it was Curtin and Chifley who undertook a huge housing construction program. Even after the global financial crisis, the Rudd government embarked on a huge social housing investment program in order to kickstart the economy and provide people with housing.
We need to do better to help people who have casual and insecure work, especially our artists, our hospitality workers and our tourism workers. There are such people in my electorate, and I am so lucky to represent the great parts of St Kilda and Elwood and Port Melbourne. These are some of Melbourne's iconic suburbs, but these are also some of the areas that have been hit hardest in this economic crisis, and that has a whole range of health and economic consequences that we need to recognise and rectify. These are businesses and workers and creative institutions that need our support at this time, and they should be allowed to access JobKeeper. They should be accessing some of the government services, and the government should be doing more to support those industries and those workers.
Finally, I just want to make this point: this has been a really difficult period of government—no doubt. In think the Victorian government has done an outstanding job in focusing on saving Victorian lives. It takes a special kind of self-indulgence to make the focus of a pandemic or a crisis of this nature all about one's own political party. Unfortunately, the Victorian Liberal Party has done just that. Their self-indulgent, late-night tweeting, focused on things like golf and getting bats out of leafy suburbs of Melbourne, has been nothing but schoolyard political games that they should be ashamed of. They only show that they are unfit for government. At the same time, the Victorian government has shown that they are focused on saving Victorian lives.
Every day, decisions taken in this building determine the direction of our country, but in recent weeks there's been immediacy to the consequences of our decisions. Over the weeks, I've listened to people describe the decisions they are trying to take in their own lives about whether to take on more debt for a business whose future cannot be certain. Do they cut their losses and find a new path, or do they defend what they've spent years building even if it costs them in retirement? I've listened to the sighs of relief when JobKeeper was announced as people said they could finally see beyond the next few weeks. I've known that the frameworks that we set in place for childcare funding would not only make a difference to family budgets but also mean the viability of businesses, the survival of careers and the wellbeing of our youngest Australians. I've spoken to doctors desperately trying to serve patients over the telephone, worried about the mental health of those living alone. Personally, I've watched my wife's grandmother peer over the gate at her great-grandson, desperate to catch just a glimpse of him even though he didn't understand why he had to be held back and couldn't run to her.
Being a representative of a community at this time means feeling the weight of each person's circumstances and doing the best we can to act on their behalf. It's meant speaking to ministers' offices and departments to try to work out how to give the 120,000 people of Berowra whatever lifeline we can. It's also meant helping Australians who are caught abroad to find avenues home. It's been humbling and a great honour, as it is every day in this job.
It's also been humbling to watch our community respond. On Anzac Day this year, I was more hopeful than ever about the compact between the generations of Australians, as young people honoured those who have served in our armed services, not at a majestic march or a solemn service but quietly in front of their homes. Watching online as Evie Morrison from Northholm Grammar School played the Last Post on the flute against the backdrop of a cloud-clad Hawkesbury River is a moment etched on my mind. I will never forget the moving, unique Anzac Day Dawn Service, standing at the front of our home, watching as our neighbours came out one by one into their driveways to create a small, silent, simple ceremony which underscored the bonds between our fellow Australians, which seem stronger today than at any time that I can remember.
Community organisations in my electorate are doing amazing work. Meals on Wheels have adapted how they operate to make sure the service wouldn't need to shut down if someone were infected and to broaden the range of people they serve to cater for those in isolation. Churches like Berowra Baptist, Thornleigh Community Baptist and Normanhurst Uniting are shopping for people who are isolated, calling people who may need help and, in the case of Berowra Baptist, adopting single people into their families to be the one visitor a household could have. Lifeline Harbour to Hawkesbury has answered more than 19,000 calls over the past two months. Fusion, The Dish and Hornsby Connect have expanded their food services to continue to feed people facing hardship. Parents Beyond Breakup took their meetings online and found that it opened up support to many people who wouldn't otherwise have attended but who are feeling particularly helpless. Their meeting attendance has doubled.
Childcare centres have continued to provide safe and secure places so critical workers can keep doing their work and are offering children a nurturing and educational environment when the world outside their doors seems uncertain. Schools have demonstrated extraordinary resilience not only in adapting to online learning with incredible speed but in going above and beyond to show care and support to their students, and parents challenged by trying to educate their children at home have a new respect for teachers.
