Afternoon Agenda: 27/01/2022

January 27, 2022




SUBJECTS: Definition of fully vaccinated; Scott slow booster rollout; rapid test availability; No national plan for schools returning.

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Let's go live now to the Shadow Health Minister Mark Butler. Thanks for your time, Mark Butler.

Should the definition of fully vaccinated be changed to accommodate those who have taken the third dose, boosters and so on?
MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER HEALTH AND AGEING: I think the point that Premier Daniel Andrews from Victoria made is that the health advice really, since the emergence of Omicron very shortly after, was that you needed that booster dose to give you the level of immunity that frankly we were getting from two doses of the vaccines for all of the previous variants, including the Delta variant. So there's no question from a health perspective you need to get three doses. Time and time again, we're reading research papers from around the world that are confirming that, and as a number of the people you had on your show just then have indicated that's been our experience over Summer, that the people with booster doses have come through this disastrous fourth wave much better than the vast majority of the population who unfortunately still haven't got that third dose. I mean, we are well behind the rest of the developed world, still less than 30 per cent of the population have had the booster dose. One of the slowest rates in the developed world. We need to pick that up drastically.
GILBERT: Is ATAGI too slow when it comes to things like this? When you've said, and the premiers have said it, Liberal, Labor premiers have said international evidence is clear, are our medical officials here too slow?
BUTLER: No, I'm not going to criticise ATAGI. I think ATAGI and all of the other bodies, TGA and others, that have been helping steer us through this incredibly difficult period over the last couple of years have worked hard, done a very good job.
My criticism, frankly, is about the delivery, really, the follow up by the Commonwealth Government about some of these programmes.

As I said, we've got one of the slowest booster rollouts in the developed world. It is extraordinary I think, that still the aged care sector has not had their booster programme completed, months after it started.

Still, there are hundreds of aged care facilities that have not had their booster programmes completed. That's why we're seeing such terrible outcomes in the aged care sector. We've lost almost the same number of lives in aged care from COVID this month, that we lost in the entirety of 2021 so I really am critical of the Federal Government just being too slow and putting in place activity that is too little, too late for fundamental elements of our COVID response, like a booster shot.
GILBERT: I understand you're not going to criticise the officials, that's fair enough, but when you look to things like the rapid antigen tests, and I was reading through it today, there are several Australian made rapid antigen tests that aren't approved here for use, but they're being exported in the tens of millions of tests. Why is there that delay in approval?
BUTLER: It just beggars belief. It's not just a question of TGA approval, let's go into that. A lot of those companies spoke to the government back, not last year, but the year before last, and they said that as this pandemic develops we're going to need to shift at some point in time to rapid testing, at home testing, rather than the much more formal PCR testing that people will be more familiar with.

It was very clear this was what was happening around the world and a number of companies said that they wanted to set up manufacturing operations here in Australia to be able to supply the Australian Government with sufficient supply to satisfy the demand in the Australian community when that shift happened, and they could not have got a lower level of interest from the Commonwealth. That's what all of those companies have said. That's what Joe Hockey has said, representing one of those companies.

