Senate debates

Monday, 23 August 2021

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

COVID-19, Prime Minister

3:05 pm

Photo of Kristina KeneallyKristina Keneally (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take notice of answers given by the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Senator Payne), the Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services (Senator Colbeck) and the Minister for Finance (Senator Birmingham) to questions without notice asked by Senators Keneally, McAllister, Watt and Sheldon relating to COVID-19.

The Prime Minister was New South Wales Premier Berejiklian's biggest cheerleader when she refused to send Bondi into lockdown. As we stand here today, the people of Western Sydney, indeed of all of New South Wales, of Victoria, of Canberra and even of New Zealand are being drawn into Mr Morrison's COVID quagmire. Their frustration is palpable. We are 18 months into this pandemic. It shouldn't be this way, but the situation in Australia is worse than ever. In Sydney people have endured eight weeks of lockdown: eight long weeks of isolation from friends and family, eight long weeks of children trying to be schooled at home. For many it's been eight weeks of heartbreaking loneliness, for what? We get more bad news every day. It's no longer just the rising case numbers; there's a death toll now too, and it stands at 74. The Prime Minister in his urging to end the lockdowns openly admits that the death toll will rise. Despite all the sacrifices, despite all the hardship, the numbers keep ratcheting up and up. There doesn't appear to be an end in sight. It is a race to protect as many Australians as possible with the vaccine before this outbreak is totally out of control. But it's a chaotic race and it's too little, too late from Mr Morrison.

The statistics here will make you cry. One in 250 people in the Blacktown LGA is positive for COVID. One in 125 people in the Cumberland LGA is COVID positive. These are Western Sydney people who are COVID positive. We've only got 23 per cent of the Australian population fully vaccinated, and priority groups are still waiting. Eight per cent of the western New South Wales Indigenous community over the age of 16 is fully vaccinated—only eight per cent. There's no plan to vaccinate the 12- to 15-year-olds. The TGA has approved the Moderna vaccine, but Mr Morrison was only able to secure 10 million doses for 2021, with the majority not arriving for months. Whose responsibility is vaccine supply? It's the federal government's, the Morrison government's. It's Mr Morrison's failure to supply vaccines and his failure to deliver fit-for-purpose quarantine that have resulted in this mess. Mr Morrison promised that all Australians would be fully vaccinated by October: fail. He promised that four million Australians would be vaccinated by the end of March: fail. He promised that all quarantine workers, frontline healthcare workers, aged- and disability-care staff and residents would be vaccinated by Easter: fail. He promised six million Australians would be vaccinated by 10 May: fail. Now he's making promises about families gathering around the table for Christmas lunch. Maybe he ought to understand that Vinnies in Western Sydney are reporting that people are coming into their shops to sell their furniture, their dining room tables, for food. These are people who are going to be lucky to have furniture by Christmas. Addison Road, another frontline service, says that 50 per cent of their food-aid recipients are new to food aid, because of jobs lost, a loss of livelihood, mounting debts, reduced hours and having to escape violent households during this COVID lockdown. They say they were providing groceries to two people per week before the pandemic. Now they've reached 8,000.

Mr Morrison has failed to reach every vaccine target he's ever set. People, particularly in Western Sydney, are being told to get a vaccine. That would be great, except, over in the other place, the government has told the member for Greenway that vaccine hubs in Western Sydney are unnecessary. I've got news for the government: pharmacists in some parts of Western Sydney are tearing their hair out because they can't get access to enough vaccine. GPs in Western Sydney are hesitant to give AstraZeneca to young people. They're hesitant to receive the indemnity and hesitant to give that advice. Pharmacists are telling us that they're running through their two-week supply in two days. This is not a lightning response. This is not agile. This is failure, and it is the people of Western Sydney and the people of Australia who are being left behind by this 'too little, too late' Prime Minister. (Time expired)

3:11 pm

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There is no doubt that Australia is in difficult times at the moment. My heart goes out to the communities in Western Sydney, the broader Sydney community and, indeed, the areas across all of Australia where people are subject to lockdowns. We hope and pray that we emerge from this crisis as quickly as possible, as quickly as we can. I want to make a few points in relation to this debate. The first is: the Prime Minister has been absolutely crystal clear that he takes responsibility. He takes responsibility for the current situation and for the early setbacks. I want to quote the Prime Minister:

… I take responsibility for the early setbacks in our vaccination programme. I also take responsibility for getting them fixed and that we are now matching world’s best rates, with more than 1 million doses …

We're actually doing better than that now. As to the latest figures in terms of vaccination rates—and a lot of this has been contributed to by the GPs, the pharmacists and the clinics in New South Wales, many in those areas which Senator Keneally spoke about—in the last three days, one million doses of the vaccine have been given to Australians. That's an extraordinary figure. That means that more than 85 per cent of our over-70s have received one dose of the vaccine; more than 70 per cent of our over-50s have received one dose; and more than 50 per cent of over-16s have received one dose—extraordinary figures.

There has been an extraordinary acceleration in relation to the number of doses given. If we go back, historically, and have a look at the acceleration, we can see it drawn out in stark relief. One million doses took 45 days; going from 13 to 14 million doses only took six days; going from 14 to 15 million doses took three days; going from 15 to 16 million doses took five days; and going from 16 to 17 took three days. We're essentially providing a million doses every three days, which is an extraordinary effort. I really commend all of the health workers and other health professionals who are engaged in that process, and I congratulate all of those Australians who, with the benefit of their own health advice, have made their own determination to come forward and be vaccinated.

It's not only that. We have a national plan, which has four phases, and it is absolutely vital that we stick to that plan. It's absolutely vital that all of the premiers and all of the state governments stick together on the plan that was agreed at national cabinet—the plan that was informed by the best research available to the government, from the Doherty institute, and by economic modelling from Treasury. We need to stick with the plan. It would be extraordinarily disappointing if the rhetoric in this place generated an atmosphere which led or encouraged people to depart from that plan. I was very concerned about some of the rhetoric coming from those opposite in relation to continually looking at case numbers. As the Prime Minister has said, once we hit that 70 per cent vaccination rate, once we hit that 80 per cent vaccination rate, our focus has to shift to those hospitalisation rates and be not so much on those case numbers.

If you look at Israel, which was out there at the forefront and got its people vaccinated more quickly than any other country on the face of the earth, their current COVID case rate is extremely high. In Israel it's in the thousands every day, notwithstanding the fact that they were out there and got their people vaccinated early. But, as is the case in Israel, so will be the case in Australia. We have to be committed to the national plan that was agreed upon, and that means that, once we hit those 70 per cent and 80 per cent vaccination rates, we have to start opening up. We can't continue indefinitely with these lockdowns. It is just not possible. They are taking a toll on our young people and on older people. A mental health toll is being paid by so many people in our community. Small businesses are seeing their life's work destroyed. In the future, we can't continue with lockdowns that just go on indefinitely. Once we get those 70 per cent and 80 per cent vaccination rates—and we're achieving remarkable outcomes at the moment—we have to start to open up.

3:16 pm

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | | Hansard source

Hemingway wrote that bankruptcy happens gradually and then suddenly. The consequences of the Prime Minister's decision that vaccination was not a race have revealed themselves in much the same way. The Prime Minister's plan with COVID, as with everything it seems, appears always to have been to do as little as possible, take as little responsibility as possible and then just hope that everything would work out in the end. Frequent small outbreaks were built into the government's plan. They were a natural consequence of Mr Morrison's refusal to take responsibility and fix the hotel quarantine system. His own budget documents from May this year assumed there would be one lockdown a month. But there was always a risk that these outbreaks could not be contained, especially with the government's failure to acquire enough vaccines to meet any of the numerous vaccination time lines it devised and then discarded over the last 12 months.

The Prime Minister was gambling with other people's lives and with other people's livelihoods, and it's individuals and families across New South Wales and the country who are paying the price. As the case numbers in New South Wales have climbed gradually and then suddenly—just as Hemingway told us might happen—the consequences have become stark. Back in June, the Prime Minister congratulated Premier Berejiklian for not going into a full lockdown, and here we are in August with the third day in a row of case numbers over 800 in New South Wales. These numbers are the highest that we have seen since the pandemic began, yet the government was unable to tell us in question time today when it expects they will peak. A good government would be honest with the Australian public about where we are and where we are heading. It would own up to its mistakes. It would lay out the sacrifices it is asking the Australian public to accept and it would explain what the plan out of here really is. Well, it seems that is too difficult a task for this Prime Minister, who always wanted the job but never wanted the work.

