Failed Pandemic Response

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03 August 2021

I rise to speak on the Treasury Laws Amendment (COVID-19 Economic Response No. 2) Bill 2021.

I have lost count of the number of times I have spoken in this House about the failures of the Morrison government during this pandemic and the devastating impact it's had on the community I represent on the Central Coast of New South Wales. As a pharmacist and local MP, I am deeply concerned. The Prime Minister likes to try to shift blame whenever he can, but there's no getting around the fact that the biggest failings of this pandemic response are squarely his responsibility. The government is responsible for aged care, the vaccine rollout and hotel quarantine. And what have we seen? Tragically, 685 lives lost in aged care, 28 leaks from hotel quarantine and Australia rated dead last in the OECD for fully vaccinated adults. This is a prime minister who won't accept responsibility for anything. He doesn't take responsibility for the leaks from hotel quarantine and doesn't take responsibility for the botched vaccine rollout.

I'd like to go back to when the rollout first began, in February. My electorate on the Central Coast was completely overlooked. The nearest hospital hubs announced were the Hornsby and the John Hunter in Newcastle. When nurses at the front line of COVID and other healthcare workers in my community were told they would be among the first to get vaccinated, the nearest hubs were based at the RPA, Westmead and Liverpool, meaning workers would have to travel, in their own time, over an hour and a half to be protected and to protect those people they were looking after.

We're now 18 months into this pandemic, and, once again, I find myself asking the Morrison government to explain why the people on the Central Coast are being left behind. Just last week, six months into this rollout, I launched a petition with my Labor colleagues calling for a mass vaccination hub on the coast. There are now three hubs in Sydney, which are welcome, one in the Hunter at Belmont and one being set up in Wollongong—all important as part of our national response to this global pandemic. But there are still no plans for a hub on the Central Coast, in a community where one in five people are aged over 65—and we know the greater risk older Australians are at if they catch COVID-19. We've had recent active cases, including a healthcare worker at a local hospital, and fragments in sewerage. This is urgent.

It gets worse. Many people on the coast have just had their long-awaited Pfizer vaccine appointments cancelled, in yet another example of this government's botched rollout. Locals received text messages or emails across the weekend saying that their vaccine had been redirected to year 12 students in Sydney. That's after they had already been forced to wait more than 60 days to get an appointment in the first place. That's after they've been forced to spend six weeks in lockdown, with no end in sight, and after they've been repeatedly told by the Premier that vaccination is the way out of this lockdown. It just does not make sense. This wouldn't be happening if the Prime Minister had done his job and secured enough vaccines earlier for all Australians.

What's even more frustrating is that some of my constituents who have had their appointments cancelled are high-school teachers who work at the various schools in Sydney where these vaccines are being redirected to students. Many of them are frontline healthcare workers who are yet to be vaccinated. They are people like Ana, a high-school teacher living on the coast who teaches in Sydney. She told me: 'Since the stay-at-home orders, I feel I have done my bit. I have only travelled to and from work to provide supervision to students whose parents are essential workers. I have also continued to work with students who need access to the college facilities to continue their work on HSC major work projects. After countless attempts to make a booking I have managed to secure a booking for the Pfizer vaccination at Gosford Hospital on 2 September.' Then, on Sunday, Ana received a message telling her that her appointment would have to be rescheduled, because the vaccine was being redirected to year 12 students in western and south-western Sydney. In her words: 'To say that I'm angry with the New South Wales Premier is an understatement. I was recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes'—this was in late April—'and, as soon as I was diagnosed, I was advised by my GP to get the Pfizer vaccination. To be informed that my vaccination will now be cancelled is upsetting. All I can ask is that all current bookings for Pfizer be closely examined rather than all being redirected to year 12 students. I need Pfizer.'

Then there's Catherine, recently diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer and currently undergoing chemotherapy. Her oncologist has recommended the Pfizer vaccine between her second and third rounds of chemotherapy, before, in his words, her immune system becomes too weak to handle the vaccine. She tried to book in for a vaccine everywhere on the coast, and even tried the Homebush vaccination hub in Sydney, but hasn't been able to get in any earlier than September. She said: 'I don't understand. I'm severely immunocompromised. My time frame is so short. My doctors have advised Pfizer for a number of reasons, and I can't find anyone to assist me in getting this vaccine. I spend hours on the phone. I check the website eligibility regularly when it's not crashing. The earliest appointment I can get is 15 September, but my doctors tell me it's likely my blood count will be too low by then. I literally don't know what else to do. To fight one disease is enough. To not be able to fight the second and be at high risk, if I ever contracted COVID, both astounds and upsets me and my family immensely. We are considered Greater Sydney for lockdown but not for to access for vaccines.'

These are just two of the many people in my community who have been devastated by the botched vaccine rollout, and none of these people would be in this situation if the Morrison government had done its job and secured enough vaccines for everyone earlier. We wouldn't be facing months of lockdown, which is a major financial burden for local businesses and workers who haven't been given enough support to help them get through.

