SUBJECTS: Scott Morrison’s failures on the vaccine rollout and hotel quarantine; Victorian cases; vaccine incentives; vaccine advertising campaign; China; Embassy in Afghanistan; Labor Party.

MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER HEALTH AND AGEING: Just at the outset, I want to acknowledge that Victoria and potentially South Australia are currently dealing with the 17th outbreak from hotel quarantine and COVID-19 in just the last six months. The report from the South Australian Government seems to indicate that the outbreak from hotel quarantine in Adelaide to the traveller who then went to Melbourne, and appears to have started the outbreak we’re seeing in Victoria now was not the product of any security breach or other malfeasance or wrongdoing in the hotel. It was endemic to the risks involved in hotel quarantine that the Liberal Premier of South Australia Steven Marshall has described hotel quarantine quite rightly as a ‘risky business’. These facilities were built for tourism, they were not built for medical quarantine. They were a short term option to deal with an immediate challenge last year, they are not a long term solution.

Scott Morrison had two jobs this year, the first a speedy and effective rollout of the vaccine, he’s failing on that. We’re not even in the top 100 nations of the world in terms of vaccine doses per head of population. And the second job was to put in place a safe national quarantine system to protect the Australian community in the interim, and he failed on that as well.

As far back as last year Scott Morrison was advised to do two things: put in place purpose-built dedicated quarantine facilities that were not built for tourism but were built for medical quarantine, and in the interim, put in place national standards, strong national standards for hotel quarantine to the extent we needed to continue to rely upon it. Standards around ventilation, requiring everyone to use PPE to ensure that staff were all vaccinated. And on all three of those standards, his system has been found wanting.

Every direct outbreak from hotel quarantine for COVID-19 is a direct result of Scott Morrison’s failure to put in place a safe national quarantine system. How many more COVID outbreaks in hotel quarantine do Australians have to endure before Scott Morrison finally faces up to his responsibility to deliver safe national quarantine facilities? Scott Morrison has become dangerously complacent about the shockingly slow pace of his vaccine rollout and the failure to put in place safe quarantine arrangements for Australia.

RICHAR MARLES, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thanks Mark. Every Victorian today will be feeling the anxiety of 2020. It’s a really difficult day for the millions of Victorians across the state. I want to start by saying that there are no other agencies in any other state which are as well practiced in dealing with this as those in Victoria and we should have every confidence in their ability to handle this to do the case tracing and to take the measures that are needed to now protect the state.

But let’s be clear, what has played out in Victoria now is a result of the failure of hotel quarantine. This is because someone returning to this country actually contracted the virus in a hotel. Hotels are not fit for purpose. They are not designed to be quarantine facilities. From as early as the middle of last year the Government’s own advisors were telling them that they needed to put in place fit for purpose, specific quarantine facilities in this country to deal with returning Australians and people coming to this country. That’s what we now need to see.

The anxieties that are being felt by every Victorian today is a direct result of Scott Morrison’s failure to take responsibility for quarantine in this country. If you needed any proof of the fact that we are in a race when it comes to vaccinating our population, it’s what’s happening in Victoria right now. Only 18 per cent of the adult population have been vaccinated to this moment in time and that means this country is dangerously exposed to this disease. This Prime Minister has a job this year in vaccinating the country. This Prime Minister has a job this year in having fit for purpose quarantine facilities in this country. These are jobs that this Prime Minister is failing in both respects right now, and it is time that he actually started to do his job. Questions.

JOURNALIST: This morning there are reports that three of the new cases in Victoria were in people over 50 who have not been vaccinated yet. What does that say about the national vaccination strategy?

BUTLER: It shows that it’s proceeding far too slowly. As Richard just indicated, the Prime Minister has said on a number of occasions now the vaccination rollout is not a race. Well, the evidence in Victoria today just reminds us it is a race. It’s a race to protect the health of the population. It’s a race to avoid the sorts of lock downs and restrictions that we’re seeing roll out to the Victorian community. It’s a race to protect Australia against the mutations and variants of the virus that is spreading right throughout the world and Australia is running so far behind the count.

