House debates

Thursday, 2 September 2021


COVID-19: People with Disability

5:14 pm

Photo of Bill ShortenBill Shorten (Maribyrnong, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] Thank you, Mr Speaker—much awaited! Right now, as this parliament adjourns, there's a man called Jeremiah, or 'Jerry' to his family, in a Melbourne hospital. Jerry is 72 years old. He has an intellectual disability. He lives in a group home where he has 24/7 care from a devoted team. Yesterday afternoon Jerry's family received a call from his care home saying he had been rushed to hospital. He was admitted this morning for further tests. Jerry's family and guardians are, understandably, seriously concerned for his wellbeing. They are not able to visit him and they understand why. So Jerry is alone in hospital—no doubt receiving excellent care, but still alone.

While there is much concern for Jerry's health, there is one aspect his family don't have fear about: Jerry is vaccinated, so therefore his risk of becoming infected during his stay is at least not one of the problems. So his family have solace. He's one of the lucky ones. But people with disability were all too often being left behind in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they still are. The first response of the government, in February last year, failed to mention disability even once. Vaccination rates among people with disability are still unacceptably low when compared with aged-care and other vulnerable cohorts of Australians. People with disability are particularly vulnerable to serious illness and death from COVID, due to underlying health conditions and comorbidities of disability.

A shocking experience in the UK reported in the British Medical Journal reveals that people with disability suffer from far greater mortality from COVID than other people. This risk was acknowledged by the prioritisation of people and workers in residential disability settings in phases 1a and 1b of the Morrison government's subsequent rollout. This was meant to be completed by Easter. Jerry was one of 27,000 Australians with disability in a group eligible for vaccination. Of that group, half are still to be fully vaccinated. Half of Australia's most vulnerable citizens are still unvaccinated. When you add in other people with disability on the NDIS scheme, you realise that only 25 per cent are fully vaccinated—so that's 75 per cent who are not. This is six months after the government promised to vaccinate people with disability. The question has to be asked: why are Australians with disability still so far behind?

With the delta variant running rampant through New South Wales and fighting to take hold in Victoria, the need for speed in the vaccination rate of people living with disability has never been more important in Australia. Recently there were 14 cases linked in an ACT cluster of people with disability. There are 111 NDIS workers and 72 participants in New South Wales who are infected, including a number of students at schools for children with special needs. Amongst self-managed NDIS participants, those in aged-care homes or living in state-run facilities, the rate of infection is still unknown. It's unacceptable, isn't it, that the majority of people with disability aren't protected from COVID as Australia begins to discuss opening up from lockdowns while there is still community transmission.

Since the very beginning of this pandemic, people living with disability have been in the shadows—too many unvaccinated and clinically vulnerable. Many have been too scared to leave their homes, with many also unable to see their families, as they're locked in. People are alone because the government hasn't lived up to its duty of care to vaccinate Australia. We had an 18-month head start on the delta variant. Experts said we were vulnerable as a nation to new waves of the virus because not enough of us were vaccinated. Here we are in September 2021. It is beyond me both as a proud member of this great parliament and a father of fantastic children to understand how we've left tens of thousands of people behind.

If COVID is like a war, then we need to throw everything at it. We need to mobilise all our people. We need to be as agile as possible to get each and every Australian vaccinated. For every week we wait to reach the agreed national targets, people will get infected and people will die. For every person with disability like Jerry, there is another who has not been fully vaccinated and is at serious risk of illness or death from COVID.

We want hope. We want to look to the future. But we don't want magical thinking. We can't be fooled into forgetting. We cannot forget people living with disability and we can't forget their carers, both paid and family. And it is not wrong of the opposition to say we can't forget the incompetence of the very poor administration of the vaccine rollout. There will be worse variants. There will be other pandemics. What worries me, on behalf of people with disability in this country and the vulnerable, is that after 18 months the Morrison government doesn't seem to learn the lessons. The reason we will get to 70 and 80 per cent is the Australian people. But we need to learn the lessons and protect our most vulnerable. Surely people should expect nothing less of us.

House adjourned at 17:19