Senate debates

Thursday, 2 September 2021


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

12:01 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the National Health Amendment (COVID-19) Bill 2021. This bill amends the National Health Act 1953 to facilitate the purchasing of COVID-19 vaccines, inclusive of boosters and necessary consumables and COVID-19 treatments. Labor supports this bill, as it will ensure funds are always available for the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines, including boosters, treatments and related consumables. At present, funds are only available through appropriation bills, which are not frequent or flexible enough during the pandemic. When new purchase agreements with suppliers are negotiated, at present the department has to meet upfront payments within existing resources while waiting for the next appropriation bills to receive royal assent. This can take more than six months, making it difficult for the department to meet all of its existing financial commitments. The bill confers a spending power on the minister for health to enter into arrangements and make payments in relation to securing COVID-19 vaccines and related goods and services, such as boosters, necessary consumables and COVID-19 treatments. This power will be time limited to 30 June 2022.

This bill is a sensible change which will enable the Australian government to better manage the purchasing of additional vaccines and other supplies, but it does not absolve the Morrison government for the fundamental failure that has been their vaccine program. Mr Morrison had two jobs this year: a speedy, effective rollout of the vaccine, and quarantine. He has failed at both. The vaccine rollout has been shambolic.

Mr Morrison said that Australia was at the front of the queue, but, when it became clear we were at the back of the queue, Mr Morrison changed his mind and said: 'This isn't a race.' He is wrong. It is a race, and Australians are paying the price for his failures. Mr Morrison said that Australia was at the front of the queue for the vaccine, but, as 30 June 2021 approached, Australia's rollout was ranked as the worst in the OECD and 113th in the world. We have one of the slowest rollouts in the developed world. Countries like the US, Japan and the United Kingdom were making Pfizer deals back in July 2020. Australia didn't secure a Pfizer deal until the end of 2020, putting us at the back of the queue. Mr Morrison promised that four million Australians would be vaccinated by the end of March 2021, but, by the end of March, there had been only 600,000 doses administered—some 15 per cent of Mr Morrison's target. Mr Morrison then promised that all aged-care residents and workers would be vaccinated by Easter 2021. Shockingly, only 45,000 aged-care residents were fully vaccinated by 10 April. Mr Morrison later abandoned plans to provide vaccines directly to aged-care workers, and on 30 June only one-third of staff in aged-care homes were fully vaccinated. Mr Morrison appeared on multiple media outlets on 9 July amid reports he had struck a new deal to bring additional Pfizer into Australia. But Pfizer then contradicted Mr Morrison:

The total number of 40 million doses we are contracted to deliver to Australia over 2021 has not changed. We continue to work closely with the government to support the ramp up of their rollout program …

Mr Morrison never once picked up the phone to the Pfizer chairman to get more Pfizer for Australia. In contrast, Israel's Prime Minister rang the Pfizer chairman more than 30 times.

Mr Morrison has missed every target he has set, and now the Liberals and Nationals have dropped the idea of vaccine targets altogether. Instead, Australia has 'horizons'. The thing about a horizon is that you never actually meet it. That's the problem we've had under this government. Scott Morrison continues to say our children will not be counted as part of the national plan. The Prime Minister needs to stop playing word games with Australia's parents. He needs to explain why Australia is so far behind many other countries in protecting our 12- to 15-year-olds. At the very least, Australia's parents deserve a separate commitment about when their 12- to 15-year-old children will be fully vaccinated and what target Mr Morrison has for their vaccination rates. The lockdowns—which are having a devastating impact on Australians, their families, their communities, their businesses and their mental health—keep going on as a result of Mr Morrison's failures. And the outbreak that these lockdowns are fighting is itself a result of the Morrison government's failure to provide a safe, dedicated national quarantine system. This Prime Minister not only doesn't hold a hose; he simply doesn't do his job

I understand that amendments are being proposed by other parties. This bill, which will make the administration of vaccine contracts easier, is a welcome one, and Labor supports it for that reason, without amendment. But this small action, this late in the game, cannot and will not absolve the responsibility of the Prime Minister for his vaccine and quarantine failures. It is well and truly past time for the Prime Minister to get on with it.

