MONDAY, 31 JANUARY 2022
MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER HEALTH AND AGEING: This deadly fourth wave, the deadliest phase in the pandemic so far for Australia, is hitting aged care particularly hard. Over just the course of this month in January alone, more than 400 Australians, vulnerable older Australians in aged care, have lost their lives to COVID. To put that in some context, there were fewer than 300 COVID related deaths in aged care over the course of the entire 2021. Yet again, Scott Morrison has failed in one of his most important jobs, and that is to keep vulnerable older Australians in Commonwealth aged care facilities safe from this virus. Facilities can't get access to rapid antigen tests or PPE. Remarkably, unbelievably, the Government is only giving facilities rapid tests once an outbreak has already occurred. Everyone knows these rapid tests are an important tool in stopping outbreaks occurring in the first place. There are drastic staff shortages in aged care, which mean that older Australians aren't getting the care on a daily basis that they need. Scott Morrison was warned about this weeks ago by Mike Baird, the former Liberal New South Wales Premier who now runs HammondCare, a very large aged care organisation. Mike Baird advised the Government, advised the Prime Minister, they should consider deploying ADF personnel to assist in aged care facilities but Scott Morrison refused to listen yet again. Refused to take responsibility and brushed Mike Baird off just as he's done so many times before.
And the booster program is running way behind schedule. As of Friday, 500 facilities still have not received their booster shots. Tragically, we learned over the last 24 hours that of the 52 deaths in New South Wales to COVID reported yesterday, 31 of those deaths were in aged care, and 29 of those people had not received a booster - 29 out of the 31. Now this booster program began 12 weeks ago. How on earth can this happen? And who will be held accountable given everything we've learned over the last few years about how to protect aged care? Will it be the Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck, who spent three days at the cricket at the height of this crisis? And when will we hear from the Prime Minister on this scandal? Or to explain to Australia's parents how millions of primary school children are returning to school today, with three out of every five of them still to receive even a first dose of the COVID vaccine.
It is 11 days since the Prime Minister stood up in front of the Australian people about this COVID crisis. All we've seen in those 11 days, when hundreds of Australians have lost their lives, is slick marketing campaigns from a Prime Minister determined to try and change the story, deflect attention and rebrand his image by cuddling koalas and the like. Well, the Australian people deserve answers. Australians are getting sick of a Prime Minister who never listens, never takes responsibility, and always seems to go missing in action in the middle of a crisis.
JOURNALIST: Could lives have been spared in aged care if the Government had rolled out the boosters faster?
BUTLER: It's very clear we needed those boosters in the arms of aged care residents as quickly as possible - that was all the advice that had been given to the Government. How is it 12 weeks into the booster program where there was a lull in that program over the course of Christmas and the New Year, that there are still hundreds of facilities that hadn't received their boosters. We're seeing the results of that in the death tolls, tragically. It's a gross failure on the part of the Government.
JOURNALIST: And we're hearing the Government talking today about a fourth booster. Do you think that's warranted?
BUTLER: We'll take the health advice on that. We've still got one of the slowest rollouts of the third dose booster program. Less than 30 per cent of the Australian population has received a booster. It is one of the slowest, lowest rates in the developed world. Peter Dutton tried to pretend on Friday that Australia's booster program was one of the best in the world. Well, it's not. It's one of the slowest, which is why we're seeing the impact of this Omicron variant in Australia, because we know to be properly protected, you need that third dose. You're seeing overseas debates about a fourth dose and in due course we'll have to have that discussion here in Australia, but the first priority should be to get the third dose, that crucial booster shot in the people's arms and the Government's running way behind schedule on that.
JOURNALIST: Why do you think the uptake from five to 11-year-olds has been so slow?
BUTLER: It started too late. We should have started earlier, we knew school was going back on the 31st of January through most of Australia and the Prime Minister should have promised to Australia's parents that every child would have had access to at least one dose of the vaccine before they returned to school. Where was the Prime Minister's plan for a safe return to school? To make sure that first dose was given, to ensure that every teacher, every school support officer had received a booster shot before school went back. A plan for ventilation and the like. Yet again, we had a Prime Minister that said “that’s not my job, leave that up to the states, leave that up to the Catholic school system and the independent system, it's got nothing to do with me as Prime Minister”.
