House debates

Tuesday, 31 August 2021


National Health Amendment (COVID-19) Bill 2021; Second Reading

4:43 pm

Photo of Matt KeoghMatt Keogh (Burt, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Defence Industry) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] The Prime Minister had just two jobs—key jobs, in fact—last year. He'd had these jobs since the beginning of last year: the speedy and effective rollout of the vaccine and fit-for-purpose quarantine. He's failed at both. When he's been called out, he passes the buck. 'It's not my job,' he says. 'It's a matter for the states,' he says. 'I don't hold a hose,' he says. Yesterday he even tried to deny that he'd joined Clive Palmer in a High Court case to bring down the Western Australian border that has kept Western Australians safe and the WA resources industry, and therefore the national economy, strong. Despite it being clear in the court papers, the Prime Minister denied that it even happened—just more spin. When things get really hard, he goes AWOL completely. His habit of going missing and passing the buck is a real cost for Australians.

Our health is at risk. Children are stressed. Australians can see the Prime Minister for what he is, and Australians know that they deserve better. The Liberal government's handling of the pandemic has been an utter shambles. The Prime Minister said we were at the front of the queue for vaccines. In fact, we have one of the slowest rollouts in the developed world—worst in the OECD. So, ever the marketing man, this Prime Minister needed a new plan. When the Australian people saw through his ruse, the Prime Minister changed tack. Suddenly the rollout wasn't a race. Countries like the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom were all making deals to secure the Pfizer vaccine in July 2020. Australia didn't strike a deal until the end of the year. It is a race, and Australians are paying the price for this government's failures.

But the spin from the Prime Minister kept going. The Prime Minister promised that four million Australians would be vaccinated by the end of March this year. By that deadline, only 600,000 doses had been administered. The Prime Minister had hit 15 per cent of his target. The Prime Minister promised that all aged-care residents and workers would be vaccinated by Easter this year. We know that target still has not been hit. The Prime Minister has missed every target he has set. Now the rhetoric is all about 'horizons'. Well, the thing about a horizon is that it is always in the distance; you can never reach a horizon.

Now the Prime Minister, always the marketing man, has decided to play politics with the states, particularly with my state of Western Australia. You would think that, just maybe, he would have wanted to create distance from the New South Wales approach instead. But, of course, the Prime Minister thinks that is the gold standard. He has made the national cabinet unnecessarily divided. He undermines Labor premiers constantly while not criticising Liberal premiers, like those in South Australia and Tasmania, that have taken exactly the same approach. None has been singled out more by the Prime Minister than the Premier of Western Australia. The Prime Minister joined with Clive Palmer in an effort to bring down the Western Australian border. The Prime Minister talks down to WA, likening us to cave people and cave dwellers. He needs to realise there is in Australia, outside of New South Wales, an Australia that includes WA, a WA whose cave is completely free within, allowing people to go about their lives and, importantly, keep the whole nation's economy going. The Prime Minister has had his Treasurer out on his soapbox in recent weeks, allowing him to hold WA and other states to ransom, threatening to pull the economic rug from under us if lockdowns or restrictions are imposed after reaching 80 per cent of vaccinations of only those aged 16 and above. We won't forget that the Morrison government didn't provide financial support during the last lockdown in Western Australia either.

Everyone wants us to come out of this pandemic situation as soon as possible, but we don't forget that the Morrison government's handling of vaccines and quarantine, as well as being anti-lockdown, is why we are not coming out of this yet as a nation. The premiers support the plan, Labor supports the plan, but the Prime Minister is trying to dictate responses by the states that are not what the plan actually says. He is trying to create a fight to distract from his own failures. He is trying to confuse the electorate in the lead-up to the federal election, so he can try to shift blame to the premiers when he inevitably fails to deliver yet again. Australians are onto this Prime Minister and his marketing spin. He is failing to hold a hose, and he is pointing to anyone else to take responsibility.

4:48 pm

Photo of Michael McCormackMichael McCormack (Riverina, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The national plan is in place. The national plan has been agreed to by national cabinet. The national plan is working. The National Health Amendment (COVID-19) Bill 2021 is appropriate, it is timely and it is sensible; and, of course, it is a necessary medical and fiscal arrangement. This deal, this amendment, will ensure that the government can continue to purchase COVID-19 vaccinations, which are saving lives. It will include boosters. These vaccines will provide protections to Australians. Let's not forget that, when COVID-19 first came to these shores, there was a fear, and it was suggested, that up to 30,000 Australians could lose their lives. This government acted quickly and responsibly, and continues to do so. There's no manual that you can pull down from a shelf on this. It is a worldwide pandemic. We are certainly making the right arrangements, and this amendment continues that important work.

This bill will also allow for the purchase of consumables which are needed for the delivery of these vital vaccines and treatments. The cabinet, of course, will retain its role in the consideration of and decision on COVID-19 vaccinations, consumables and treatment purchases. This bill will give spending power to the Minister for Health and Aged Care to enter into arrangements and make payments to ensure that Australia can continue the vaccination rollout, because parliament doesn't and cannot sit all of the time. When parliament is not in session, it will enable the minister, the cabinet and the Prime Minister to make the right decisions at the necessary time.

Following a cabinet decision to purchase a relevant item, the minister for health—who I must say has been doing a sterling job all the way through. He has carried much of the burden of this nation, to making sure that the right decisions have been made and the right arrangements have been put in place. I commend him for that work. This amendment gives him the ability to exercise the spending power under this new provision. It ensures that payments will be made in a timely manner upon the execution of advance purchase agreements with vaccine manufacturers. Of course, that is so vitally important. Currently, funding is made available through appropriation bills, which are not frequent or flexible enough for the government to respond as necessary during what is a global pandemic, and so therefore this amendment is necessary.

Without this power, due to the timing of recent advance purchase agreements, the Department of Health would not have been able to make payments beyond January 2022, putting at risk the government's national plan to transition Australia's COVID-19 response. This will sunset on 30 June 2022. It's important, too, that it is sunsetted. The government in June 2022, if we're still requiring this, will then have to extend that. I do hope that that is a Liberal-Nationals government, I certainly do.

There are more than 9,000 points of presence for vaccinations across the nation. The president of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, Trent Twomey, told me this afternoon that 3,000 pharmacies had delivered 350,000 vaccinations. I want to thank those chemists right across this nation for the job that they're doing—equally, of course, with GPs and other health providers, but the pharmacies are doing a great job. This will ramp up in coming weeks as the Moderna vaccine rolls out in conjunction, of course, with AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines.

I also want to commend the work that is being done by the Royal Flying Doctor Service. I was pleased to have had an integral role when I was transport minister in arranging, with Federation Executive Director Frank Quinlan, for the RFDS—a tremendous organisation, one of our iconic organisations in this nation—to do their important work. It will continue to be part of the national pandemic response, working closely with the Commonwealth; importantly, Aboriginal medical services; primary health networks; local hospital districts; and state governments. Certainly for those people who live in regional and very much remote Australia, this is saving lives. What the RFDS will do and has already done has saved lives, and it will continue to do so.

I am saddened at the passing of father of 11 Gary Dunn of Dubbo, a Wiradjuri man, said to have been the first Indigenous Australian to die from COVID-19. That is very, very unfortunate. Of course, what we've seen in western New South Wales, and Wilcannia in particular, has been quite disturbing. We're certainly putting every measure in place to ensure that provisions are made possible for vaccination rates to be increased in those areas.