This has also been a time of grief. Funerals with limited attendance have been a particular hardship, and I think of many people who have had to grieve at a distance, who have been unable to say goodbye and for whom the loss of a loved one has been made so much more complex. There has been a gripping fear for some who have not known whether financial obligations can be met and whether everything that has been worked for will be lost. For some there has been enormous endurance to spend time in close quarters with people who are difficult to be with, and fraught relationships have not had an easy release valve.
This has also been a time of learning. Lots of sentences have begun with 'All I really want is', followed by the listing of simple things which we often take for granted: the health of our families, a barbecue at the park with friends, the smell of coffee brewed by a good barista, the chance to drop children off at the school gate. We've paid fresh attention to the simple parts of our lives and we've realised that the things that matter to us most sometimes don't get much room on our to-do lists. We've been reminded how much we love our elderly family and friends, we've had time to teach our children to tie their shoes or ride their bikes and we've learnt that we can adapt faster than we thought. We have sped up the processes that will serve us well going forward. Telehealth services were expanded out of necessity, but the service makes so much sense that we should look at holding onto it. Similarly, we've learned how to work in more flexible ways and to focus on the things that matter, not just the busyness itself.
This week marks a particularly significant return to recovery. In New South Wales our schools are up and running, family visits have resumed and on the weekend I will be able to sit down for a moment at my local cafe to read the news and have some food. Activity that's been on hold is just starting to resume. While I don't want to understate the difficulties that Australians face, as a society we need to take stock of the pace of our lives before COVID-19, reflect on the opportunities we've had to slow things down and work out how we'll spend more time on the important rather than forever chasing the urgent. We now have a chance to address some of the challenges that we've had in the too-hard basket and to move into the recovery with fresh perspective.
I want to say three things about the recovery phase. First, we've been reminded that the economic fundamentals of Australia are very good. In particular, the crisis has reminded us about the importance of having a free, open, modern economy. When we talk about the economy, we're not talking about a nebulous concept. We're talking about every exchange we make with our neighbours, every pipe laid by a plumber, every plant propagated by a nursery, every necklace made by a jeweller, every haircut at the barber. It's the great activity of life and culture that we want to restore. A strong economy means all this activity is free to happen, accessing the capital it needs to get going, seeing return on that investment, exchanging and trading as it should. It means farmers sending food to other parts of the world and it means supplies coming here to let us build machines to make our work more efficient.
We've spent the last two months getting used to the government telling us what to do. This should not last. As with postwar reconstruction, the government will need to do a lot by way of planning and managing—more than it would need to in usual times—but this must always be in the service of free industry and activity of the Australian people. History tells us that governments that hold onto controls too long inevitably face the backlash of a free people. Ultimately, governments can never plan or manage the incredibly vibrant, creative, diverse and versatile activity that the free market can produce. Every decision we take, even those to plan and manage our way out of the crisis, must have as the ultimate goal placing responsibility back into the hands of all of us to keep our economy and communities strong.
Second, we've seen some of the fault lines in our services and infrastructure in recent weeks, and it's time to sort them out. Telecommunications has been absolutely inadequate in my community and no doubt in other places too. We cannot afford to keep ignoring this. I believe Telstra has a particular responsibility in this regard, as their service is absolutely woeful in my electorate. It is time they stepped up. Telcos should be like turning on the tap and getting water, and yet these last two months have shown us how essential it is for modern life. I will not let this issue go.
Transport also needs to be improved. The average commute in Sydney is well over an hour every day. The time people have had back in their lives without sitting in traffic has made a major difference to the wellbeing of everyone. We have to continue to improve Sydney's transport by investing significantly in infrastructure projects like NorthConnex.
Third and finally, I want to say something about immigration. The shadow immigration minister made some injudicious comments recently about immigration and overseas workers in this country. As chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, let me be clear. Migration should be part of Australia's future. Skilled migration creates jobs. When people want to commit to Australia as their home, when they want to integrate, work and serve this community and be part of building our future, and when that desire matches the needs and interests of the Australian community, we should celebrate it. In my committee work, I recently met a business in Mount Gambier that has been able to employ 50 local people, including people with disabilities, because of the migration of two skilled pastry chefs from the Philippines to do a job in a location that no Australian was willing or qualified to do. Those migrants came to Australia, shared their skills and trained five apprentices, who then in turn trained others and grew the business. To play cheap politics with immigration ultimately puts our economic wellbeing at risk.
In recent weeks Australia has been tested. We've demonstrated that this is the best place on Earth. In Australia, things work. COVID-19 has reminded us how much we have that is good. Outstanding political leadership; a well-functioning government and institutions that can rise to the challenge; the world's best health care system; dedication to the value of every life and every person, no matter how old or how sick; a culture of responsibility and social concern. It is these things that I'm committed to defending and these things that are worth fighting for as we move into the next phase of this recovery.
