Tuesday, 30 November 2021
Questions without Notice
My question is to Senator Birmingham, the Minister representing the Prime Minister. In a report released this month, Mr Morrison's handpicked quarantine adviser, Ms Jane Halton, told him: 'Some quarantine settings, such as quarantine in a purpose-built facility, are better able to mitigate transmission risks, especially for high-risk travellers and in respect of variants of concern.' Almost two years into the pandemic and with a new variant of concern on our shores, why has Mr Morrison failed to establish even one new federal quarantine facility?
I thank Senator McCarthy for her question, a similar question to the one she asked yesterday. As I outlined to the Senate yesterday, we do recognise that there is an ongoing role in the future for there to be centres of national resilience of a greater number and scale than we have had in the past.
Through the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have successfully worked in partnership with the Northern Territory government, who I acknowledge, to utilise the Howard Springs facility and to significantly expand the Howard Springs facility to a 2,000-bed capacity. Alongside that, we are working with the Victorian government to ensure the establishment of a new Centre for National Resilience—and we will see the initial handover of beds at that facility to the Victorian government by the end of this year—and with the governments of Queensland and Western Australia for further facilities. These will all provide long-term resilience capability. In terms of the broader quarantine effort, states and territories have done a very strong job in working to ensure that we have quarantine capacities for the most extraordinary of circumstances that COVID-19 has presented.
In relation to the omicron variant, the government has made certain announcements to pause the next stage of reopening that we had indicated. We don't wish to see any step backwards from the safe reopening of Australia. The very high levels of vaccination that we have achieved as a country provide very strong protections. We use this pause to ensure that we can continue as we always have to get the best possible health advice to continue to keep Australians safe.
Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott, said this morning: 'Why can't we get the systems in place to manage this? There are 24 letters in the Greek alphabet. Everyone assumes that we're going to have more mutations and variants.' Why has the Morrison government refused to take responsibility for national quarantine?
As I outlined in the primary answer, we are indeed working on a range of additional facilities, alongside the expansion we created in Howard Springs. We are fully funding the development of those facilities under memoranda of understanding that we have entered into with the relevant states. Those memoranda of understanding have the states operating those facilities, consistent with the operational capabilities they have delivered throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for the purposes of providing quarantine.
I would stress that, whilst there are new variants, we do need to all show responsibility in how we discuss those new variants. For example, Professor Lewin from the Doherty institute this morning made clear that it is highly likely that the vaccines will still work, that we're quite confident that the vaccines will still work. Whilst we are pausing some steps to get further advice and information, we ought to make sure that we maintain the confidence of Australians in this regard. (Time expired)
As I said in my answer to the primary question, the Howard Springs facility has operated largely throughout and has been significantly expanded—indeed, doubled—during the operation of that facility. As I also said in the answer to the primary question, the facility being built in Victoria will see handover of its first beds to the Victorian government before the end of this year. The Victorian government will take on the operational capabilities. I thank them, as I do the governments of Western Australia and Queensland, for the way in which they have engaged with the Commonwealth through the design stages. Their officials have worked with us in terms of all the different protocols necessary to ensure the highest standards of infection control, the highest standards of safety protocols in relation to those facilities, and the agreements they have entered into in relation to Commonwealth responsibility for building and their role in relation to operation.