I also want to commend the work of Saul Resnick from DHL. He's the chief executive officer of that transport and logistics organisation. Already, since the rollout began, as far as that company is concerned, more than 49 million kilometres have been traversed across Australia. That is an amazing effort. They've been getting those vaccines out on time and on schedule, and well done to them.

Importantly, as I conclude my remarks, the Murrumbidgee Local Health District in my electorate has just announced four areas of concern after a potentially infectious essential worker visited Hay, Tooleybuc and West Wyalong. Of course, Temora had a scare at the weekend, with three exposure sites, but at least the results for those staff and the people who visited those particular sites came back as negative. Sewage trace element results will be in tomorrow and, hopefully, they will also prove negative. Superintendent Bob Noble has reported that 42 fines were issued for breaches of public health orders across the Riverina Police District.

I thank Australians for what they've done so far. I urge Australians to roll up their sleeves and get the jab. But it is also important to follow, as imposing as they are and as restrictive as they can be, those public health orders that have been put in place by states. They are necessary. They are keeping Australians alive. We need to do everything that we can for our friends, for our communities and for those strangers we may never even know but we do come into contact with if we do the wrong thing. We don't want to do the wrong thing. We want to make sure that our communities stay as safe as they can. I say to all Australians: stay positive, test negative.

4:56 pm

Photo of Peta MurphyPeta Murphy (Dunkley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] Let me start by agreeing with the member for Riverina: everyone who can get vaccinated should get vaccinated. If you are eligible, get vaccinated. If you have concerns, speak to your GP. The problem for too many Australians is that for too long they haven't been eligible to get vaccinated and they haven't been able to access the vaccine. This is because we have a Prime Minister who insisted that the vaccine rollout was not a race. It was a race, and now, as my community in Dunkley and communities across Victoria and New South Wales are living through yet another lockdown, we see the consequences of the fact that we are failing in that race.

We were never in the front of the queue for the vaccine. Australia's rollout was ranked as the worst in the OECD as we approached the end of June this year. It was 113th in the world. We still have one of the slowest rollouts in the developed world. It's great that it's gathering pace now, but why did it have to take this devastating delta outbreak for the Prime Minister to finally approach the vaccine rollout as if it were a race. And now he wants Australians to believe him when he says that it's not how you start the race; it's how you finish it. What he fails to consider in that analogy is that between the start and the finish is everything that happens in the middle. It's what happens during the race—the one that we are still in.

Of course, what happens during the race is that the people who weren't vaccinated and have been exposed and have caught COVID have got sick. Some have tragically died. Businesses have collapsed. Families are struggling under the burdens of remote learning, losing jobs and everyone seeming to be in the same house 24/7. What is also happening, and what I want to focus on in my brief remarks today, is that people's other health issues aren't being addressed in the way that they absolutely should be. Some of the decisions that are being made to try to deal with the delta outbreak, which we wouldn't have needed to deal with by lockdown had we actually been vaccinated, are exacerbating people's inclination to let other health conditions go untreated during COVID. The Australian newspaper published today what it called a 'COVID-19 national poll'. It was a YouGov poll. What it published in response to the question: 'Do you personally know anyone who has postponed or cancelled health checks—for example, mammograms—due to lockdowns?' was that 38 per cent of respondents apparently answered yes. Almost 40 per cent of people who were asked if they knew anyone who had postponed or cancelled a health check because of lockdowns said yes. In New South Wales and Victoria, perhaps not surprisingly, it was 43 per cent. And apparently, of the respondents who were women, 43 per cent said yes and 46 per cent who are parents of a child in school said yes.

Those figures, no matter what the postponed or cancelled health check is, are disturbing. But I suspect, without knowing, that the pollsters put the example of mammograms in that question because we know that, during the pandemic, the instances of women going and having mammograms, having their breasts checked for cancer, has declined. And we know, from the experience last year in Victoria, that it can—and it does—have quite serious and devastating consequences for too many women and for the people who love them. Sometimes women haven't gone and had a mammogram during this pandemic, because, with all of the things that they've had to deal with, all of the extra burdens of family and loss of work and mental health and financial stress, they just haven't prioritised themselves. Sometimes they haven't gone and had their mammograms because they haven't been able to.

Why is this so important? Because for Australian women, breast cancer is the most common cancer and it's the second most common cause of cancer related death. Women, trans and gender diverse people are urged to get routine screenings once they reach 40, because chances of breast cancer increase with age. One in seven women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime, the statistics now tell us. The Radiation Therapy Advisory Group released a report recently that said there were 145,000 fewer mammograms in Australia in the first half of 2020, compared to the same period in 2018—145,000!

Most people in this chamber know that I speak from real and deep personal experience about how important mammograms are. Director of the Breast Cancer Network Australia Vicki Durston told ABC's RNBreakfast recently that 2,500 cancers were either missed or had a delayed diagnosis last year due to screening disruptions and fears of leaving home—2,500 cancers were missed. That is a profound number, because we know that, basically, the earlier you detect breast cancer, the better your five-year and 10-year chances of living are. There were missed and delayed diagnoses of more than 300 breast cancer cases in Victoria last year alone—300! If we don't detect it early, it progresses and, with later stage diagnosis, chances of five- and 10-year success rates diminish. The total number of breast cancers diagnosed fell by 10 per cent and early diagnosis by 38 per cent last year in Victoria, and we can't see that as a figure that continues or that spreads across the country. And when you link that to the poll that was in the Australian today, it should be ringing alarm bells for governments and policymakers across the country.

Breast cancers detected by breast screening through BreastScreen, which is Australia's national breast screening program, have a 54 to 63 per cent lower risk of causing death compared to breast cancer diagnosed in women who have never been screened. A screening mammogram can detect very small cancers, as small as a grain of rice, before symptoms are felt or even noticed by a woman or her doctor. It is the best method for early detection of breast cancer for women over 50, and yet we know that right now, as I give this speech, routine breast screening has been suspended in New South Wales as a consequence of this delta outbreak, as a consequence of the lockdown and not enough vaccines getting into arms. BreastScreen New South Wales said it's because of the increasing risk posed by the delta strain, significant cancellations and 'a need to redeploy staff to support the pandemic response'.

Whilst I understand the crisis that's facing New South Wales at the moment and that it's all hands to the wheel to deal with the outbreak, this is a short-term measure which could have seriously negative long-term consequences. I'm not alone in saying this; I acknowledge state and federal Liberal and Labor members of parliament who have all called on the New South Wales government to step in and change this situation. I looked at the New South Wales BreastScreen website today, and there's nothing to indicate that it's changed. I urge the New South Wales government to do something about it. I also ask that the federal minister and the Prime Minister look at this, and, if the New South Wales government needs help to have extra staff so that BreastScreen can stay open, do something about it. We've had a debate in this chamber today about some $13 billion worth of JobKeeper that was paid to businesses who actually increased their profits. Imagine what we could do with that $13 billion in the health system? We certainly don't need all of it to keep BreastScreen going, but some of it would be very, very welcome.

This is not the time for anyone to neglect anything to do with their health. Get the vaccine. Do it for yourself and your family and the community. But don't put off your regular checks and your regular screening, and don't put off your treatment. At some time we will get vaccines into enough arms and we will get out of this, and we don't want to then be dealing with another pandemic and another enormous burden on our health system of all those other illnesses, particularly cancers, which haven't been treated.