The people of the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury have had a hell of a 2020. The smoke from bushfires had barely cleared, allowing us to breathe again, allowing businesses to open and tourists to return, when coronavirus hit. At times the Blue Mountains has been considered a hot spot of the COVID-19, with people urged to be tested for even the slightest symptom. Our distilleries ditched gin for sanitiser. Hawkesbury's Karu Distillery supplied as much high-proof spirit to be used as a sanitiser as they could to essential services such as charities, police and food services. Owners Nick and Ally Ayres wanted to help out any way they could. And Lee Etherington from Wild Hibiscus Flower Company also confessed to me at one point that he had sacrificed a thousand litres of his best crafted gin into sanitiser. He just wanted to help. This sacrifice was being repeated in small and medium businesses all over my electorate. Small business has shown enormous innovation and creativity. I hope that my Macquarie Marketplace map has been a help and has made it easier to find out which businesses were still trading and still open, particularly at the height of the restrictions.
Like many members, people flooded my office with calls to check that they were obeying the rules, because they wanted to be part of protecting the community from the most serious health crisis that anyone living has seen. We pulled together, with most people managing to put politics aside to work for the common good and the health of every person in our community. But we weren't unscathed. Sadly, the deaths at the Newmarch aged-care facility on our doorstep have meant local families have tragically lost loved ones. Others have had an anxious wait as family members remain in Newmarch.
Throughout all of this, the nursing staff of aged-care facilities have kept on caring. Nurses in hospitals have kept on caring. Doctors and admin staff, supported by the heroes of our time, cleaners, have kept on caring. I've spoken to nurses who, having been exposed to COVID-19, spent two weeks in isolation to make sure they hadn't contracted the virus, returning to work to continue that care on the very first day that they could. We really got to know who the essential workers are. I hope we appreciate them all, and I'm stunned to hear suggestions from the New South Wales government that workers like nurses are facing a possible pay freeze. Some thanks for the risks that they've taken!
I was able to show the community's appreciation in a very small way by delivering some sweet treats to our local hospitals, Hawkesbury, Springwood and Blue Mountains, drawing on local businesses like Auntie May's in Bullaburra, the Humble Bakehouse in Bligh Park and the Ori Cafe in Springwood. It was just something to help brighten their afternoon in their relentless work.
You really can't thank essential workers for their efforts in this health crisis without talking about teachers. While there is no denying that it has been a really confusing time for teachers, principals and parents, they've all been desperate to understand the health advice about whether they can be back in the classroom and how best to be back in the classroom. The creation of online modules, the supervision of children of essential workers in a school, often juggling the home schooling of their own children, protecting themselves and their families—all of this has meant a huge load for members of the teaching profession. We thank them. Of course there is the anxiety of casual teachers who were excluded from the JobKeeper program. That starts to touch on a second major health issue that my constituents and many others face: how to maintain good mental health in the face of a terribly uncertain and troublesome time.
Another profession carrying a big burden is the early learning profession. Workers in the full range of child care and early learning environments, from family day carers to preschools and long day care centres, have faced an unprecedented situation, where their clients are receiving free child care. While on this side of the House we have a deep belief in the importance of quality early learning, and we love the principle of free child care, none of us expected that the people to be paying the price for the free child care would be the centres themselves or their workers. It is complicated criteria that the government has applied, and directors tell me that they are still coming to terms with it and how they provide the quality learning environment they want with an income that is capped. Their income is capped, but the number of children who come back as restrictions ease is not. The bluntness of JobKeeper as a wage subsidy tool means that newer casuals don't qualify, and it leads to some part-timers earning more and some full-timers earning less. Directors have rostering nightmares.
I've been grateful to the family day carers, like Moochy Kids and Cubbyhouse, and the directors of Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains centres, who've Zoomed with me and shared with me their challenges and the lengths they've gone to to keep their children safe. I say to them: you've let me into the anxious world that you're surviving in, and you've allowed me and Labor to advocate on your behalf.
Parents are also feeling the stress—from the ones who called because they were worried their centre might close to people like Kieran Ashton, who wants his youngest daughter to join his son at Cubbyhouse in coming months and recognises that Tracey won't get paid for it. He's happy to pay but he isn't allowed, so it's a system with flaws.
