Doorstop interview: 16/01/2022

January 16, 2022





MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGEING: Can I say on the outset, that our thoughts are all with the people of Tonga, good friends, good regional neighbours in Tonga as they come to grips with the damage caused by the volcanic eruption overnight.

Reports are still emerging about that damage. I understand there's been some damage to communications infrastructure there which means that the reports aren't as detailed as we would like, but we hope that there's been no loss of life and we hope that damage and injuries are limited.

Labor supports wholeheartedly the offers of assistance that have already been made by the Australian Government and we hope that the people of Tonga get through this terrible emergency.

Back here in Australia this has been another terrible day in the fight against this disastrous fourth wave. There are 80,000 new cases just in the three big eastern states alone.

Hospitals continue to be overwhelmed by rising numbers of hospitalisations and there are several dozen deaths tragically being recorded every single day from COVID.

Australia now has one of the highest infection rates in the developed world, but one of the lowest rates of boosters which is so crucial to providing protection against the Omicron variant.

This disastrous fourth wave is not just causing huge economic damage through what business calls a shadow lockdown. There's also an enormous social and emotional cost being paid by Australians. Scott Morrison simply must do better. He has to fix the mess he's created around rapid tests. He simply should have listened to the warnings back in September and ordered enough tests for us to get through this fourth wave.

Instead, Australians are finding it almost impossible to get their hands on a rapid test. When they do so, they are paying as much as $100 for a test that their government should be providing them for free.

Scott Morrison must also inject some urgency and accelerate the booster program. We know from health advice around the world how crucial boosters are to protect against this Omicron variant, but we still have one of the slowest booster programs in the developed world with more than four in five Australians still not having had access to a booster.

Scott Morrison must inject some urgency into the vaccination program for our kids. Only one in eight or one in nine primary school aged children have received even their first dose of the COVID vaccine and school is due to go back in just two weeks.

At the current rate, we’ll be well into March before all of the 5- to 11-year-olds will have received even their first dose and that’s simply not good enough.

Scott Morrison knew that school was going back at the end of January. He knew how crucial it was to provide access to these vaccines for children and Australian parents were entitled to expect a crystal-clear promise from their Prime Minister that their children would get access to a vaccine before school returns.

And lastly, can I say, Scott Morrison must do better on aged care and disabilities. We learnt yesterday that there are now more than 1,000 aged care facilities with COVID outbreaks in them. That's more than double the rate reported only one week earlier. More than a thousand are out of just two and a half thousand all around the country.

Still hundreds of facilities haven't received their boosters and tragically, today, tens of thousands of vulnerable older Australians in aged care facilities are locked in their rooms, unable to take visitors, often bewildered and distressed because of their cognitive impairment preventing them from understanding what is going on.

And leaked reports yesterday indicate that only one in five residents of disability residential facilities have received their booster shot. These two groups were identified ages ago as perhaps the most important priority group for vaccination in the community.

Time and again, Scott Morrison has been warned of the critical need to act to protect these Australians, yet he always fails to listen and he always fails to act.

Happy to take questions. 


JOURNALIST: The new Medicare items that the Government is creating - is that indicative of pressure on the broader health system, the fact that they've now got to adapt to that as well?


BUTLER: We support the announcements made today, we've only seen reports of them, but I think the challenge for patients and for doctors is that Greg Hunt has chopped and changed his position on Telehealth time and time again through this pandemic.

Labor supports making it easier and not harder for doctors and specialists to see their patients through this disastrous fourth wave.


JOURNALIST: The Federal Government is sending more PPE to indigenous health services from the national stockpile. Does that show that perhaps they weren't ready for the disease reaching aboriginal communities, they weren’t properly prepared?


BUTLER: We've seen over the last several months, going back to the middle of last year, just how underprepared this Government was to protect Indigenous Australians in our major cities, but particularly in remote Aboriginal communities throughout the country.

The vaccination rate lagged the national vaccination rate by 20 to 30 per cent in some cases and there were just stories after stories of the Federal Government's failure to put in place the protections that they were warned they needed to put in place.

It's just indicative of a Prime Minister who never listens, never takes responsibility and Australians end up paying the price for his failure to do his job time and again.


JOURNALIST: I know we don't have a result yet, but what do you think of the government's handling of Novak Đoković’s visa? 


BUTLER: This has been an embarrassing soap opera of Scott Morrison's making. If Mr Đoković did not satisfy the entry test to come into Australia, he should not have been granted a visa way back in November.

Frankly, at a time when we are dealing with tens of thousands of cases every day, dozens of deaths, we don't need a government spending time, energy and money dealing with this soap opera day, upon day, upon day. I think Australians want this soap opera brought to an end one way or the other and for the government to get on with its job of protecting Australians in this disastrous fourth wave.


JOURNALIST: Does Labor have a position on Mr Đoković’s status? 


BUTLER: What we've said time and again over the last several days is if Mr. Đoković didn't satisfy the entry test to come into Australia - that's what the Prime Minister now says - he shouldn't have been granted a visa in November.


JOURNALIST: What should the government do about the workforce crisis in our hospital system?


BUTLER: We said late last year that the Federal Government had to have a plan to deal with the consequences seen in our hospitals as we moved to the next phase of the pandemic. Now, right through this period, Scott Morrison has assured doctors, nurses and the broader Australian community that nothing extra needed to happen from the Federal Government to ensure that our hospitals would deal with the stress. And that was even before the Omicron variant emerged. 

I think we're all deeply concerned about the ability of our hospitals to get through the next several weeks, given the constant increase in hospitalisation numbers that we've seen in all states, frankly, obviously with the exception of WA. New South Wales hospitalisation numbers today are almost seven times what they were just on Christmas day. We know doctors and nurses are exhausted. We know hospitals are overwhelmed but we haven't heard anything from Scott Morrison about what extra support he thinks we'll need to get through the next several weeks.

Thanks everyone.