I will finish by quoting Professor Boyle, a medical oncologist at the University of Sydney, who also noted that women were presenting with larger breast cancers late last year after the suspension of national screening services. Women didn't want to go to BreastScreen after it was closed and were scared, but then had a higher rate of lymph node involvement needing chemotherapy treatment. If BreastScreen is shut down again for extended periods, her prediction is:

… what we will find is that we will have another wave by Christmastime of people with delayed diagnosis.

Don't delay your diagnosis if BreastScreen isn't open; go to your GP.

5:07 pm

Photo of Tim WilsonTim Wilson (Goldstein, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I wish to commence where the previous speaker finished. I acknowledge the heartfelt and sincere contribution of the member for Dunkley around what would be fair to say is the shadow pandemic, or the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, with regard to mammograms and breast cancer and whether people are accessing alternative treatments. But it's not just limited to breast cancer; it's the mental health impact. It's the shadow impact it's having on children's education. It's people not getting other check-ups that are having a direct impact on people's lives. They are likely to have a tale, which we will all experience, of preventable conditions and illnesses. Tragically, in some cases, the shadow pandemic also includes the claiming of people's lives through mental health crises all the way through to suicide. This is real, for all of us. It's the reason why we want this pandemic to be over as soon as possible. But it also brings into focus the measures that are being taken throughout this pandemic and whether they are proportional, justified and do more harm than good.

The Prime Minister, in the context of the National Health Amendment (COVID-19) Bill 2021, has made the point about the critical role the Doherty institute modelling plays, and that there is a point at which lockdowns cause more harm than the good they do. There's an official modelled number from the Doherty institute of 80 per cent, but frankly I would contest that; I am not suggesting that the Doherty model is wrong, but, in the end, I suspect the number is much lower than that. We already know that there is a trail of human tragedy both on the health front and the economic front that's already being experienced by many people from lockdown measures.

I start unapologetically with a deep reticence of the idea that that should always be our first result of a policy measure. We've gone through an interesting journey as a country in learning. The reality is that, last year, alpha did meet its match in lockdowns—

Dr Freelander interjecting

but, this year, lockdowns have met their match in delta, and we need to be honest about that. The member for Macarthur's interjecting and he's welcome to do so in the spirit of free debate. I don't change my views just because somebody has a different opinion. I welcome and celebrate diversity of opinion. But I do think we need to acknowledge that if we're going to have a sincere and honest conversation, and, more critically, so that we take the community with us on whatever the next step of this journey is—and I was talking before about the legislation we passed at the start of last year, as the world, not just Australia, frankly, looked into the abyss of the consequences of this pandemic—because we are not at the end. And, when we hit 80 per cent vaccination, something I absolutely believe in very strongly—I'm already vaxxed, as I suspect most of the members of this chamber already are—that will not be the end, and we need to explain that to the public very clearly. But it does mean that we will enter a new chapter.

We'll enter a new chapter where, firstly, there is an expectation that people do get vaccinated and they accept their responsibility to get vaccinated. I regularly hear people talking about rights—that they have a right not to get vaccinated. I do agree, broadly; you do have the right to decide what goes into your body. I do agree with that proposition. But rights come with responsibilities. In the first instance, at least, if you care about yourself, which most people would hope, you will get vaccinated. But if you care about others, those that you love—those in your family, your friendship circles and elsewhere—you will understand that getting vaccinated isn't just about protecting yourself; it's about your responsibility to others. That's the other side of the rights coin. And it is of critical importance that, when that happens, we give Australians a pathway to make sure that they can access the vaccines they need.

Of course, there have been issues and delays in the rollout of the vaccine in Australia. No-one is pretending otherwise. We initially hoped we'd be able to produce a vaccine domestically, at the University of Queensland, Unfortunately, that didn't work out because it identified false positives for other conditions. We did hope that we would be able to use domestically produced AstraZeneca, but various decisions and recommendations by ATAGI, and, tragically, some members of this House deliberately undermining confidence in that vaccine in, seemingly, a desperate attempt for the vaccine rollout to fail, corroded public confidence. Make no mistake, I have always believed that AstraZeneca is safe and people should get it. Frankly, I wish I could have got it. I have a very high degree of confidence in that vaccine, but at the time it was not available. Of course, we have other vaccines that will come. Moderna and, obviously, Pfizer, and others will continue to roll out over time. This legislation is about getting those and, as people start to make inquiries about boosters—and people have been starting, including the Goldstein constituency—about making it clear that we have boosters on order. Boosters are on order and are going to start arriving towards the end of this year, so that, if any efficacy of a vaccine does wane, those who need boosters will get them.

This legislation is also about the government needing to extend its initial six-month time frame to be able to order more vaccines and more boosters as time goes on, because we don't know where this ends. I've had conversations, including with the member for Macarthur outside of the chamber, which I'm sure he won't mind me raising in a very anodyne way—that we've had the alpha variant, we've had the delta variant, but, if you go on the WHO website, it talks about other variants. We don't know what risks they pose and what that means for the health and welfare and safety of the Australian people. We need to empower the government to do everything it can to back the Australian people who take responsibility for themselves and for those that they love and care about. We sit in a dynamic environment where the mutations or variants that emerge will not necessarily originate in our country. Even with hefty quarantine measures, it may not end in a situation where we can keep them out.

I always caution against this, but some of the states are talking about locking themselves off from the rest of the country—and I do understand their ambition to avoid the risks of COVID-19; I genuinely do. But the tragedy is that, the longer you create a gap between the lived reality of a virus that spreads around the rest of the world and a population that does not have full antibodies or immunity to it, the more you end up in a situation over time where the gap becomes larger and the impact can be much more devastating.

I said in a speech to this chamber earlier that this is one of the tragedies of what occurred in the European settlement in Australia in the latter part of the 18th century, where viruses that were not previously exposed had an impact on a population who didn't have antibodies and then caused a terrible scourge. It is not the only basis on which we had a tragic loss of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives; but it has an impact, and, the longer you let that gap grow, the bigger the impact it can have.

This government is focused on what we need to do to get the population vaccinated. This government is committed not just to today but to what we need to do for the future and to continue to assist and adapt and provide the boosters that Australians need to protect themselves. But, critically, we need to do that swiftly. If you haven't had a chance, as a citizen of this country, to go out and get your vaccine, please do so; and do so quickly because the shadow pandemic, the physical conditions, the undiagnosed conditions, the education impacts, the mental health impact and the life impacts that the member for Dunkley raised are too real and, frankly, haven't been given the full consideration they deserve in a lot of the decisions that have been made, particularly by governments that have looked at matters through a singular focus.

5:16 pm

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I of course agree with the National Health Amendment (COVID-19) Bill 2021. I would like to say at the beginning that the smooth-tongued member for Goldstein has at least conceded that there have been significant delays in our vaccine rollout. That has been a very important factor in the outbreak we are facing in New South Wales—together with the failure of the hotel quarantine system. But my main concern with the so-called national plan and the Doherty modelling is that not enough is being done to protect the most vulnerable. For example, the vaccination rate in our Indigenous population in far western New South Wales was less than eight per cent, which is a huge problem when you consider the vulnerability of those communities.