Early Learning on George, in the Hawkesbury, is one centre battling bureaucracy. Director Karen Nightingale tried to have her numbers reassessed through exceptional circumstances, because her centre had two days of low numbers after a tree fell across the centre's backyard in a storm, which was during the reporting period. Her application was rejected based on her post-COVID numbers, but Karen tells me she's seeing an increase in attendances. She will be back to 97 per cent capacity every day next week, but funding it on the lower income. While Karen recognises JobKeeper has made a massive difference—and we knew a wage subsidy would; that's why we badgered the government and we're pleased they introduced it—she won't have funding for all the children returning next week without a review of her income. These are the challenges that people are facing day to day.
I can't stress how important financial security is to helping people keep good mental health at this time. To even suggest that financial support is to be wound back or reviewed in some way, or that you have to keep proving eligibility, is a really cruel thing to do, especially given that only this week is JobKeeper money starting to get into most people's accounts.
There are so many frontline people who have carried us through this difficult time, and will continue to as this health crisis goes on. There are the supermarket workers—the drivers who've made sure deliveries get to the door. Supermarkets in some cases have worked 24 hours a day to keep supermarket shelves stocked and restocked. Those people deserve our thanks. Another very visible frontline worker is the Centrelink worker. I was really pleased to help the Centrelink workers at Katoomba, Springwood and Windsor take a moment to have coffee or donuts. It was just a small gesture of thanks for the long queues of distressed people they've been trying to help through this process.
I also want to commend the volunteers in my electorate who helped me reach out to older people. I'm talking about people like Kristy and Jules, Shane and Anne, and Suzanne and Katherine, who made nearly a thousand calls to older people just to check that they were okay. Some of those calls were quick chats and some were much lengthier conversations. Hopefully, they helped people at a time when they may have been feeling very alone and isolated in their homes. We were also able to solve a few other problems for them, and we'll continue to do that because this isn't over; we know that and, as a community, we all have to accept it.
I also want to single out the arts sector. We have a huge arts community in the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury. It's not just the front people, the actors and the lead singers; it's the band that sits behind them, the roadies who get the gear on stage, the producers, the lighting operators, the stagehands, the filmmakers. There are so many professions connected to the arts. Within theatres, it's the people who sell the tickets or sell you a drink at the bar at interval. Many of these people are missing out on any government support because the arts sector often has very short-term contracts and people haven't qualified for JobKeeper. I really urge the government to listen to the arts sector. We have relied on them while we've been in a routine that's much closer to home. We've listened to them and we've watched them. We need all these people to be ready to get back onstage for us when coronavirus is under greater control and we're allowed to get back outside more and to meet in larger groups. I really beg the government to step up to this. These are ordinary people in my community and they need your help. This government needs to keep supporting people as we move through what will continue to be challenging times.
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.
There is widespread acknowledgement that Australia has managed the COVID-19 outbreak better than most other countries. That's the result of a nation led by the federal government—and I acknowledge that—acting on the advice of experts, working as one with state government jurisdictions, with opposition parties across Australia, and working constructively in the national interest. In looking forward, we must continue to put the national interest first, because we are not in the clear yet, nor have all of the economic impacts surfaced and hit home.
I begin my remarks by expressing my sincere sympathies to those families that have been hit particularly hard—families of the 98 people who have already lost their lives, others who faced life-threatening moments in their lives, those who were unable to visit their elderly parents in nursing homes and the like, and those who weren't able to attend weddings and, even worse, funerals of loved ones. These are significant defining moments in a person's life that these people have missed out on, and I'm sure it will be part of their life as they go into the future.
One of the consoling reminders about all of this is that it could have been worse for Australia. I believe it wasn't worse, because this nation worked together as one. But it could have been worse had it not been for all of the health workers, the aged-care workers, the childcare workers, the teachers, the police, the emergency service workers, the people that work at Centrelink and the tax office, the people that work in the supermarkets, and wherever else they worked to keep the economy and this country ticking over. To all of those people—and I can't list them all individually—I say thank you, because it was as a result of your input that this nation got through to this point in the way that it has.
As I reflect on the past three months, there are some issues that I want to briefly touch on. First is the issue of racism. COVID-19 has seen a worldwide flare-up of racism against Asian people in particular. It has been fuelled by constant reference, including by US President Trump, to 'the Chinese virus'. I simply say this: racism exists and it always has. But, when it leads to violence against innocent people because of their skin colour or their appearance, it is simply not acceptable and it should be condemned.