Scott Morrison promised we were going to be at the front of the queue. We are so far behind, we can’t even see the front of the queue. There are priority populations like residents in disability care facilities that have not even received a first dose, let alone being fully vaccinated, in spite of a  promise that they would be by Easter earlier this year. So Scott Morrison has to get this vaccine rollout back on track, or we’re going to continue to see these outbreaks in states like we’re seeing before today.

JOURNALIST: Do you think Government’s advertising campaign is effective? And if not, do you have any specific suggestions about who could front it or what you’d like it to look like?

BUTLER: I don’t watch a great deal of TV but I’ve not seen a single ad from the Government. We are seeing increasing rates of vaccine hesitancy and expert after expert call on the Government to put in place a strong public health information campaign to deal with those hesitancy rates and to encourage people to get vaccinated.

We’re seeing all around the world, in New Zealand, in the US and the UK a range of different messages for us to draw on. We have our own strong tradition of strong public health campaigning, going back to the 1980s AIDS campaign and many since.  I don’t understand why Scott Morrison is so resistant to the consensus advice being given to him that we need a campaign and we made it yesterday.

JOURNALIST: Do you have any thoughts though, on what that campaign should look like or who should front it?

BUTLER: We have public health experts to advise on that. They’ve been running strong public health campaigns for decades. There’s a range of options that are available to us from experience overseas. The US has used Dolly Parton and the UK has used Elton John and Michael Caine. New Zealand, across the ditch, is doing a fantastic positive message about the ‘pathway to freedom’ they paved with vaccinations. There’s any number of options for us to consider based on what’s happening overseas and our own traditions. We just need to the Government to get on with it.

JOURNALIST: Should the Government be opening up vaccines to people under 50?

BUTLER: We want as many jabs to go into arms as possible. So anyone willing to get a jab, available to get a jab, we’re happy to see them get a jab. There’s more than enough supply. There’s 1.4 million doses of vaccine being delivered to the Government every single week, but only 500,000 needles ending up in Australian arms. So the more jabs we see the better. But I’ll say this, the priority for the Government is to vaccinate the most vulnerable Australians residents of disability care facilities 98 or 99 per cent of whom are still not fully vaccinated, 30 per cent of aged care residents, we know the most vulnerable group in the community we know for bitter tragic experience from last year, 30 per cent of them are not fully vaccinated. Their staff are not fully vaccinated. Older Australians are still not fully vaccinated. So by all means, get as many jabs into arms as possible but Scott Morrison’s primary responsibility is to protect the most vulnerable Australians and he’s failed at that so far.

JOURNALIST: To follow up Jade’s question, just given the increased risk in Victoria at the moment, should the Australian Technical Group on Immunisation update their advice to say people under 50 should get AstraZeneca at the moment in Victoria?

BUTLER: It’s important that politicians not give advice to groups like the Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, or the Therapeutic Goods Administration about what their advice should be. We’ve been well served by their advice so far, and well served by the willingness of politicians of all stripes to follow that advice and to reflect that to the community. And that’s the approach Labor will continue to take.

JOURNALIST: For Mark, or Richard maybe; aside from an advertising campaign, what could the government be doing to actually encourage people to get vaccinated? Should it be Scott Morrison coming out on TV and saying- giving people the encouragement? We have had Greg Hunt saying direct things like ‘if you don’t get vaccinated you could die’. Should Scott Morrison be out there, on the TV, saying this stuff?

MARLES: There needs to be a clear message. You know, we need to have a clear message from the government about what its objective is here, which must be to get the country vaccinated as soon as possible. But actually, what we’ve been seeing is deeply confused messages from the government. Last week, the Health Minister got up and he might as well have said to over 50s that if you’ve got an issue with AstraZeneca, you can just wait till the end of the year. I mean, that is so dangerous. It is so dangerous, given how exposed we are with only 18 per cent of our adult population having had their first injection to the spread of this disease. And what’s playing out in Victoria puts all of that into sharp relief. So, we actually just need a consistent message from the government, which has to be about getting vaccinated as soon as possible, knowing that there is absolutely a time imperative, there is a race here, it is a race against the virus.

JOURNALIST: Richard, can I just ask you, as Deputy Labor Leader, we’ve seen reports this morning that the acting US Ambassador in Canberra wants to see more munitions and defence equipment stored in the Northern Territory. Asked what message that would send to China, Karen Andrews the Home Affairs Minister said, ‘it’s sending a very strong message we are alert, we are not alarmed, but we are doing what we can to be prepared.’ Is the government running a risk- at an increased risk of conflict with China?