I also believe that not enough is being done to protect other vulnerable people, those at higher risk, people who are immunosuppressed. That includes people who are pregnant and people who have some of the chronic diseases that we see, such as lupus and other inflammatory diseases, who may be taking immunosuppressant medication. My concern with the Doherty modelling is that, unless we protect the most vulnerable, we are at risk of seeing a significant difficulty in controlling any outbreak that occurs. That will put our health systems at extreme risk. In my electorate of Macarthur, the main hospital is Campbelltown Hospital. It is now inundated with COVID-19 patients in the respiratory wards, in the COVID wards and in intensive care. And the main teaching hospital in the area, Liverpool Hospital, is, I would say, past capacity with COVID-19 patients. Unless we are able to control outbreaks when they occur, which depends on a very well-organised and quick testing regime and very good contact-tracing regimes, the Doherty modelling is less successful. And that is going to be a major difficulty for the high-risk areas.

I just wanted to say those things to begin with. I appreciate that the member for Goldstein has concerns about the perhaps not-so-obvious effects of the response to COVID-19—the lockdowns et cetera. I'm well aware of that. And I agree totally with the member for Dunkley that the suspension of BreastScreen in New South Wales is a major concern. I think that should be reconsidered on an urgent basis, because people do need to have mammograms performed. I think just because we're in the middle of the pandemic and an outbreak in New South Wales it does not mean that we should suspend BreastScreen and other specialised screening processes.

We support this bill of course, because it does provide the government with the ability to urgently acquire some of the drugs and some of the other treatments that are required for our response to COVID-19. I want to say that part of the reason that we're in this situation in New South Wales, with this huge outbreak—of over 1,000 cases again today—is because the vaccine rollout was very sluggish. The reasons for that, I think, are pretty obvious. I think all of us were a little lulled into a false sense of security because we'd done so well with the alpha variant, the original variant, and I think that the government didn't see this as an urgent priority.

They made mistakes with vaccine procurement—I think because they were fixated on local manufacture and they shouldn't have been. The University of Queensland vaccine, because it caused false positives to a number of conditions, including HIV, was impractical to use, so that couldn't be used. CSL produced the AstraZeneca vaccine in Melbourne, which I think initially gave the government perhaps an overly optimistic idea about how quickly those vaccine doses could be rolled out. And the government did not procure enough vaccine doses of the messenger RNA vaccines, which have proven so successful overseas—the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine. There are other vaccines becoming available. The Novavax vaccine, which is a simple protein vaccine, will become available later in the year, but, again, that has been a little delayed. So, there were difficulties with vaccine procurement, and the member for Goldstein has conceded that.

Over and above that, the government has also failed on a number of other issues. I've made the point about the government not calling out those on the very conservative side of politics such as the member for Hughes, Senator Rennick and others, including a previous member of this House—Clive Palmer—who are spreading false information in our population, increasing vaccine hesitancy and delaying uptake of the vaccines. That's been going on for a long time. This government has failed to call them to account, and that's part of the price we're now paying for being so slow in the vaccine rollout. It's ramping up now, which is good, but there are still difficulties with the vaccine uptake and still difficulties with people obtaining the vaccines that they need. For example, my daughter showed me recently a text message from Central Sydney Area Health Service saying that there are over 100,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine available through the Central Sydney health district and to come and get it if you want to get it. Yet I know people in my electorate, which is in south-west Sydney and is one of the areas of interest, can't get access to the Pfizer vaccine. That includes some people who are at risk, including pregnant women. So there is a real problem with the chaotic nature of the vaccine rollout.

I would also suggest that the government has been tardy in obtaining supplies for some of the other medications that are used to treat COVID-19. In particular, there's a medication, a monoclonal antibody, called tocilizumab, which is what is called an interleukin-6 inhibitor, and this is part of the inflammatory cascade that occurs with inflammatory processes such as COVID-19, but it's also used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, including juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Many of the rheumatologists who see these people who have severe rheumatoid arthritis have been told that tocilizumab is in such short supply that Australia might run out in the next month or two. And this is one of the treatments that's used in the management of severe COVID-19, for people who are in intensive care on respirators, and yet Australia could run out because this government has not procured enough supply of tocilizumab. I believe also there are concerns about possible shortages of other medications such as remdesivir, which is an antiviral drug which has some effect in severe COVID-19. So I'm worried that this government has not procured enough supplies of those medications that we know will help. They are also very cheap medications. Dexamethasone, which is a steroid, is used for severe COVID-19. Luckily, we have plentiful supplies of that. It's a cheap medication and readily available.

But there are also emerging medications, including some of the other monoclonal antibodies, that are used to treat severe COVID-19. I just hope the government has procured supplies or supply agreements for some of these new treatments. One that they have secured some supplies of, but I'm not sure that it's enough, is the Regeneron CoV multiclonal antibody mixture. I think we need to be very careful about that and make sure we have enough. There are some emerging antiviral medications produced by some of the major pharmaceutical companies, but it is unclear whether the government has procured enough.

The other thing I would suggest the government has also done very, very poorly is the messaging about COVID-19 treatments, particularly about the treatments that don't work. We hear a lot from some members of this place and other people about things like hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin et cetera. It is quite clear that these medications do not work in severe COVID-19, and neither do they work as preventatives, yet this government has done nothing to show people how poorly they work—in fact, how they don't work—and the side-effects that they can cause. There are a number of studies now that have shown that they don't work, yet we allow the member for Hughes, the member for Dawson and others to spread this absolute rubbish that people hang onto, because people want simple treatments that work. Of course they want them. The British Medical Journal, one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world, has concluded:

… research related to ivermectin in COVID-19 has serious methodological limitations resulting in very low certainty of the evidence, and continues to grow.

It concluded that it doesn't work. The use of ivermectin is not at this time recommended in any way for COVID-19. The FDA in America has said the same thing. We have a lot of false prophets out there, such as Professor Thomas Borody, who, as far as I can see, has never treated a case of severe COVID-19, talking about protocols using ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, amongst other things that don't work, but this government has done nothing to inform the Australian population about how poorly they work. I will finish on that note.

Of course we need to support this bill, but I do have major concerns about the government's procurement policy and their lack of transparency, and I am worried about the outbreak in New South Wales and the pressure it is putting on our health systems and our supplies of medications that are used to treat severe COVID-19.

5:27 pm

Photo of John AlexanderJohn Alexander (Bennelong, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] Firstly, I would like to recognise the member for Macarthur for his most worthwhile contribution. It is a reminder that we have good people on both sides.

Last week I spoke here about Treasury laws amendments in one of those small but essential bills which ensure that the country keeps running and that ring in changes slowly and as needed. It was the sort of bill which keeps the lights on and really goes unnoticed. Today we are talking about a bill, the National Health Amendment (COVID-19) Bill 2021, that is the opposite. There is possibly no more important bill that we will discuss this month than this bill, because it gives the Department of Health the funds it needs to keep fighting COVID-19. This bill will have implications which will be seen across Australia on a daily basis, and, hopefully, it will bring an end to this debilitating and life-changing pandemic.

After 18 months of uncertainty, optimism, pessimism and more uncertainty, we find ourselves back in lockdown. I'm giving my contribution while I am seated in my office in Epping in the locked down Parramatta LGA. We have been locked down now for exactly two months, and it looks like there's another month on the way. This lockdown is hitting us hard. Businesses have been up against the wall. Even those which had the capital to cope with one shock have been dealing with constant restrictions and uncertainty now for 18 months. For every business that struggles, many individuals are affected. Government payments have allowed many businesses to keep people on; but the pain has been real for people with less work, less money and uncertainty about how long this will last. The strong community spirit we have around Ryde and Bennelong remains strong, with people still doing what they can to make sure their neighbours, friends and family are doing okay. But without the regular calendar of local events, sports, school fetes, and even the connections we make while we're doing our shopping, our human connections and our sense of community suffer. I have no doubt that this will bounce back when freedoms return, but it doesn't make it easier right now.