Secondly, I turn to the support measures, and I commend the government for the measures that it brought in. They were necessary and well intentioned. This side of politics has supported them every step of the way. However, there are too many Australians that have fallen through the gaps. Over a million people were not entitled to the JobKeeper support for trivial reasons such as being in casual employment or part-time employment and not quite meeting the 12-month employment criterion and things such as that. They missed out. Students, council workers, over 5,000 dnata workers, people in the arts sector, people in charities and people in universities have missed out on a legitimate entitlement in line with what others were getting, all because of unintended consequences. The government could easily close those gaps, and they have the opportunity and the ability to do so. My understanding is that the government predicted that some six million Australians would be supported by the JobKeeper package. It's unlikely that we'll get to that six million figure; therefore, there is capacity for the government to extend the program to those who I believe it unintentionally left out and to give them the same support. Australia prides itself on being a nation of a fair go, and it is simply not fair that so many deserving people are missing out.
I now turn to child care. Again, the government's package was well intentioned, and I accept that, but it was poorly thought through. My view is that, again, it could be rectified, and we could ensure that the childcare sector is supported in an even and balanced way so that childcare centres and staff from those centres are not forced to miss out because the package was not structured appropriately. It is not a criticism of government, because I accept that everything had to be done with a degree of urgency. It is simply an observation that, having brought in a package, we could make it better, and I ask the government to do so.
That also includes those people who are here from overseas and can't leave the country, even if they want to. People might have been here on work visas or simply on visitors visas, but they are here. Many of them have no work rights, no income and no assistance. In fact, in many cases, their visas are about to expire. They can't leave, so they have to apply for an extension to their visa. That comes at a cost of several hundred dollars. It's a penalty in addition to what they currently face. I don't believe it would be unreasonable for the government to waive the fees in this instance under these circumstances. So, again, I ask the government to do that. But I also ask the government to look at how else it might be able to assist those people who we allowed into the country—they came here either as tourists or to help as workers in our economy—and who now find themselves in the situation that they do.
Another matter I will briefly touch on, which doesn't concern this nation directly, relates to Taiwan. If there is a shining light and a shining example of how well this COVID-19 pandemic can be managed, it's the country of Taiwan. Up until the last report I read, they had 440-odd cases and seven deaths. That's in a population of 24 million—almost the size of Australia. I believe we could learn from what Taiwan did, and yet Taiwan are not a member of the World Health Organization. They have been barred from it as observers. I would like to think that our government might support them in at least being observers to the next World Health Organization meeting.
The last issue I'm going to turn to is how COVID-19 has exposed many of the weaknesses that we have in Australia, in particular the weakness that we now face as a result of having allowed our manufacturing sector to decline to the extent that it has. In the fifties and sixties, the manufacturing sector in this country accounted for about 28 per cent of GDP and 28 per cent of employment. Today it accounts for less than six per cent of GDP and probably around seven per cent of employment. It is not just the jobs that we have lost, which is important in itself, but the loss of capacity and ability to do things and make things at a time of critical need. And we saw that with COVID-19, with so many of the health products that we needed in short supply. I have to commend the number of companies who quickly tried to adjust so that they could make them. But the reality is that it is times like this that the importance of the manufacturing sector is exposed, as it was during World War II. And yet this country has allowed manufacturing to go backwards.
I believe that it would be in the national interest for us, once again, to look at the importance of manufacturing with the research and development it provides, the innovation it provides, the jobs it provides, the security it provides and the benefits to the economy that it provides, and re-invest in it and try to rebuild manufacturing across Australia.
In closing, I thank people across Australia who have, in one way or another, come together to respond to COVID-19. It is something that our world, at least in my lifetime, has never experienced before. I accept that we are dealing with a matter with which there is no textbook we can look to as to how it was dealt with in the past and what we should do. I accept that mistakes might be made—they will probably be made because people will be acting in good faith. Having said that, if we realise that things are not going as planned, let's work together and correct the problems that arise as they do, because there will be more problems arising, particularly as we get the economic fallout hitting us in the months ahead, so that we can ensure that the people of this country get the best support from government that they can.
Much has been said this week about the government's strong economic response to the coronavirus, but today I want to talk about the swift and strong health response by our government, which has put Australia in an enviable position amongst many other countries in the world. In an unprecedented crisis, feeling unsure and uncertain would be understandable, but the consistent and sound leadership of Prime Minister, Scott Morrison; the health minister, Greg Hunt; the Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, supported by the national cabinet, has provided Australians with a plan for us to follow, and, without a doubt, it is working.
