Senate debates

Tuesday, 9 May 2023

Matters of Public Importance


5:25 pm

Photo of Marielle SmithMarielle Smith (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I also rise to speak on the matter of importance raised today by Senator Roberts. All of us in this chamber note that the COVID-19 pandemic caused enormous dislocation, stress, illness and mortality not just in Australia but around the world. It absolutely stretched our health system and our resources to the limit. It asked so much of our talented and committed workforce in the health and aged-care sectors. There were aged-care workers caring for their residents in really difficult scenarios, doctors on COVID wards holding iPads to their patients to say their goodbyes to families and loved ones, and the work of nurses day after day in very difficult circumstances during a very scary time.

The challenges of this pandemic, of course, have been beyond our health sector, with our teachers, transport workers and retail workers showing up day after day in the most difficult of circumstances, risking their personal health and safety and that of their families to keep our country, our health system and our economy moving. That includes, of course, early educators, who I spoke about in this place many times during the height of the pandemic. They were sent into work each day without PPE, without the necessary supports needed to provide very-hands-on care to some of our most vulnerable citizens as their parents undertook essential work.

The pandemic challenged governments around the world to craft effective public health responses. It threw unprecedented challenges to our scientists, to our health system, to all who worked to develop the vaccine. It presented extremely difficult circumstances for businesses and touched every part of our economy and every part of our society. We said before the last election that, given the enormous dislocation, stress, illness and mortality involved in this pandemic, of course there would need to be a thorough inquiry. The Prime Minister has indicated that the government will undertake, at an appropriate future time, an inquiry into Australia's COVID-19 response that will examine the impact of the pandemic and respective actions of government. That is wholly appropriate.

All of us here know that there were serious issues in the response to the pandemic. I raised a number of them myself in this place, including around the preparedness of the aged-care workforce and the availability of masks and PPE, and it is worth noting that across our country many jurisdictions are already undertaking parliamentary reviews. I note that in South Australia just today another review has been launched into the COVID response and the emergency management response. So there is agreement, and I think there is understanding. I think everyone in this chamber agrees that we need to look at the government's response, look at what happened at that time and review that, but the timing also has to be well considered, noting that the pandemic isn't over. COVID is still amongst us. In my community it is certainly running rife at the moment. We are still in this pandemic. COVID is still with us. It presents a heightened risk during the winter months, which we are just about to enter, and our focus at this particular point in time, as we enter winter, has to be about continuing to keep Australians safe in a pandemic in which we are still living.

We're also still doing serious work during this high-risk time to make sure our aged-care sector and our aged-care workers are supported and that we are minimising outbreaks in these facilities, including through strong infection prevention and control measures, regular reinforcing of advice to address complacency, and the provision of a range of support services to the sector. We know and have seen over years that the aged-care sector is particularly vulnerable, especially during the winter months.

We're also investing $50 million into research into long COVID. This is an issue that has been raised with me by a number of constituents. It led to the recent parliamentary inquiry chaired by Dr Mike Freelander, which made a number of recommendations in its final report on long COVID, informed by over 500 submissions and testimonies from a range of sources. The response to that report is important because there are issues in long COVID too. So, whilst the government agrees that, yes, a review is absolutely and wholly appropriate, the timing of that review, at this particular point in time, is not. But there is absolute agreement on its importance.


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