There are people like Nicole, who was working as a casual autism swim instructor, but she hasn't been able to work since lockdown and is ineligible for the disaster payment. She told me: 'I'd like to know how I'm supposed to support myself and three teenagers on a JobSeeker payment of $683 per fortnight. I'm scared I won't be able to pay my rent and bills over the next month in my current financial position.' That was the situation for Nicole, and there are others who are missing out on financial support altogether because of the government's eligibility criteria.

There are people like Ben. Ben is a musician studying for a Bachelor of Music at the University of Newcastle. Before COVID, he supplemented his youth allowance with live performances. He told me: 'Many of us are sole traders and don't earn enough to reach the tax free threshold of $18,000, which makes it very difficult for us to be granted a government payment such as the New South Wales business grant, which can only be handed out to a businesses with an income of $79,000 or more. These lockdowns have made it extremely difficult for us to secure work and to keep ourselves financially stable with the limited government support available in our industry. When these lockdowns first came into force, our whole industry was essentially destroyed overnight. Gigs that were planned for several months down the track were all of a sudden cancelled on us. The effect these lockdowns have had on our industry will mean a slow recovery for the live music scene and will be felt for many years to come.'

Other micro businesses are in a similar position. I heard from a beauty therapist who told me her business was under the threshold for support. She found out through social media that her business would have to close, with a few hours notice. She scrambled home and tried to rebook clients. She told me being forced to seek government support for the first time in her life was challenging, confusing and frustrating. And the uncertainty about the length of the lockdown was adding to the stress of her situation. While her partner in this business did qualify for support, some five weeks into the lockdown he's yet to see any money come in—five weeks in a lockdown with no support coming through. Deputy Speaker, people on the north of the coast are struggling. They've been left behind for far too long, and this government has failed to support them.

Before I finish, I want to turn to mental health and the serious mental health impacts of this pandemic, which has sometimes been described as a shadow pandemic. But we know about the link between financial distress and mental health crisis and the tragic consequences. I saw this working in adult mental health inpatient units, where a relationship breaks down and someone finds themselves unable to pay their mortgage or find money for the rent in a business. They end up in financial distress and a mental health crisis and then in an acute inpatient unit. What we know, and what peak bodies like the Black Dog Institute and others have said, is that one of the most effective mental health measures that this government could make is to introduce more robust financial support. And coupled with that financial support is the necessity to keep an employee linked to their employer—a genuine wages subsidy. Because people need financial support and they also need job security. They need to know they've got a job to go back to.

I also want to touch on pharmacists and their role in the vaccine rollout. The Prime Minister mentioned this today. I have heard from so many pharmacists who are just exasperated. Like me, they're trained immunisers, they're ready and they've been prepared. They put in expressions of interest back in February and welcomed the health minister's announcement earlier in the year that they'd be part of the rollout. But up until now very few of them have been part of the vaccine rollout. In my community, they've only been able to start this week. What we know is that in countries across the world where pharmacists have been involved in the vaccine rollout they have seen higher rates of vaccination. We know that in some countries we've seen rates of 60 or 70 per cent where they've relied on a network of pharmacists and GPs who are known in their local community and who are trusted. In communities where there's no other health support, there's often a pharmacy there. While I welcome pharmacists' involvement in the vaccine rollout, I am so disappointed, as are pharmacists across Australia, that their skills and expertise weren't drawn on earlier. They've just been sidelined, waiting to contribute, to do their bit to help with the vaccine rollout.

Just to finish, I want to go back to my community and the two failures of this government to provide proper financial support. The backbone of my community comprises tradies and microbusinesses. So many of them have found themselves ineligible for financial support or, if they are eligible, waiting weeks for any financial support to come through. For workers who have lost their jobs and, in the absence of JobKeeper, who don't know if they'll have a job to go back to, this is a desperate situation in my community that the government either hasn't recognised, doesn't care about or isn't willing to do something about.

The other part is the vaccine rollout. From the very beginning, the Central Coast of New South Wales has been overlooked. It has been left behind. In a community where one in five people are aged over 65 and are at significant risk if they contract COVID, this is a serious concern to me as a pharmacist, as a trained immuniser and as a local MP. Just this week, we've seen Pfizer vaccinations redirected without consultation from a community like mine to western and south-western Sydney. What has this meant for the people that I've mentioned? Teachers with type 1 diabetes are unable to get a shot when the students they teach are being prioritised over them. It has meant a mum with advanced ovarian cancer, who is trying desperately to access a Pfizer vaccine, between her second and third round of chemotherapy, has been unable to do so. This is not good enough. This government's botched vaccine rollout is putting communities like mine and those across Australia at risk. All of this was avoidable. It could have been prevented if the Prime Minister and the government had just done their job and secured more vaccines for all Australians at the very beginning. The Prime Minister says it's not a race, but it is, and it's one we're losing.

I conclude by going back to where I started. I asked the Prime Minister in question time today—when I asked him about Pfizer vaccines being redirected from the Central Coast to Sydney, what did the Prime Minister say? Again, he dodged, shifted responsibility and was unwilling to help. He said that he disagreed with the Premier of New South Wales's decision and that it was a state government decision. Prime Minister, this isn't about blame shifting. This isn't about dodging responsibility. This is about the health and wellbeing of all Australians in a global pandemic. Our community deserves better.