However, if the picture is bleak, the light at the end of the tunnel we saw in May is still visible if we look. Vaccination rates are higher than we've ever seen in New South Wales, which recently set world records for the speed of the vaccination take up. It was only a handful of days ago that we celebrated 60 per cent with their first dose, and now we're already at 66 per cent. Last week over 800,000 people in New South Wales received a jab, which is incredible. At this rate we'll reach 70 per cent in the next few days and 80 per cent won't be far away after that. From there we'll only be four weeks away from the double dosage at that level.

We will be through this soon enough, but to do that we need the government to have the ability to purchase vaccines, invest in treatments and buy the things we need to fight this disease. And for that we need this bill. Currently, in order to spend money to fight COVID, the health minister receives funding through appropriation bills, which are not frequent or flexible enough for the government to respond as necessary during a pandemic. The unpredictable nature of vaccine requirements, development and availability has made it difficult to predict funding requirements within the traditional budget process. Essentially, COVID variants don't respect time lines of budget or MYEFO processes.

Just today we saw the Prime Minister announce 500,000 vaccine swaps with Singapore, that sees us buy their vaccines now and sell them ours in December, when we will need them less. This is a good deal for both parties and is increasingly the way things are being done, as we have seen previously with our deal with Poland. But these deals can't be easily foreseen and are often trades made in the light of changing developments. This is why we need the health minister to have these powers. Additionally, our spending on vaccines would be hitting a wall in general, pending our acquisition of COVID products after this point, just when we'll be needing to buy boosters or whatever we need for the next strain. This bill means we can keep buying what we need.

We can see the light at the end of the tunnel through vaccines, and this bill will keep those vaccines coming into Australia for as long as we need them. There could be nothing more important than us passing this bill this week.

5:33 pm

Photo of Ged KearneyGed Kearney (Cooper, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Health and Ageing) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I rise to address the House on the National Health Amendment (COVID-19) Bill. Labor, of course, supports this bill as it will ensure funds are always available for the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines, including boosters, treatments and related consumables. Vaccines are a vitally important part of the infrastructure needed to proceed to a world beyond lockdowns. I say 'part of the infrastructure' because a lot more needs to be done to ensure all Australians are safe in a world where COVID-19 exists.

We need a government that doesn't say it's not their job, and we need a Prime Minister ready to hold a hose. To that end, I wholeheartedly support the amendment moved by my friend and colleague, the member for Griffith. The eyes of Australians are all on the Morrison government right now. We are all watching, holding our breath, waiting for the vaccine rollout to gather speed. Every morning Australians tune into the news or they chat to their neighbour over the fence or they get a ping from Twitter to find out the numbers that guide each and every one of us during our days—the coronavirus case numbers and the vaccination numbers. We watch these numbers like our lives depend on them, and perhaps they do.

Each case number tells a story about a household and individuals. These numbers show a steady march of Australians who are keen to do their part. These numbers include elderly folk who are protecting themselves, knowing the havoc this disease could bring to their bodies and homes. They are men and women in their 40s and 50s—schoolteachers, tradies and retail workers who want to make sure we come out of this stage of the pandemic so that they can watch footy at the pub or visit their mum for dinner. They are young people in their 20s who have grown tired waiting for their lives to resume.

But also behind Australia's vaccination numbers is another set of stories: hundreds of thousands of Australians can't get that vaccination appointment because there haven't been enough vaccines rolled out, because phone numbers ring out or because their GPs don't have enough shots of the vaccine. Millions of Australians have waited and waited and waited for their age group to be eligible. The Prime Minister assured Australians that four million of us would be vaccinated by the end of March 2021. Remember that? By the end of March there were only 600,000 doses administered—only 15 per cent of the Prime Minister's target.

The Morrison government's vaccine rollout has been one of the biggest policy failures in a century. It has caused so much damage to so many. No other policy, failing that one, has damaged the lives of people at all stages from cradle to grave. It has seen the mental health of those who live alone spiral into dark places. The Prime Minister's vaccine rollout has kept Australia in a paralysis of lockdowns, uncertainty and economic gloom.

Here's another number: 200. My fellow Melburnians have recently experienced the milestone of 200 days of lockdown. Beyond that number are more than five million stories, one for every Melburnian who has endured this milestone. Earlier on in this pandemic, the Prime Minister assured Australians that we would be at the front of the queue. Hear that? We would be at the front of the queue—first in line. But as Australia soldiered on he changed his tune. Then he told Australians, 'This isn't a race.' But he's wrong, it is a race, and Australians are nowhere near the front.

Here's another number: 113. Australia is ranked 113th in the world for our vaccine rollout. We have one of the slowest rollouts in the developed world. The Prime Minister's refusal to secure a variety of vaccine deals early on in the pandemic has left Australians dangerously exposed. Now the Prime Minister has had to negotiate country-to-country deals to get vaccines when he should have negotiated with the pharmaceutical companies in the first place. Now the Prime Minister is attempting a crafty sleight of hand and pretending that each lockdown is the doing of the state premiers, as though they failed to keep their state safe when in fact quarantine is a Commonwealth responsibility. It will never fail to drive me to fury that the Morrison government is more concerned about keeping refugees out of Australia than keeping COVID-19 out of Australia. The Prime Minister is hoping that Australians blame premiers for the lockdowns that so many of us are currently experiencing, but Australians can see through that.

Let me leave you with a final number: two. Scott Morrison had two jobs—a swift and efficient rollout of the vaccine, and keeping Australians safe from COVID with an effective quarantine system—and he failed both of them. It is a race, it always was a race and, frankly, the stakes couldn't be higher. The only people to lose from this will be the Australian people.

5:38 pm

Photo of Julian HillJulian Hill (Bruce, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This is terrific, isn't it? We're 18 months into a pandemic and here we have a bill, the National Health Amendment (COVID-19) Bill 2021, giving the minister for health the power to spend money to go and buy vaccines and booster shots. Three cheers! Lack of money is not the issue; it has never been the issue. Last year this parliament gave the finance minister a $40 billion advance—a little kitty in case anything needed to be done. The problem here is incompetence and a lack of urgency. That's what we've seen now for 18 months.

Australians, including those right across my home city of Melbourne and the state of Victoria, and indeed in most of the country, are sick of the never-ending lockdowns. Australians want the lockdowns to end, and they want to be safe. The lockdowns are the Prime Minister's fault, make no mistake, because he didn't order enough vaccines and he didn't build purpose-built quarantine. But the only way for these two things to be achieved, for the lockdowns to end and for tens of thousands of citizens not to then die from this deadly disease, is if we have enough vaccines.

By any measure, Australian vaccine rollout has been a shambles. I want to read some quotes:

… the biggest failure of public administration I can recall.


… a colossal failure.


… a phenomenal failure …

That wasn't a Labor person. That was the previous Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, talking about the government's shambles of a rollout. I have another quote:

… the reason we are locked down, which is so frustrating when so many other parts of the world are opening up, is simply because our government failed to buy enough vaccines.