So, the problem was these companies instead set up their manufacturing operations around demand overseas. They had no interest here from the Australian Government, they had contracts to supply millions of rapid tests to the US Government. So, you have the extraordinary situation where you have factories in Australia churning out millions of rapid tests which they are then sending overseas because it was overseas governments, the US for example, back last February, contracted with this provider in Brisbane to buy their tests when the Australian Government showed no interest whatsoever. Here in Australia by – 
GILBERT: But isn't it fundamentally a problem of that delay in the approval because we're still awaiting it? It beggars belief to me that we haven't had an approval for a test, it’s not even a vaccine where it's a risk, this is just a test, if it's slightly less effective, we get that. But I mean, let's just get them out there.
BUTLER: That's right but the driver of those approval processes, the applications being put in, essentially is demand from the Australian market for those tests and at a point in time when the companies said, look we want to set up here, we want to manufacturer here, then we'll put the applications into the TGA for approval of our tests here. The Australian Government could not have shown a lower level of interest, so they went elsewhere. All of their focus has been for contracts overseas, for applications to overseas authorities, because that's where they got the interest. That's how companies operate. It's extraordinary to me that the sort of the fall down, the lackadaisical attitude by this government around mRNA vaccine manufacturing has been repeated around rapid test manufacturing. And so we end up almost completely dependent upon supply lines from overseas operators at a time when there's very high global demand.
GILBERT: It is bizarre when we've got so many being made here, but let's move on to comments made today by the Chief Health Officer in Queensland. Very positive comments by, from what I was reading of, what he had to say. He says the Gold Coast is past its peak, Brisbane approaching its peak and then you go to Sydney and Melbourne as well, the view is that they've passed their peaks as has ACT has and so on, South Australia been doing very well too. Are you feeling optimistic as we hopefully pass the worst of it when it comes to this Omicron wave?
BUTLER: I think there is good reason to hope that we've passed the peak. We're not sure how long the peak will last, there are still 5,000 people, or thereabouts, in hospital around the country with COVID. The peak of hospitalisations in New South Wales was only Tuesday, so it's not yet sufficient time, I don't think, to be completely confident we're past it, but the signs are good. Victoria there are still more people in hospital than there have been at any time during the pandemic, obviously that's the case in Queensland and South Australia as well.

Around 5,000 people in hospital over the last two days alone, more than 150 people have lost their lives, dozens of Australians are losing their lives every day to this disease and there's no sense that that is going to drop off very soon, because there's obviously the lag factor there.

I think there is good reason to hope we've passed the peak, but that's not to say that there's not a very serious crisis still gripping the country.
This is a very serious wave we're facing, pressure on our hospitals we've not seen before in the pandemic and a death rate that is very, very serious and obviously resulting in enormous widespread tragedy, grief and loss.

Aged care is still in a very difficult position, there are outbreaks in hundreds and hundreds of facilities. Hundreds of people in aged care have died, over 200 just this month alone, they can't get the rapid tests they were promised, they're having difficulty getting PPE and next week I don't think still that there's really confidence among Australian parents that there's the national plan to guarantee, as far as we possibly can, that's school returns safely. Still only one in three primary school aged children have been given their first dose of the vaccine. There's no national plan from Scott Morrison to make sure that teachers and school support officers have all received their booster shot. There's no national plan for ventilation, mask wearing protocols, and so on and so forth, because yet, again, Scott Morrison says, “well that's not my job. That that's the job of the states yet again.”

So yes, let's be hopeful that we've passed the peak, we've passed the worst of this period, at least in case numbers, but frankly there is, there is still a lot of tragedy. A lot of pressure on our hospitals and a bit of a way to go yet I think.
GILBERT: And just quickly, we're almost out of time. But in terms of rationing what we do have in terms of the rapid antigen tests, I know the supply is still well short of demand at the moment. But what needs to be the priority in your view as to where these tests go right now?
BUTLER: Pretty much the same priorities we've had right through the pandemic. I mean, they're guided by good health advice, the people in our community most vulnerable to this Omicron variant, are still older Australians, particularly those in aged care facilities. The fact that they're not widely available in aged care, and that's what age care workers and providers do say across the country, is extraordinary. The fact that the Australian of the Year had to make the call on Australia Day or the eve of Australia Day for all NDIS recipients to receive rapid tests free of charge again reinforces the vulnerability of many Australians living with disability. The fact they're way behind on vaccines and so on as well.

We do need to recognise there are parts of our population who are particularly vulnerable, but I do say again, the Prime Minister was warned many months ago that we were going to need huge supplies of rapid tests and the fact that we are in a position as a country of having to think about rationing these things, it just reflects the failure of Scott Morrison to listen to that advice and to take responsibility to ensure an adequate supply.
GILBERT: Mark Butler, thanks for your time.
BUTLER: Thanks, Kieran.