12:07 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the National Health Amendment (COVID-19) Bill 2021. This bill makes administrative changes that enable the government to make payments for COVID vaccines, treatments and consumables out of the Consolidated Revenue Fund. This will ensure that the government doesn't need to rely on the passage of appropriation bills to pay for COVID treatments. Importantly, this bill includes a sunset of 30 June 2022. In other words, it's not exactly a blank cheque. The Greens will be supporting this bill, because we believe that we do need to be ready to invest in new technologies, vaccines and boosters as they become available. Boosters will be an essential part of our strategy to combat COVID going forward. I note that the UK is set to start its further booster program this month. Of course, boosters do bring into question the issue of global equity, as many people in lower-GDP countries have not had the vaccine yet; some countries have had hardly any access to vaccines. That needs to be addressed.

While this bill gives the flexibility to flexibly purchase COVID vaccines going forward, it doesn't help the serious and fundamental issues with the current rollout. I am seriously concerned about the rollout, as I have articulated in this place, particularly for First Nations communities, who are supposed to be priorities yet are suffering from the lowest vaccine rates. We are also seriously concerned that, while the government continues to talk about the 70 to 80 per cent targets outlined in the so-called national plan, this does not include children above the age of 12. We believe this is a significant failure given that 70 per cent means that just 60 per cent of the total population is vaccinated, and that potentially has significant consequences for our community.

Premier Berejiklian yesterday said that once New South Wales reaches a 70 per cent vaccination rate then people will be able to go out to get food and drinks and to events. Please do not forget that this means only 56 per cent of the entire population is covered. This is of deep concern. We should not be starting to lift restrictions before we make sure that those at risk in our community are vaccinated and we have specific targets for them. So we need to include in our national targets vaccinations for children and young people between the ages of 12 and 15 and not just use the above-16 rate. ATAGI has now approved Pfizer for this age group, so we need to be vaccinating those young people, those children, and including them in the targets.

I move:

At the end of the motion, add ", but the Senate:

(a) notes that the Morrison Government's vaccination program has failed to protect at risk communities; and

(b) calls on the Government to immediately:

(i) include children and teenagers between 12 to 15 years old in the national vaccination targets, and

(ii) set specific vaccination targets for at risk communities in consultation with experts and communities".

This calls on the government to immediately include children and young people above the age of 12 in the national vaccination targets and to set specific vaccination targets for at-risk communities. We cannot open up before we ensure that those at-risk communities—First Nations peoples, older people above the age of 60 and 70 and disabled people—also have targets met. We know that if we open up and we haven't ensured that we've met certain targets for those groups, on the advice of the experts in this area, that they are at serious risk, which is why they were included in the 1a and 1b categories in the first place.

The government has failed to ensure protection of First Nations communities. In western New South Wales we are obviously seeing an outbreak now, but it's essential that all First Nations communities are able to have the vaccine. This is so important because we know from experience overseas that at-risk groups are at the forefront of the COVID crisis and being impacted by it. I'm sick of the government saying, 'We are going to 70 and 80 per cent,' and just relying on one model and not looking at the fine print but also not looking at the other models.

Just to finish off, the Greens will be supporting this legislation. We think it is really important that the government has the resources to be able to pay for additional vaccines, as I said, consumables, boosters and the things that are needed to address COVID-19. But along with that must go a commitment to targets that will protect our community, will protect young people and will protect at-risk communities. That's why I'm moving our second reading amendment.

12:12 pm

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank all members in the chamber for their contributions on this debate. The National Health Amendment (COVID-19) Bill 2021 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 provide protections for Australians, reducing the risk of severe disease and hospitalisation from COVID-19; they will help steer our nation towards the next phase of transition out of this pandemic. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question negatived.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.