That was also the previous Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. That's the commentary the government's getting from its friends. The incompetence and failure are bad enough, but what is even worse is the Prime Minister's abject refusal to do his job, take responsibility and face up to his failure. At every turn we've had 18 months of spin, gaslighting of Australians and blaming of everyone else. 'It's not me. It's the states' fault. They were supposed to do that.' 'It's not me. It's Labor. They're undermining our vaccine rollout.' Never mind that his own backbench is spreading misinformation day after day. Half the government senators seem to be in on it. 'It's the man on the moon. It's not me. It's someone else.' Now he has Lieutenant General Frewen to point at when something goes wrong.

The Prime Minister told Australians we were at the front of the queue. A more ridiculous, untrue statement I could not think of. At the end of June this year we were last in the OECD, last in the developed world and 113th in the world on vaccine rollout. The Prime Minister said only yesterday, 'We've overcome the problems. It's all on track.' We're still near last in the developed world, while the rest of the world is opening up. Try telling people in Melbourne, who, hoping for a cancellation, get there at 6 am to get a jab of Pfizer so they can protect themselves and their families, that it's all going really well.

This is the second winter that my home city has lived through a lockdown, but this time it would have been avoidable if the bloke who sits in the chair over there on the other side had ordered enough vaccines. He said it wasn't a race, and then he blamed Brendan Murphy and pretended he hadn't said that. It was always a race—to save lives, to save livelihoods, to get this country opened and to stop the lockdowns. People are sick of lockdowns. They're suffering because of this Prime Minister's failure to run and win that race.

The race was at two levels, of course. There was supply—you've got to have enough vaccines. He didn't order the Pfizer until last December. He didn't get a diverse supply of vaccines, as is best practice—four to six different types. He put all his eggs in one basket. Other countries had placed their orders in July last year. He didn't get the order in till the day before Christmas. We were at the back of the queue, and you don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that Australia, frankly, being a small country, is a small market. We don't have much leverage with big pharma. We had to be at the very front of the queue to get our place.

The government have been stingy on vaccines and stingy on quarantine and, frankly, because of their stinginess last year, they've blown tens of billions of dollars in unnecessary economic support that we wouldn't have had to pay. There's tens of billions of dollars being loaded onto the national debt by the incompetent geniuses over there that the next generation are going to be asked to repay. There's also the damage to the mental health of people who are suffering through lockdowns and living alone. There have been record numbers of calls to Lifeline, our national suicide prevention hotline.

The Prime Minister has missed every target he has set. There were to be four million vaccinations by the end of March. He got 600,000. All aged-care residents and nurses were to be vaccinated by Easter. He did mean last Easter, not next Easter. He still hasn't met that target. Now he's given up on targets. There's no trajectory; we just have horizons. Horizons are something you never actually get to. So I ask the Prime Minister: when are we going to get to this 80 per cent target? What's the magical date when freedom day and all these good things over the horizon might arrive? He's not prepared to commit, because all he wants to do is fight with the states and territories when it suits his 24-hour news cycle. You've actually got to sit down and get on with the states and territories to get the distribution right.

What about teenagers? Parents are crying out for vaccinations. What about booster shots? The Prime Minister will be due for his booster shot in two months. Is he going to put himself at the front of that queue while the rest of Australia is still waiting? Frankly, Australians are dangerously exposed because of his vaccination failure and his quarantine failure. People in Sydney are now dying. Gladys Berejiklian said only yesterday, 30 August, that October is going to be the worst month for ICU.

Mr Deputy Speaker Freelander, you're a paediatrician. I know you live and breathe this. It's your colleagues who are putting their own lives and their families' safety at risk to save people's lives because he did not do his job. Do not expect Australians to forgive or forget this failure. We will get through this regardless of the incompetence of the Prime Minister and the government and their criminal, lethal negligence. He wants people to now forget his failure and pretend he's for freedom. He is the gaslighter in chief. So, yes, we will do it together. The Minister for Health and Aged Care can have the money to buy more vaccines and buy booster shots if he says he needs it now. But this government's failure cannot be forgiven.

5:45 pm

Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Oxley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to address the National Health Amendment (COVID-19) Bill 2021. As we know, this amendment facilitates the purchase of important public health supplies, including COVID-19 vaccines, consumables and treatments by amending the National Health Act. Labor will be supporting this bill tonight, because we want it done as quickly and as efficiently as possible. We support this bill because it's important that we consider the broader context of this government's COVID-19 response. That will be in my remarks tonight.

As we've heard many, many times before across this nation, the Prime Minister had two key jobs this year: efficiently and effectively rolling out the vaccine and fixing quarantine. He has failed both. The government's vaccine rollout has been nothing short of a complete and utter shambles. Last year, we all heard the same Prime Minister say that we were supposedly at the front of the queue for vaccines and that it wasn't a race. That idea seems laughable now, after Australians have endured months and months of supply issues. It's clear that we were nowhere near the front, and, as we know, at one stage we were coming last in the OECD. We were told that all aged-care residents and workers would be vaccinated by Easter 2021. Only 45,000 residents were vaccinated by 10 April, with the Prime Minister later abandoning his plans to directly provide doses to aged-care workers. We were never at the front of the queue. How could we be when the Prime Minister adopted the attitude of, 'It's not a race'? It was a race. Labor knew that, and the people of Australia knew that. It's clear now that the real danger was in not rushing and implementing a vaccine 'strollout' instead of a speedy and effective vaccine rollout as the rest of the world has done. Australians have been placed in real danger. The government's complacency has put Australians in a very dangerous position.

I want to conclude my remarks tonight by talking about and calling out the conspiracy theories in this country. It starts in this chamber, here and now, with the member for Dawson and the member for Hughes. They've allowed extremely dangerous conspiracy theories to fester, and it began with the member for Hughes, whose dissent to COVID conspiracy began when he sat on the government's back bench. The member for Hughes, who sits in this House and has all the privileges and responsibilities that come with it, has continually stated that he does not believe in the efficacy of vaccines and has made repeated false claims about the dangers of COVID-19. The member for Dawson, in this chamber, this week seconded a private member's bill to undermine our vaccine and undermine our health in this country. On Monday morning, I was in this chamber when that happened. The member for Dawson has appeared at antilockdown rallies alongside signs with vile and defamatory messages and where many participants wore shirts with the letter Q on them, a reference to the conspiracy theory QAnon.

The member for Dawson is not alone in these dangerous views. Tonight, I call out Senator Matt Canavan and Senator Gerard Rennick, from my home state of Queensland, who have also used their platforms to undermine the important public health measures that have kept us safe. This is not freedom of speech; it is dangerous speech. It must stop, and the Prime Minister is the only one who can stop it. The Prime Minister has time and time again not taken his responsibilities seriously. He had a responsibility to deliver safe and dedicated quarantine, yet he decided to let the Queensland government pick up his slack and build it themselves.

Tonight, I call out the member for Hughes. I call out his dangerous messaging that he is spamming Australians with. Residents in my electorate have received revolting text messages—dangerous text messages—from the member for Hughes. This is my message to the member for Hughes and the United Australia Party and its founder and overlord, Clive Palmer: stop misleading the people of Australia, and stop delivering dangerous health messages to the people of Australia. We all want to be out of lockdowns. We all want this nightmare to be over. It will not be over if they keep peddling their mistruths, dangerous conspiracy theories and myths that have been debunked and destroyed by health professionals across the globe. For the entirety of our country to be receiving this dangerous message undermines our health response to the most insidious pandemic that this country has ever seen. I am pleading with members in this parliament, for the privilege that they have in standing here, to use their voices wisely. I know it's only a fringe, but that fringe is growing, and we need to say that enough is enough. Tonight, I'm using my voice to call it out and to demand an end to it.