Though even one death is one death too many, to have had less than 100 deaths in a global pandemic which has claimed the lives of almost 300,000 people worldwide is something that we should be proud of. Every single person who has listened to the rules, stayed home and practised good hygiene and appropriate social distancing has made a difference. We can look at the statistics and realise that our actions do matter and do make a difference.
In Tasmania, we have just entered our sixth day of no new COVID-19 cases—a cause for cautious optimism—though I must stress we are all acutely aware that we are not out of the woods yet. In total, our state has seen 225 cases of COVID-19, with 187 recovered and 13 deaths. In my community of Northern Tasmania, which I represent, we have had just 23 of the total 225 cases. Many of these cases are connected with cruise ships, in particular the Ruby Princess.
I'd like to take the time to commend Tasmania's Premier, Peter Gutwein, for his prompt, sound and decisive decision-making, which has led to our island state being in a much, much better position than we otherwise may have found ourselves in. The Premier was just a number of weeks into his new role when the pandemic hit, and I'm sure I speak for all Tasmanians when I say he has done an amazing job in leading our state.
I'd also like to take the opportunity to thank the relentless work undertaken by healthcare professionals in our community, and highlight some of the tremendous work that they have done. To the staff at the Launceston General Hospital, particularly those in the COVID ward who took on the care of coronavirus cases after an outbreak in the north-west, I say thank you. It was particularly disheartening to see negative comments on social media last week after a worker on the ward tested positive to COVID-19. These professionals are doing their jobs and putting their lives at risk every day for our community, and they deserve nothing less than our thanks and our praise.
Thank you to the midwives on the maternity ward at the Launceston General Hospital, who have worked tirelessly to support new mothers in our community and expecting parents from the north-west who had to shift north after the north-west hospitals were closed due to a coronavirus outbreak. There was somewhat of a baby boom, with 91 babies born in the unit over two weeks in April, which was far more than the average of 30 the ward usually sees at this time of the year. Thank you for taking such good care of all the mums and dads at a time of so much uncertainty. To Dr Jerome Muir Wilson and the crew at the Launceston Health Hub, who have worked so efficiently and quickly with us to get a much-needed respiratory clinic off the ground, thank you. The clinic, part of the government's $2.4 billion health package in response to COVID-19, with assessment, testing and treatment, is playing a vital role in supporting our community during the pandemic. Importantly, it is also reducing pressure on the Launceston General Hospital's emergency department and allowing for other local medical practices to treat people who aren't showing signs of the coronavirus.
In a community with high representation of the elderly, vulnerable and those with chronic disease, there was always a concern that, beyond being susceptible to COVID-19, the general health of many in Northern Tasmania would suffer as people stayed away from seeing their general practitioner or specialist. I have been urging anyone in our community with existing chronic health conditions not to neglect their regular health. This is an area where telehealth services, in particular, have become critical. Our government's package, put together in a matter of days at a cost of more than $600 million, has undoubtedly saved lives. Our community can also now have their PBS medicines delivered to their home from a community pharmacy of their choice through the COVID-19 Home Medicine Service.
Of course, we have seen more than just concern over the physical impact that the coronavirus can have on the community. The mental health impact has been devastating for many and will have long-running repercussions. For those who have lost jobs, for those who are feeling incredibly lonely due to isolation and social distancing measures and for those who are feeling heightened anxiety about the pandemic it has been a terribly difficult time. Mental health consultations have formed part of the telehealth response, and our government has also funded an additional $74 million in mental health services, assisting to support additional services for Lifeline, Kids' Helpline and creating a dedicated Coronavirus Helpline with beyondblue. With calls to Lifeline jumping more than 20 per cent and beyondblue seeing a 30 per cent increase in calls and emails, this investment has literally been lifesaving for many.
In my own community, I've undertaken a variety of measures to communicate the importance of looking after our mental health, and I'd particularly like to thank Caroline Thain, clinical leader at headspace Launceston, for taking the time to film some important videos with me on how we can look after ourselves and our family during this time.
Although not on the frontline of health, it would also be remiss of me not to acknowledge the educators in our community. Certainly, when the school year returned in the warm summer sun of early February, we could not have foreseen the major disruption that would occur before term 1 had really got underway and students had found their footing in their new classes. You have been asked to do so much and so quickly while still being so supportive of the students that you care for. It has not gone unnoticed, and we thank you.
Finally, a special thank you goes to the whole northern Tasmanian community. It has been a very long and difficult few months so far, and there is still more work ahead of us. Thank you, all, for doing the right thing to protect everyone in our community. By staying home you have saved lives. Keep going. Remain vigilant. We are all in this together.
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)