Tuesday, 31 August 2021
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Health and Aged Care, Senator Colbeck. Can the minister update the Senate on Australia's COVID-19 vaccine rollout as part of the national plan agreed by national cabinet, particularly in relation to older Australians?
Thank you, Senator Brockman, for your question. Australia's COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues to ramp up, as we said it would. More than 19.3 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have now been administered in Australia. Over the weekend, around 380,000 people rolled up their sleeves and got a jab to protect themselves, their friends and their families and to protect their country. Yesterday, a further 277,000 doses went into arms of Australians. I thank every single one of those people for going out and getting vaccinated, and I encourage all Australians to do the same.
While your home state of Western Australia, Senator Brockman, has very low COVID infections, the vaccine rollout is forging ahead in Western Australia too so that, when the time comes, WA can join all the states and reopen to the rest of the country and to the world, which is going to be very important for us all. We've got on with the job of protecting our most vulnerable Australians, with our older citizens first. More than 87 per cent of over-70s are protected with a first dose. We have done this because we know that elimination of the virus is a fallacy and that vaccines are the answer to us living with the virus, not in fear of it.
We have a national plan that states and territories have agreed on to open up at 70 and 80 per cent vaccination rates progressively. If we don't stick to the plan, the cost in terms of lives and livelihoods, as we're hearing right now, will be unacceptably high. Jobs will be lost; businesses will close.
An honourable senator interjecting—
I'm pleased that you think that's funny, Senator; I really do. I think that's outrageous. The debt burden will rise and the wellbeing of Australians will suffer. Vaccines are the path to safety and living with the virus into the future.
Honourable senators interjecting—
I'm pleased to report that the vaccination rate of our workforce who care for our most vulnerable Australians is climbing each and every day, and 78 per cent of the aged-care workforce in residential care have had at least one dose of the vaccine. National cabinet agreed that the COVID-19 vaccination of residential workers would become mandatory by mid-September. The Department of Health has been working with each residential aged-care facility to ensure they have plans in place and provide support where needed to ensure that every residential aged-care worker has access to the COVID-19 vaccination. There are a number of channels open to them to get vaccinated, including the government's inreach services, vaccinating their own staff, and using Commonwealth and state vaccination clinics, GPs, and around 3,000 pharmacies across the country. We are determined to get this done.
That's a very important question. The Australian government is making rapid antigen tests available to residential aged-care and home-care services delivered through the Commonwealth Home Support Program in high-risk local government areas of concern across Sydney and western New South Wales. Rapid antigen testing is not an alternative to vaccination, but it does provide an extra layer of defence in that it helps to detect COVID-19 in people without any symptoms of COVID-19. Applications are open and remain open to receive rapid antigen test kits. To date orders have been dispatched to 128 sites in Sydney and New South Wales. Kits will be distributed under the National Medical Stockpile arrangements. The TGA has published guidance, including a checklist, to help businesses with the implementation of COVID-19 rapid antigen point-of-care testing in the workforce.
My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Health and Ageing, Senator Colbeck. Today there are close to 70 COVID-19 cases in Wilcannia. Tragically it was reported yesterday that a First Nations man died from COVID-19 in Dubbo. New South Wales Deputy Premier, Nationals MP John Barilaro, has said today:
We know that the federal government's vaccination program at the start of the year identified the Indigenous communities as part of the 1A rollout, and it hadn't occurred, and that's something that they lost attention of ... we know earlier in the year the rollout wasn't anywhere where it needed to be.
Why did the Morrison-Joyce government lose attention and fail to ensure these communities were vaccinated, as planned, many months ago?
We all join with others in the chamber in respect of the unfortunate passing of the Indigenous person in Wilcannia. The senator is completely incorrect with respect to the characterisation of the work done that has been done in that community.
Senator O'Neill, there was no breach of the standing orders. There's a time to debate the answers to questions after question time where people's satisfaction, or otherwise, with answers can be attended to then. I call Senator Colbeck to continue.
Thank you, Mr President. The Commonwealth government, through a GP led respiratory clinic, has had a presence through Maari Ma in Wilcannia since May 2020. Maari Ma transitioned to become a Commonwealth vaccination clinic on 22 March this year—very early in the vaccine rollout—offering the AstraZeneca vaccine and then started administering Pfizer on 11 June, well before this outbreak occurred—
Senator Watt interjecting—
Senator, if you are talking down AstraZeneca, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. If you are talking down AstraZeneca, which is what you're doing by your statements, you ought to be ashamed of yourself, because the medical advice is that the best vaccine for you is the one that you can get today. That vaccine has been available in this community since March of this year, in line with our commitment to prioritise Indigenous communities—
Honourable senators interjecting—
Mr Barilaro—and it was Mr Barilaro—said:
Should they have been vaccinated earlier? Yes. It was all part of the federal government's rollout of the vaccination program at the start of the year and it didn't occur.
Why didn't it occur?
Senator Colbeck, please resume your seat. I'm going to insist that, when I call individual senators to order, they stay silent for a little while, because I can't hear the answer and I have had numerous complaints from those attending remotely that, with the volume in the chamber, they can't hear the answer.
AstraZeneca was available in that community from 22 March this year, in line with our commitment under the national plan. Pfizer was available in that community from 11 June this year. So vaccines have been available in those communities, as we said we would do. We continue to ramp up the vaccination rollout. As the circumstances in those communities have changed we have added additional support. We have the Royal Flying Doctor Service out there working with us. We have the Defence Force working out there providing additional vaccination clinics. We have continued to support those communities and we will continue to do so.
Tragically, it was reported yesterday that a man in Dubbo was the first Indigenous person to die from COVID in Australia. Health authorities said that he wasn't vaccinated. He should have been vaccinated months ago. How has the Morrison-Joyce government failed so badly to protect vulnerable First Nations people from COVID?
As Senator Birmingham indicated earlier in the day, we have acknowledged that the vaccination rates need to increase. As of today, 216,724 Indigenous peoples, or 37 per cent, have had their first dose and 20.5 per cent, or 118,886, have had their second dose. The numbers aren't high enough. We need to continue to work on this. We've done that through a number of programs. We have sought out influencers to support vaccination in those communities. Unfortunately, there have been some very influential voices that have been anti vaccine in some of those communities. We have to turn those attitudes around, and we will continue to do that in support of getting not just Indigenous Australians vaccinated but all Australians vaccinated because we know that that's our path through the pandemic.