5:50 pm

Photo of Brian MitchellBrian Mitchell (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] Labor supports the National Health Amendment (COVID-19) Bill 2021. Labor has been a constructive opposition throughout this entire pandemic, as could be seen with our support of the JobKeeper measures that went through this parliament early last year, and we will not stand in the way of this money going through now for vaccines. But we would not be doing our job as an opposition if we did not point out the government's manifest failures through this pandemic and make suggestions as to how it could do better.

The government has failed at every turn when it comes to the vaccine rollout—an absolute failure at every turn. We all remember the Prime Minister saying that we were at the front of the queue, promising Australians that we were at the front of the queue. But we weren't: more than a hundred nations across the world were ahead of Australia. We heard the Prime Minister say, 'It's not a race,' but it's always been a race. It's always been a race, and Australia has been losing that race in the vaccine rollout. It's not a vaccine rollout but a vaccine 'strollout'.

Labor is pleased that the vaccines are starting to arrive, but there is so much more that needs to be done. Not for the first time, the Prime Minister has been wrong, and so very wrong, and it is Australians who are paying the price for his many failures. We have one of the slowest rollouts in the developed world, and all because our Prime Minister did not secure a Pfizer deal until the end of 2020. He had the opportunity to sit down with Pfizer early last year and make the deal, just like many other countries and other world leaders did. But our Prime Minister sat on his hands and, as a result, our country, our people, our nurses, our doctors and those Australians who are suffering in ICU wards are paying the price.

Now we're seeing the Prime Minister change his tune completely. He has gone from, 'It's not a race,' to, 'It's more important how you finish the race.' That's what he said yesterday in the parliament: 'The important thing is how we finish the race.' That's cold comfort to the workers and businesses who have lost their incomes due to lockdowns that simply would not have happened over the past few months if the Prime Minister had simply done his job. It's cold comfort to the many Tasmanians in my electorate who are seeing their livelihoods crumble around them because this Prime Minister said that it's not important how you start it, it's only important how you finish. In the meantime, in that gap, livelihoods and incomes are crumbling.

In Tasmania we're seeing increasing pressure on the tourism and aviation industries, and there's no support for these vital industries. Just because Tasmania is not in lockdown, the Prime Minister has not made support available to the suffering industries, workers and businesses that are directly impacted by flight cancellations because of the lockdowns on the mainland. They're receiving no support at all. That's a great failure by this Prime Minister during this pandemic and it's all because this Prime Minister cannot keep his promises.

Here are a few more broken promises for the record. He promised that four million Australians would be vaccinated by the end of March 2021, but by the end of March only 600,000 doses had been administered—a massive failure, just 15 per cent of the Prime Minister's vaccination pledge. This is what this Prime Minister does: he makes a big announcement—he gets in front of all the cameras and all the microphones, and has all the flags behind him, and he makes the big announcement. Then he never keeps the promise, and he just moves on. He just keeps the caravan moving on. He doesn't want to talk about the past, he doesn't want to talk about the failures and he doesn't want to be held responsible for his own words and his own broken promises. It's a complete failure of leadership by this Prime Minister.

Aged-care workers were promised that they would be vaccinated. Only 45,000 aged-care residents, let alone workers, were fully vaccinated by 10 April—chalk it up to all the broken promises. This Prime Minister has abandoned plans to provide vaccines directly to aged-care workers, didn't sign the right deal with the providers, and on 30 June just one-third of staff in aged-care homes were fully vaccinated, putting themselves and the people they care for at risk. At every turn this Prime Minister is failing the test. He's failing the leadership test on the vaccine rollout during this pandemic, and he should be held responsible for this failure of leadership.

Before I finish, I would like briefly to go to the words of the member for Oxley, who quite rightly condemned the actions and the words of the member for Hughes and the member for Dawson. The Prime Minister saved the parliamentary career of the member for Hughes. The only reason the member for Hughes is in the parliament today is that the Prime Minister saved his preselection, and now he's the leader of the United Australia Party, which is spreading vaccination lies, vaccination rumours and vaccination untruths across the country. He's being aided and abetted by the member for Dawson, who sits on the government backbench. He is directly responsible to his party room in the coalition and by proxy to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister must show leadership and deal with the member for Dawson. If he fails to do so, he will be shown up for the hollow man that we all know he is.

5:56 pm

Photo of Helen HainesHelen Haines (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

The National Health Amendment (COVID-19) Bill 2021 amends the National Health Act to facilitate the purchasing of COVID-19 vaccines, including boosters, consumables and COVID-19 treatments. This bill shows more of what living with COVID might mean beyond the immediate political cycle. I'm relieved that planning is underway to flesh out the health details of the national plan. The Prime Minister has said over and over that this is a safe plan. By asking us to believe it's safe, he's asking us to take a great leap of faith. I support the national plan, make no mistake. I, like so many other Australians—most Australians—want to find myself in a situation of certainty, rather than continuous uncertainty. But I and my rural and regional constituents want reassurance too about how it will work in practice. And here's what I'd like to know: what does 70 to 80 per cent look like for rural and regional Australia? Are our unique circumstances of higher disease burden and inequitable healthcare access being considered? How will our chronically underfunded health services respond to three, a dozen, hundreds of cases? Will our under-resourced workforce's response be supported and equipped to deal with what comes next? Can we guarantee that our family members, our friends and our neighbours can still get elective surgery, can still see a specialist? Can our health infrastructure handle the requirements of COVID-safe isolation?

My electorate has been largely COVID-free since the pandemic began. There have been a few scares, which were expertly handled by our health services, but the disease itself has largely existed somewhere else. This doesn't mean, of course, that we're unscarred. We've borne the economic cost of lockdowns and seen our small businesses contract. We've worked hard and followed the rules, and we've also benefitted from protection. The ring of steel around Melbourne was introduced last year because our small rural health services are not equipped to deal with large COVID outbreaks. My constituents are turning out in record numbers for vaccination, even though we've had little exposure, and, in spite of the many blunders of this vaccine rollout, we're still showing up. Country people are used to going the extra mile to get medical care. We're used to waiting a long time. But it's usually months, not hours, like it is in some COVID queues, and this rollout has been no exception. I am so proud that the health district of Hume, which is approximately the footprint of Indi, was the fourth-highest in our state for first doses. The LGAs on the first-dose leaderboard are: Indigo shire, at 68 per cent; Towong shire, at 67.4 per cent; and Alpine shire, at 67.1 per cent. Of fully vaccinated LGAs, the gold goes to Benalla, at 43.8 per cent, then Strathbogie, at 40.1 per cent, and Wangaratta, at 39.7 per cent. On Friday Albury Wodonga Health administered 708 vaccine doses, and that's a record for them. We're showing up because we're desperate to return to a life where we can work, study and travel.

