DOORSTOP: 4/2/22

February 04, 2022


MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER HEALTH AND AGEING: Thank you for coming out this morning.

This Government is too busy fighting itself to fight for the safety and the well-being of older Australians in aged care. This is a government paralysed by disunity and in-fighting, led by a Prime Minister who never listens, never takes responsibility, and most concerningly, never learns from his mistakes.

There is a full-blown crisis in aged care right now. We have 15,000 residents of aged care facilities infected with COVID, and as many as 17,000 staff.

The industry says that one-quarter of all shifts are not being filled right now, a drastic, appalling staffing shortage that is having real world consequences for those residents. They're not getting the medication they need. They're not getting the wound care that they need. Appallingly, they're not getting food and water when they need. Tens of thousands of them locked in their own room for weeks or even months, distressed and isolated. And most tragically, more than 600 aged care residents have lost their lives to COVID just in the past five weeks - more than twice the number that lost their lives through the entirety of 2021.

Now the Government denies that there is a crisis. Over the last couple of days the Government has repeatedly said that, “relatively speaking, things are going pretty well in aged care.”

They should listen to the person they appointed to head the Royal Commission into Aged Care, Ms Lynelle Briggs. Ms Briggs said this morning, unambiguously, there is a crisis, and she also said, to use her words, “the Government should have sorted a strategy to prevent this happening again”, because we know this has happened in aged care time and again through this pandemic, but Scott Morrison never listens to advice and never learns from his mistakes.

We know what needs to be done in aged care. It is straightforward - give aged care facilities and staff all of the rapid tests and the personal protective equipment that they need. Right now, amazingly, facilities only get rapid tests after an outbreak had occurred, when everyone understands rapid tests are there to prevent an outbreak happening in the first place.

Amazingly, still staff are not getting enough PPE and the PPE that they're getting is not properly fitted because the Government has not provided facilities with the resources to have fit test machines in place to ensure that masks in particular are properly fitted for staff. They must have a staffing plan. A quarter of shifts not getting filled is simply not good enough. It is high time the Australian Defence Force was called in to help with this crisis. Scott Morrison cannot continue to sit on his hands. Three weeks ago calls were made by the sector for this, including by the former Liberal Premier, Mike Baird, who now heads a large aged care organisation.

But Scott Morrison said there was no need to call the ADF in. A week later, two weeks ago now, Scott Morrison said the ADF is not a shadow workforce and wouldn't call them in. The ADF has a proud tradition of helping out their community at times of national emergency. And that is what we are facing right now.

Last month the US President, President Biden, called out army medics in that country to help out with their disastrous fourth wave. It is time the Government did the same here in Australia.

And lastly, the Government must get their booster programme back on track. It is just extraordinary that three months into the booster programme still almost 80,000 aged care residents haven't been boosted. And yet again, as always seems to happen when they fail the community, the Government is blaming someone else.

The Government is saying it's the families’ fault - that they're not giving consent. One and done is not a good enough strategy. A single visit to aged care facilities is not good enough. The Government needs to go back time and time and time again to these facilities to ensure that the sort of vaccination rates we see in aged care for the first two doses, which is well over 90 per cent, is achieved for boosters because we know how important that is for their protection. And there must be a booster programme for staff. They can't be left to their own devices. This is of critical national interest.

Finally, can I say it is beyond time for the Prime Minister to respond to some key recommendations made a year ago by the Royal Commission. The Government needs to put nurses back into nursing homes. It is extraordinary that Scott Morrison has not accepted the Royal Commission recommendation that a nurse be on shift 24/7, 365 days per year, in every single aged care facility in this country. How on Earth can he not accept that recommendation?

And he can't continue to pretend it's not his job to help fix the appallingly low wages in aged care, which is contributing to this disastrous staffing shortage.

Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: You've called on the Government to make a submission to the Fair Work Commission on aged care wages. Would Labor in government back the HSU’s push for a 25 per cent increase?
BUTLER: What we know is that the appallingly low wages in aged care are not just an issue of justice for those workers who do such important work for our community, it's also contributing very directly to the staffing shortage as we have in that sector. And that's just with the demand we have today, let alone the demand we know we're going to face in aged care in coming years.

So, we've got to fix wages. It's a matter of public interest because aged care is a public service.

Now the Fair Work Commission will decide what an appropriate wage increase is, but the Commonwealth Government should be at the table making a submission because at the end of the day it is responsible for funding and regulating aged care. He can't continue to pretend it's not his job. It is the Prime Minister’s job to look after this sector and the residents who are cared under it.
JOURNALIST: Does that mean you don't think it should be 25 per cent as the union is calling for?
BUTLER: If we were in government we would make a submission that reinforced the importance of aged care workers getting decent wages, wages that reflect the importance of their job, the skills that are required to perform the job, and the importance of ensuring there's a proper supply of workers into the sector.
JOURNALIST: Can you provide a specific measure that you would introduce or change right now in the aged care sector to improve the current situation?
BUTLER: We would make sure rapid tests were provided to every facility before outbreaks occurred. We would make sure that aged care facilities were provided with the resources around PPE, that not only ensure they have enough of it, but that it was properly fit tested for staff.

We would call out the ADF. It is beyond time for the ADF to be called out to help in this national emergency. Scott Morrison cannot continue to sit on his hands in this respect. And we would get the booster programme back on track. We know how critical boosters are to protecting everyone, including particularly vulnerable older Australians. The Government can't just pretend one and done is enough, that one visit to a facility is enough to get everyone protected through boosters.

