SUBJECTS: Meeting of National Cabinet; Scott Morrison’s bungled booster rollout; Scott Morrison cutting funding to GPs and Pharmacists; Mask mandates. 

CATHY VAN EXTEL, HOST: Health Minister Greg Hunt was again unavailable to speak with us, but the acting Labor leader Richard Marles, joins Breakfast from Geelong. Good morning.


VAN EXTEL: Good, thank you. What did you make of those comments there by the Prime Minister, pointing out that this modelling that will be presented to national cabinet today is only in the most extreme scenario?

MARLES: Well, modelling is what it is. And it gives a range of possibilities, and I guess the Prime Minister is outlining that. But there’s a whole lot of challenges which are now being faced by the country. And what’s really clear is we need leadership. And what’s also very clear as we’re not getting that from Scott Morrison. I mean, I think what’s utterly evident right now is that we need to be making sure the booster program is being rolled out as quickly and efficiently as possible. And once again, we’ve got a government which is completely missing the trick and which is not doing this in an efficient way.

VAN EXTEL: Well what are you saying the government should be doing around the booster rollout? We know that there is supply available. There is something like 3.2 million vaccine doses available across the country and that will rise to almost five million by Christmas Day. The issue from what we can understand is that they continue to sit in fridges, and that it’s up to the states and territories to reopen the vaccination clinics that they closed in the last month. It’s a state issue, isn’t it?

MARLES: We need national leadership, and the buck absolutely stops with Scott Morrison-

VAN EXTEL: So what are you saying he should do?

MARLES: Well, the first thing he needs to do, Cathy is actually guarantee supply. So right now, we have reports in the paper this morning that there’s something like 4.8 million doses that are readily available. If the gap in getting the booster is reduced to four months, 7.2 million Australians become eligible to get the booster as of Saturday week, and there’s another 2 million kids who will be eligible for their shot 10 days after that. So, the first thing here is that the government needs to actually guarantee that there is going to be supply. The second point to make here is; all of this scenario should have been foreseen. I mean, we’ve known for months that the country was going to be opening up in mid-to-late December in the lead up to Christmas. And so this would be the period intime where we see a whole – a number of cases emerging. It was back in July that Israel, which was the sort of first cab off the rank, started putting in place a booster. So, we’ve known for months that getting a proper booster rollout was critical to meeting the challenge of this moment and would be critical to meeting the challenge of omicron.

VAN EXTEL: To be fair, Richard Marles, omicron has changed the game considerably. And it’s happened in a very short space of time, a month ago, we weren’t aware of omicron. Could we go to the booster-

MARLES: Can I just kind of just make this point Cathy; yes, omicron absolutely is a challenge. But what we are meeting now is in fact the challenge of the country opening up and that is something we’ve known for months. But the other point to make here; and this is absolutely a decision of Scott Morrison- right now he has cut the funding to the very people who are going to be delivering the rollout. And that’s the GPs and the pharmacists.

VAN EXTEL: Is it Labor’s position that that funding should be restored as a priority?

MARLES: Absolutely. It’s an astonishing decision that that funding should have been cut right now. I mean, people are going to their GP and their pharmacists, there isn’t necessarily supply there, they’re not going to be able to get the booster shot. Once again, we’ve got a Prime Minister who stuffed up the initial vaccine rollout earlier in the year, and who has missed the trick right now, and is stuffing up the rollout of the booster. And this is the single most important step we can take, both in terms of meeting the challenge of the country opening up and meeting the challenge that comes with omicron.

VAN EXTEL: The data from the Health Department shows no omicron related deaths in Australia to date. Only 37 people with the strain are in hospital, none in ICU. Does that suggest we might be overreacting to the variant? Is it time for some caution?

MARLES: Well, we obviously have to take the variant seriously. How it plays out is something that we’ll have to experience but it is absolutely clear that it is more contagious. And it’s absolutely clear that the booster is going to be critical in terms of meeting that challenge. But again, we get back to the critical point here; you know, we need a government, we need a national government that gets ahead of events, that is actually able to leadthe country through the pandemic with a plan. Instead what we’ve got is a government which is consistently reacting to events and which is always behind the play. I mean, we – of those countries who are reporting the rollout of the booster, which there are about 70 in the world today, Australia right now ranks 65th in terms of the rollout of the booster. That is up to Scott Morrison. I mean, he will do everything he can, in the next few days to put that responsibility elsewhere, but he is the Prime Minister of Australia and it’s his responsibility to get it done. And he’s not getting it done. And he is not getting it done again.

VAN EXTEL: What’s Labor’s position on the interval between the second and third doses? Certainly some states and many epidemiologists are now advocating for the gap to be reduced from five months to four months. What’s Labor’s position?

MARLES: Well, the starting point is we need to take the best medical advice, and there will be no doubt a kind of medical debate around all of this, but that needs to be taken seriously. And obviously, the best medical advice needs to be adopted. But the critical point here is that if that is the best medical advice, then from the point of view of supply, from the point of view of logistics, from the point of view of government administration, we need to be in a position to enact it. What would be an absolute tragedy is if that turns out to be the best medical advice, but the government says it’s actually not in a position to carry that advice out. And that’s our criticism right now. Because if they do go to four months, then the number of Australians who will be eligible for that shot on Saturday week is 7.2 million, and two million kids become eligible ten days later. That is the challenge, which is facing the nation right now. So our question to the government is; can they guarantee that if that ends up being the best medical advice, and that’s the path that we should walk that they are in a position to carry that out?And right now, there’s a real doubt about that.

VAN EXTEL: Is there a danger that we’re putting too much store in the boosters and not enough in other preventative measures? The WHO says that, you know, suppressing omicron isn’t just about the boosters, that it’s a range of measures. There are calls for New South Wales and other states to reintroduce restrictions, at least mask mandates and check ins. Do you agree that we need to be looking at some of these restrictions?

MARLES: Well, I think the booster is the main play, but we completely accept that, you know, there’s a whole lot of other measures that will be rightly considered in this moment. I don’t think we are in a space of going to lockdowns again. Certainly speaking from the point of view of a Victorian having lived a lot of this over the last couple of years, no one wants to see an extra day of lockdown occur. I think it’s important, again, that we’re listening to the best medical advice about low cost options, and low hassle options, if I could put it that way, which enables businesses to stay open, which enables people to get on with their lives. Now, if masks forms part of that, well then so be it and we should be listening to the best medical advice in relation to that. And I note that Chief Medical Officers around the country are giving advice in relation to masks and it’s important that that is listened to. It seems to me that is a step that can be taken, which actually does allow people to continue their lives, to continue to have businesses open, to continue the economy going forward. But the main game is inevitably going to be the booster. That’s what the evidence shows. That’s what the government has to get right. And that’s where the government is failing.

VAN EXTEL: Richard Marles thank you for your time this morning.

MARLES: Thanks, Cathy.


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