The reporting over the weekend that the Doherty modelling was based on low case loads and may not support opening up at 70 per cent was, sadly, not news. The Prime Minister's approach has always been to assume good luck and low case loads. The Prime Minister's plan has always been just to hope that everything goes right. We heard from the Doherty institute's Professor James McCaw that, if New South Wales case numbers weren't reduced, we'd need:

… stronger social measures and stronger versions of lockdowns rather than weaker.

We've heard from epidemiologist Professor Blakely: 'If you've got high numbers, your contact tracing will be overwhelmed and you won't have as much of an effect from your vaccination coverage to keep things under control.'

I read the Doherty advice—I wonder sometimes whether Senator Colbeck has. It's very clear that all of those thresholds are absolutely dependent on having an effective contact, trace and isolate strategy sitting behind them. Meanwhile, that's of no interest to the Prime Minister apparently. He was on Insiders, insisting that New South Wales should open up at 70 per cent as per the Doherty modelling. There was no nuance, no reflection on the gravity of the situation, no reflection on the risks he is asking Australians to take on, just stubborn pride and ego. It's characteristic of his entire approach to leadership.

This weekend more than 200 children aged nine and under were diagnosed with COVID-19 in New South Wales. That's chilling news for parents who look at their precious little people; they worry whether the months of home schooling may not, in fact, be the worst thing that their kids have to face. And what makes that particularly confronting is that the overwhelming majority of children are not eligible for vaccines. Will children be amongst the 70 per cent vaccinated? Well, we don't know. The Australian public actually deserves some answers from this gutless Prime Minister. (Time expired)

3:21 pm

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to respond to Senator McAllister and Senator Keneally because they've just got it plain wrong. They were so silent last year when Victoria was in lockdown; we did not hear a peep out of them. There was not one peep about how badly managed the pandemic was in Victoria.

Senator McAllister was quoting Professor Blakely just now. He was the one who was calling for better contact tracing in Victoria last year. Victoria has had over 200 days of lockdown. So when you're banging on about the people in south-western Sydney, think about the people in Victoria. Think about the people in Melbourne who have done it so much tougher than on your patch. I have full empathy and sympathy for the people in south-western Sydney. The government has been doing an exceptional job of getting the vaccine out to protect those people.

I was flicking through some materials over the weekend and I pulled out a media report from 5 November 2020. It was talking about how the government had just completed its fourth order for a total of 135 million vaccines for Australians and for our Pacific neighbours; that's more than five times the population of Australia. Now, if we look at the figures of what vaccine supply we have agreements for, there are 255 million doses ordered or under contract, plus over $25 million for the COVAX facility. There is going to be more than enough to go around. There is more than enough now.

I was listening to Premier Andrews yesterday in his daily little press conference—and it just chills Victorians to the bone every time they see him stand up and hear him speak about how we've got to go harder. He was saying that, even in the state-run facilities, there were over 70,000 vaccine appointments available that Victorians could go and get. There would be even more in the Commonwealth-run ones—probably two-thirds of that again. So there is ample work being done to protect Australians and protect Victorians.

When it comes to Premier Andrews, is he a man of his word or not? This is the question that all Australians, and particularly Victorians, have to ask. He went to national cabinet. He sat down with his colleagues, all the premiers, and they agreed on the national plan. That plan was phase A, the current phase, where we accelerate vaccination rates and where we have lockdowns. But now he's stepping back from what he agreed to with phase B. He's going: 'Maybe not, once we hit 70 per cent. Maybe not, when we get to 80 per cent.' Does this man not keep his word? Is that all his word is worth? It's the same with Premier McGowan. Are they just going to back away from their word? These are people who Australians voted in, putting their trust in them, and now they're backing away from their agreements with the national cabinet. This is not an election promise that you can back away from when you don't feel like sticking to it. This is an agreement with the national cabinet. How dare these people not accept that agreement and work towards its delivery? It's ludicrous. Premier Andrews can stand there every day and go, 'You've been bad little children'—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Please resume your seat, Senator Van. Senator Urquhart.