Those are four elements of a rapid response the Government should be putting in place today.
JOURNALIST: Is Scott Morrison fit to be PM? What do you think the leadership rumblings going on within the Coalition?
BUTLER: That's a matter for the Liberal Party, but at the end of the day, our criticism of this Prime Minister is he has shown time and again in this pandemic he never listens, never listens to expert advice. He didn't around the original supply of vaccines, he didn't around the supply of rapid tests. He didn't listen to what needed to be put in place to protect hundreds of thousands of older Australians in aged care. He never listens, he never takes responsibility, and he never learns from his previous mistakes to make sure they don't happen again and we're seeing this happen again in aged care.
JOURNALIST: Do you think Peter Dutton or Josh Frydenberg would make a good PM?
BUTLER: Well look, I don't have a vote in the Coalition party room to determine their leader. I'm focused right now on the full-blown crisis in aged care. Labor has outlined what the Government should be doing to get this crisis back under control. Proper supply of tests, proper supply of PPE that is fit tested, a proper workforce surge programme that includes calling out the ADF, and getting the boosters back on track.

At the end of the day if their party room is dissatisfied with Scott Morrison as their leader, they're going to have to deal with that. It's not a matter for Labor.
JOURNALIST: And just again, getting your reaction on the taskforce announcement for aged care as well.
BUTLER: This is essentially pulling a few existing bureaucrats in the Department of Health together to try and get a clear picture of what's happening in aged care.

How has it taken this long for the Department of Health, the Government that regulates and runs aged care to understand how many people are dying in aged care under their watch. This is just extraordinary. We don't need a few bureaucrats to come together to better understand the data, we need action on testing, on PPE on boosters on staffing shortages.
JOURNALIST: Lynelle Briggs says she's worried about the flu season coinciding with COVID in aged care - what would you do to help protect against that?
BUTLER: I think we’ve all heard the health advice including from the Chief Medical Officer Professor Kelly, and Lynelle Briggs, that we’ve seen the flu start to emerge again in the Northern Hemisphere over the course of the northern winter. It's likely to emerge here in our winter this year as well. So the Government not only needs to get its COVID response back on track, particularly for aged care, but they need obviously to have a strategy as well to deal with the likelihood that we'll see flu emerge again this year.
JOURNALIST: How would you cut down on the amount of time aged care residents are being forced to spend in isolation? Should rules be in place to ensure visits are allowed as per what COTA has suggested?
BUTLER: Lack of rapid tests, a lack of proper PPE, and a lack of proper staffing levels is obviously inhibiting the facilities or the aged care sector’s ability to have residents moving through their facilities.

The first thing the Government must do is fix rapid tests, fix PPE, and get some staffing back into aged care facilities, including by calling out for some help from the ADF. Then what we'll be able to see, I think, is aged care residents getting the care that they need and also being able to see more people in a safe way.
JOURNALIST: Just regarding your call for the ADF, Peter Dutton says that would simply take reservists out of the healthcare system, so is that a good idea?
BUTLER: I'd like to see some evidence from Minister Dutton about that frankly. We've seen these breezy rejections of calls from Mike Baird, from the aged care sector, from aged care unions, about the need for some help from the ADF here. A quarter of shifts are not being filled in aged care facilities. We've had twice as many aged care residents die in the last five weeks than died for the entirety of 2021.

There is a full-blown crisis in aged care and the ADF has a tradition of helping out their community, including helping in aged care during the second wave in Melbourne in 2020 when the Government failed aged care again. I just urge the Prime Minister and Minister Dutton to look at this seriously, to swallow their pride. For weeks the sector has been pleading with the Government for some assistance from the ADF.
JOURNALIST: The Defence Minister indicated this morning the Government is open to sending in the ADF into aged care. So is that a welcome shift?
BUTLER: These calls have been in place for three weeks. People are dying. Thousands of people in aged care are infected, tens of thousands are locked in their room. What is it going to take for this Government to act? But the time for consideration of this issue is done. We need some action from this Government, after three weeks of clarion calls from aged care providers, aged care workers and families for some assistance from this Federal Government.
JOURNALIST: And what roles would you like to see the ADF actually playing in aged care? Would you like to see them serving meals, obviously they’d have to have some medical background to do things in in that space. What sort of roles should they be filling?
BUTLER: The great thing about our ADF, and we've seen this time and time again at times of emergency, is that they have the broadest range of skills. They can really turn their hand to anything, whether it's providing quite sophisticated nursing care and personal care or helping out with some of those daily tasks of providing meals and just providing residents with a bit of personal interaction.

I have no doubt if the Prime Minister stopped his blockage of the ADF from helping out in aged care we'd see a rapid change, a drastic change in circumstances for aged care residents.
JOURNALIST: Where does Labor stand on the proposed bill to prevent religious discrimination?
BUTLER: Our position has been clear for years. Children should not be discriminated on the basis of their sexuality and the Prime Minister said three years ago now, that that would be fixed within a fortnight. Not three years later, but within a fortnight. And we see proposals put on the table taken off the table. It's just time for Scott Morrison to fix this.
Labor’s position has been clear for years, the Prime Minister said clearly three years ago he would stop kids from being discriminated against in schools on the basis of their sexuality within a fortnight, and he's done nothing for those three years.

Thanks everyone.