JOURNALIST: Do you think there is hesitancy amongst parents?
BUTLER: There's no evidence about that. I'm sure some parents will have that view but that will be a tiny minority. Instead, what we saw, it started too late and the Government was simply not able to get the doses to where they were needed. We saw so many stories of GPs not getting the doses either at all or in sufficient numbers. They might be getting 50 or at most 100 doses per week when they might have had 1,500 five to 11-year-olds on their books. It's just, again, hopeless mismanagement by Scott Morrison.
JOURNALIST: Do you think the return to school should have been delayed until it was increased above 40 per cent?
BUTLER: Everyone wanted their kids to be able to return to school when they were scheduled to do so. And it was no surprise that 31st of January was the return day for most school students across the country. That's what we've been saying for weeks now, the Prime Minister should have had a plan and a promise to Australia's parents that that return would happen safely.
JOURNALIST: Can you clarify how much it would cost to introduce Labor's free rapid antigen test policy?
BUTLER: We've said that every Australian should have access to as many rapid tests as they reasonably need to, to be able to go about their lives normally. Now, you know, this is not new, this is the policy adopted in many countries around the world. And as we have seen, those countries are able to deal with this fourth wave, this Omicron variant, much better frankly than Australia can do. We've also seen very clear economic modelling that indicates from Flinders University the economic benefits of a free rapid test program. It vastly outweighs the cost.
Why is Scott Morrison suddenly nickel and diming the Australian people in the COVID response having spent $337 billion dollars so far on the response? Everyone got vaccines for free. Everyone got PCR tests for free through the Medicare system. Why don't we get rapid tests for free through Medicare as well?
JOURNALIST: Do you know how much it would cost?
BUTLER: It would depend obviously on the number of tests that are reasonably provided. If we are in the ridiculous situation still come May, in the election, with Scott Morrison not fixing up this mess, not backing down from his stubborn position of leaving three quarters of the Australian population to the vagaries of a market that's not working, then of course we will have a properly detailed, properly costed policy before the people. But we don't want to wait until May, we want the Prime Minister to fix this now. We want the Prime Minister to swallow his pride just as he did around JobKeeper, which initially he said was a dangerous idea, and get on board with the AMA, with the business groups that all say that Labor's approach is the right one.
JOURNALIST: Speaking of JobKeeper, given the high number of cases do you think the Government should be offering additional business support?
BUTLER: I saw this morning, Josh Frydenberg say that he and Scott Morrison had done all the heavy lifting this pandemic response so it's now the turn of the states. Why doesn’t he take some responsibility for the fact that the mess Australia has been in over the course of Scott Morrison’s summer of failure was caused by their failures on rapid tests, on boosters. Take some responsibility for helping business and the Australian people deal with the consequences of their mess. But that's the approach of this Government - they never take responsibility for the mess that they've created.
JOURNALIST: So what sort of programs do you think are needed to support businesses?
BUTLER: They should be sitting down with state governments, like the New South Wales State Government, and look at a JobSaver-type program, look and consider all reasonable options. But instead, we've seen the New South Wales Liberal Government protest about the fact that the Commonwealth Liberal Government won't even sit down with them to work out ways in which business and workers can be supported through the mess the Commonwealth Government has created.
JOURNALIST: What would Labor offer?
BUTLER: We'd offer a constructive approach to this. Sitting down with state governments to partner with them to get us through this shadow lockdown that so much of Australia has been confronted with over the course of summer.
JOURNALIST: What do you put the latest Newspoll figures down to, and are you confident Labor can produce this kind of result on election day?
BUTLER: I'll join with people on both sides of the political divide that say the only poll ultimately that counts is election day. But I will say this, Australians are getting sick of a Prime Minister who never takes responsibility, who never listens to expert advice, and always goes missing in action in the middle of a crisis. Thanks, everyone.