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

A point of order: I bring to the attention of the Senate standing order 193, which says that you cannot make an imputation or a personal reflection on people from other parliaments and other jurisdictions. I would encourage the senator to come to order on that point.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Urquhart. I must say I was listening but I didn't hear any breach of that order. Senator Van, I know you're a reasonable person.

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The people of Victoria are having their say about Mr Daniel Andrews, the Premier of Victoria, every single day. There are people who are just sick of lockdown, and by 'sick' I mean mentally unwell. You say the word 'lockdown' and Victorians recoil; their bodies jump at the mention of it. People are sick of being locked down. They need hope. Where is this hope going to come from? It's coming from the vaccine rollout—the amount of vaccine that is available for people right now, which people must go out and get. There's hope in the national plan: 70 per cent, then 80 per cent and then life gets back to some semblance of normal. That's what Victorians want to hear, and Daniel Andrews had better back up his agreement to national cabinet.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Van, you need to refer to people by their proper titles.

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Premier Andrews must stick to his promise to national cabinet. If he backs away from it, the people of Victoria should judge him incredibly harshly.

3:27 pm

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I rise to take note of the answers given by Senators Birmingham, Payne and Colbeck. I want to make a really clear point. We've just heard from Senator Van that there are more than enough vaccines now, but that is simply not true. I would suggest that the government and the crossbenchers have a look at the evidence that vaccines are not going to the critical areas that need them.

I will give the example. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald from 23 August mentions a pregnant woman in Sydney, Ms Topp, who is struggling to access the COVID-19 vaccine, despite emerging evidence that pregnant women can experience severe disease if they contract the virus, with rising numbers of cases in the demographic. Ms Topp said:

I'm going through the public system—I don't have an obstetrician … It is like a secret handshake situation. It has become about who you know.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists have urged practitioners and governments to prioritise pregnant women. Frenchs Forest obstetrician Dr Talat Uppal said:

I don't know if the finite nature of pregnancy is being appreciated: these women are going to deliver and some may deliver early. They need to receive the vaccine in a timely way.

There have been 39 pregnant women that have contracted COVID-19. This is a particularly disturbing outcome of the government's lack of action.

Then we move to the aged-care facilities, none of which are getting the number of vaccinations they need. There's not enough there. Listen to them. They're saying that there is not enough.

Gerard Hayes, secretary of the Health Services Union, said many workers in the sector who wanted to get vaccinated hadn't been able to do so. He said people had made appointments and had to cancel them to go to work. He said he was receiving calls from those in the sector looking for assistance to get vaccinated, including workers from the Central Coast and in Dubbo, and he was concerned about the pressure on workers. He said:

We are seeing people leaving the industry and that worries me due to the workforce that's required now and into the future.

Quite clearly, the government's failing pregnant women, it's failed the aged-care sector and it's now failed with the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Just over a quarter of Australians in the NDIS are fully vaccinated, below the national average, yet this was a priority group—the highest priority for the government. They have failed time and time again. They have put people at risk because of their own incompetence. As Australia battles its most serious outbreak of COVID-19 to date, just 26.9 per cent of the 267,526 NDIS participants aged over 16, who are in phase 1a and 1b of the vaccine rollout, are fully vaccinated. These are just horrific statistics. Don't take it from me. Anne Kavanagh, professor of disability and health and an epidemiologist at the University of Melbourne, said the vaccine rollout for disabled Australians was 'negligent' and a 'failure', and the consequences could be dire amid a surging delta outbreak.

This is clearly the government's failure to turn around and take all the appropriate steps. Let's just look at the track record. Mr Morrison says he doesn't hold a hose. Mr Morrison says the vaccine rollout isn't a race. Mr Morrison says New South Wales didn't need to go into lockdown. Mr Morrison is a Prime Minister in name only, because he certainly hasn't filled the duties of Prime Minister throughout this pandemic, and his continuing failure is putting everyone at risk.

Question agreed to.