MARLES: We face a difficult set of strategic circumstances right now. It’s important that they are- those circumstances are dealt with in a mature way. I would make the observation that our alliance with the United States has never been more important than it is now. I’m not aware of the specific requests that have been made in the context of that, so I won’t comment on the specifics. But, what I do think is that it is profoundly important that we are- that our alliance with the United States is front and centre, in terms of the way in which we maintain our posture in the world, knowing that the strategic circumstances that we face are very difficult. But all of that means that we have to have very mature voices- one voice from the government, which is directed to Australia’s national interest.

JOURNALIST: Is Australia’s national interest preparing for conflict with China?

MARLES: Australia’s national interest lies in a proper assessment of the strategic circumstances that we face. Last year, the government announced the Defence Strategic Review; I actually think the insights in that announcement were important. The insights that the ten-year window that we had always assumed exists, that we’re now within. These are important observations to make and what matters now is that the posture of the government and what it’s doing in respect of procurement, for example, reflects that. And now we’ve spoken repeatedly about, you know, our anxiety about the slow pace of the progress of the future submarine program. There isn’t a platform, which is more important in shaping our strategic circumstances than the future submarine. What matters is the government backs up the observations that were made in the Strategic Review last year with action in respect of what material we have at our disposal.

JOURNALIST: So, was it responsible for the Home Affairs Secretary to talk about the drums of war beating? He does that, there is preparations, there is talks of conflict over Taiwan- Inaudible

MARLES: I don’t think that talking in those terms, is helpful. I think it’s really important that we are dealing with this in the most mature way possible. Let me also say this; in saying that, the relationship with the alliance with the United States is important to Australia as it’s ever been. It’s also obviously the case that we have deep interests in our relationship with China- they’re our largest trading partner. And yes, there are anxieties that are raised in in respect of security issues. But it’s important that in dealing with China, we start from a proposition that we value the relationship with our largest trading partner. And so, it’s important that there is maturity in the way in which we articulate the situation that we’re in, knowing that in the strategic circumstances that we’re in, are deeply complicated.

JOURNALIST: Do you think that it’s appropriate for Australia to be closing our embassy in Afghanistan?

MARLES: Look, I think that is a matter for the government. I’ll let Penny Wong respond to that. Obviously I note that that’s happened subsequent to really the decision of the US to be pulling out of Afghanistan, which has then rightly led to the decision of Australia not to have troops there, but I’ll leave that question for Penny.

JOURNALIST: On quarantine, the government repeatedly says that in response to the Halton Review, they opened the facility in Howard Springs. Is that enough? Do we need more facilities?

BUTLER: Quite clearly it’s not enough. We’ve seen the Victorian Government say today particularly in the light of circumstances emerging there, that it is urgent that the Government consider alternative quarantine facilities. We can’t as a country as big as ours, with a number of Australians still stranded overseas, rely upon one single quarantine facility in the Northern Territory. There is a proposal in Queensland that the government has sort of lightly brushed away. There’s a proposal from Victoria. There were proposals put to the government by Jane Halton last year in Western Australia. This is the Commonwealth’s responsibility. The Prime Minister shouldn’t be sitting back, passively waiting for people to bring ideas to him. It’s his responsibility as the country’s Prime Minister, proactively to get out there and put in place a network of dedicated purpose-built facilities around the country.

JOURNALIST: Richard, one more for you, sorry, if that’s alright? We’ve had some of your Labor colleagues, having cracks at each other through the media and through speeches and that sort of thing. Bill Shorten says people should pull their heads in. What would be your advice to your Labor colleagues? Talking about some unrest within the party?

MARLES: Look, I don’t, I actually think there is unrest. I think we, you know, you’ve got local members, very passionate about the issues in their constituencies which you would want them to be. At the end of the day, we are very focused on holding this government to account, in terms of its handling of COVID-19, in terms of its failure to have a vision for this country coming out of the pandemic which sees us in a better place than what we were going in. And we are very focused on making sure that at the next election, we are giving Australians the alternative they are desperately craving.


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