The Doherty institute says that, with higher vaccination rates, there will be less transmission of COVID-19, fewer people with severe illness and fewer hospitalisations and deaths. That's good news. But, for rural and regional Australians, the reality is that, when we open up at 70 to 80 per cent, our health services will experience something they have never grappled with before, and that's COVID-19 circulating in the community. This means it will get worse for them and it will get harder. It's not a possibility; it's a certainty. And of course the vaccination rates are key to that, to make sure that, as it's circulating much more broadly, people don't get as sick as they could do if they were not vaccinated.

Before I became an MP, I worked in rural and regional health care for over three decades, and I know there's simply no give in our system. On a normal day, our health services are at capacity, and it's very common for there to be nowhere near enough staff. Like the bushfires exposed how brittle our regional infrastructure is from years of neglect, COVID has magnified the weaknesses of our regional health systems. That's why I'm calling on the government to explain, please, how we will transition from zero COVID to the place where we need to go with the national plan.

The situation playing out in Shepparton, in the neighbouring electorate to mine, Nicholls, is a case in point. Shepparton has experienced the worst regional Victorian outbreak since the pandemic began. In tight-knit regional towns, lives overlap, and in Shepparton this has resulted in one-third of its population in isolation. People have struggled to access essential services such as groceries. Over the weekend, the Red Cross delivered 600 food parcels to families isolating at home. I know they're on top of it now, and that's because they're an incredible community. And the health service has responded valiantly, but of course it has to buckle under so much pressure. By Sunday, 500 Goulburn Valley Health staff had been furloughed due to the growing list of exposure sites, and that's having flow-on effects to services in Numurkah and Kyabram. The remaining doctors still working are focused on rolling out vaccines and dealing with critical emergencies. I'm told that everything that could be done is being done to support the community and its health services, but it's still not enough. What we're seeing in Shepparton is how little it takes to completely swamp our rural and regional health systems.

And this is just one regional town. Just think about it. If it's a dozen across Victoria, then what? If our metro hospitals are struggling with increased demand like we're seeing in New South Wales, no-one will be spare to lend a hand in the country. And what's playing out in New South Wales is instructive. The New South Wales Premier says the worst is yet to come, in October, still a whole month away. The New South Wales Deputy Premier said that the health system is ready to repivot and recalibrate, but, goodness me, this is a claim that has been rebutted conclusively by doctors and nurses on the front line, who say that, on current trends, it's not long until the system is overwhelmed.

The government had been warned of a looming COVID disaster in Wilcannia 18 months ago, and we find ourselves here—too little and too late. It's the people on the front line I'm most concerned about. As I said, I've worked in rural and regional health services for 35 years. Before I came to the chamber this afternoon, I was speaking to the director of medicine at Northeast Health Wangaratta, and she was telling me, too, about the burnout, about the exhaustion, about the uncertainty that so many of the workers there face. After a year and a half of this pandemic, despite this burnout, they're still showing up and they are trying to be strong, but it takes its toll. Wearing PPE is oppressive. The working conditions are hard. Many are exhausted. And, as she told me this afternoon, many are burning out. Many health services survive only through overseas trained locum doctors, but closed borders mean this supply has dried up. With some medical specialist exams cancelled just weeks out from exam day, it's not just a sunk cost of months and months of study for these doctors; it's fewer skilled medical workers when we most need them. It has come to a point where some of the most passionate healthcare workers are actually questioning their career choice, and this is a terrible shame. We can't afford to lose a single worker, not now, and we need to support them. We need a pipeline of medical professionals and we need confidence that plans are being made ahead of time, not just on the fly. This government needs to have the backs of our health professionals for the long haul.

We need a dedicated focus on vaccinating rural and regional Australians. The New South Wales Chief Health Officer, Kerry Chant, said we're only as safe as the protection of our most vulnerable. It doesn't escape my attention that the people she identified as vulnerable should have been vaccinated months ago. People with underlying health conditions, First Nations people, people with mental ill health, prisoners, aged-care workers and people with disabilities should have been at the front of the queue. With higher disease burden and greater barriers to accessing health care, our regional communities must be a priority.

In my electorate, one of these priority groups is our culturally and linguistically diverse community in Albury-Wodonga. With government resources focused on the Sydney outbreak, our local CALD communities have really struggled to find adequate, local public health information about vaccination, about their questions, about how the testing process works or about how to manoeuvre through the complex border permit system, particularly in the languages of Swahili, Kinyarwanda and Nepali, which are spoken by our refugee community. Our sector has now begun to meet regularly to coordinate these resources and support. I want to thank our community leaders, volunteers, local settlement, community services and health services staff, who work so hard on this response in Albury-Wodonga. I especially want to thank Lucy Wallace for pulling meetings together of these key groups.

I represent an electorate which has endured the repeated closure of the New South Wales-Victoria border. This has and continues to have detrimental impacts on access to health care. When the border first closed in 2020, it prevented the region's only two infectious diseases doctors from getting to work. It stopped up to 80 frontline Northeast Health Wangaratta staff getting to work. It disrupted surgery and cancer care—and the list goes on. Every day we live with the cruel consequences of rules made in metropolitan cities without understanding the reality of life in rural and regional centres.

And now we have hundreds of Victorians, many grey nomads in their 60s, 70s and 80s, stranded in limbo in caravan parks just north of the Murray River. They're barred from getting home through no fault of their own because there is no permit that allows them to enter Victoria. Anecdotally, there may be thousands of Victorians further into New South Wales in the same position. This is a public health crisis within a public health crisis waiting to happen. Ironically, one of the few reasons they can cross back into Victoria is to get medical treatment. They should not have to get sick enough to need medical attention before they have a legitimate reason to return home. It's a disgrace.

Our community has fought for over a year for the protections in the border bubble. I was pleased to hear in my meeting with the New South Wales border commissioner yesterday that New South Wales is planning for specific arrangements for border communities once the 70 to 80 per cent vaccination targets in the national plan are met and restrictions are being eased. It's only because of the sustained advocacy for our border bubble that the interests of the hundreds of thousands of people who live on the New South Wales-Victoria border are taken seriously at all.

Again I say as a long-term health worker, and one of only two nurses in this parliament, that I welcome this bill and the forward planning it foreshadows. But here's what else we need to see: our essential workers, our frontline health professionals—the nurses, doctors, allied are workers—need reassurance that they will have the resources to be safe and supported for the long haul. We need modelling done on a local level for projected patient numbers so that we can plan ahead. We need a long-term plan for properly staffing the administration of vaccinations, including these booster shots that we're legislating for today. We can't keep redeploying specialists from the front line into the vaccination line. We need our multipurpose services in regional Australia. They need capital funding from the Commonwealth for modifications to make them COVID safe. We need a national cabinet approach to resolving workforce shortages across the country. And, just for good measure, by golly we need a new hospital at Albury-Wodonga Health. Let's see this as an opportunity, because we can do two things at once. We can equip our rural and regional health sector to respond to COVID, and properly resource it to deal with whatever the future will bring.

6:10 pm

Photo of Michelle LandryMichelle Landry (Capricornia, National Party, Assistant Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank members for their contributions to the debate on the National Health Amendment (COVID-19) Bill 2021. The bill will support our national plan to transition Australia's COVID-19 response by ensuring the government can continue to purchase COVID-19 vaccines, including boosters, COVID-19 treatments and related consumables. Not only will these vaccines and treatments provide protection for Australians, reducing the risk of severe disease and hospitalisation from COVID-19; they will help steer our nation towards the next phases of transition out of this pandemic.

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Griffith has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the amendment be disagreed to.

Question agreed to.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.