Matter of Public Importance: COVID 19

19 October 2021

(Northern Territory—Deputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (16:20): [by video link] I've just travelled over 3,000 kilometres across the Northern Territory, talking to families, listening to their concerns and talking to clinicians in many of our remote clinics. I want to be able to share with the Senate what has happened and what has occurred on those travels.

But, firstly, after listening to Senator Gallagher speak this afternoon and knowing personally the impact that COVID has had on her family, it is of utmost urgency that this Senate recognises this call for the MPI in terms of the Dougherty modelling around hospitals and their capability to cope with the days, weeks and months ahead. I'm certainly very concerned in terms of the people of the Northern Territory, in particular our First Nations people.

The Morrison-Joyce government is not being transparent with Australians about how the nation's hospital systems will cope with COVID-19 cases when Australia opens up. We know that the Doherty modelling was released outlining how Australia would respond to small COVID outbreaks, but this previous modelling does not adequately deal with how many hospitalisations, deaths and cases now expected. We know that revised modelling was provided to national cabinet last month, dealing with the preparedness of the hospital system to cope with an influx of COVID-19 hospitalisations when the nation reopens.

Senator Gallagher asked for this information to be released in her capacity as chair of the COVID-19 select committee, and it was refused. The broader Australian community, and particularly our hardworking doctors and nurses who will be on the front line continuously of this additional pressure, deserve to know what they need to prepare for, because many states and territories fear their hospital systems will not cope. I'm sure I do not need to remind the Senate of the vulnerability, in particular here in the Northern Territory, when the delta strain reaches us. It is a matter of 'when', not 'if' the delta strain will arrive here. The Northern Territory government, the Aboriginal community controlled health sector, land councils, frontline workers and others have done a terrific job keeping Territorians safe during this pandemic so far, and we have seen incredibly strong leadership. We also know Australia is opening up and we can't keep delta at bay forever.

As I said, I spent the last few weeks travelling across the Northern Territory—over 3,000 kilometres down the Western Desert, the Tanami region, through places like Kalkarindji, Lajamanu and Yuelamu, through Alice Springs, over the other side on the east to Santa Teresa and back again to Hermannsburg, and then up the track to Ali Curung, to Tennant Creek, to Elliott and to Katherine. It was so important to be able to see firsthand how prepared we are here in the Northern Territory. In each place I've been talking and listening to constituents and organisations about COVID-19 and the need to vaccinate against it. That message is going around loud and clear, but we are having issues.

Every clinic I dropped into is doing their best to get the message out and vaccinate. Anyinginyi Health Aboriginal Corporation in Tennant Creek, run by general manager Barb Shaw, is doing a terrific job through public health campaigning, but they're facing incredible challenges. Anyinginyi is the Aboriginal healthcare provider for Tennant Creek as well as neighbouring town camps and nearby communities. They've been setting up pop-up clinics in town, running massive public health campaigns, doorknocking everywhere they can and heading out to surrounding communities to provide public health messaging and then returning a week later with a vaccination team. That's the preparatory work that they're trying to do—in languages that the people of that region can understand, because English is not always their first language. This is all ramping up now as they blitz the Barkly region.

With Tennant Creek being located on the Stuart Highway, there's no way they'll be able to shut down that area when delta comes. It is on a major highway and it services surrounding communities. They do have a hospital, but, like so many, they are worried about the capacity of the Tennant Creek Hospital if an outbreak occurs, and what that would mean for their population and the surrounding communities.

Tennant Creek has a population which is majority First Nations people. That means they were supposed to be vaccinated in the Morrison government's phase 1b; they are a priority group that should have been vaccinated by now. Here we are in October 2021. Remember how, in December last year, Scott Morrison stood up and assured the nation that vulnerable Australians, like those with disabilities, older Australians and Indigenous Australians, would be top priorities for the vaccine? Well, hello, empty rhetoric! Let me tell you, phase 1b is still not done despite the hard work of our Aboriginal community controlled health sector, and vaccination rates in the Barkly remain low.

Instead, changing advice around AstraZeneca, the lack of Pfizer supply recommended for the NT's younger population and a failed communication strategy have ensured the Morrison-Joyce government has failed to reach Territorians.

It was only last month that Minister Ken Wyatt finally succumbed to pressure from Labor and announced $250,000 in funding for First Nations Media Australia to produce and distribute culturally appropriate messaging on the vaccine rollout. That was in September. We had talked about it in February this year. I put questions to the federal Department of Health about what language or languages they were going to use—we have over 100 Aboriginal languages here—and what funding they were going to provide so these communities were prepared. That has now come in September; I asked about it back in February.

Health workers are on the back foot in trying to ensure accurate and factual messages reach their patients around the vaccine. It's all left a vacuum for negative messaging to take deep hold in the minds of many. What was equally disturbing was the answer to a question I put to most clinicians and the communities visited: in a worst-case scenario, how prepared is this community to cope with a COVID outbreak? The overwhelmed and exhausted faces said it all.

So I ask the Morrison government to think of those overwhelmed and exhausted faces, listen to Senator Gallagher and Labor and listen to the Australian Medical Association, and release this modelling. Even Department of Health Secretary Brendan Murphy, who has been working with Deputy Chief Medical Officer Sonya Bennett on the modelling, supports making the figures about hospital capacity public. He said: 'I would favour a transparent approach, but national cabinet will make that decision.'

Ask any doctor or nurse; we know that pressure on our hospitals is going to increase over the coming weeks and months. But Scott Morrison won't reveal the modelling that he commissioned about what pressure on our hospital system would actually really look like. He is keeping the modelling that he commissioned with taxpayer dollars secret from the Australian community and, importantly, from Australia's hardworking doctors, nurses and all those on the front line. We all deserve to know now what that pressure will look like so we can prepare.

We deserve a prime minister who will sit down and maturely discuss this with the state and territory governments, rather than just picking political fights with them, to make sure there's a plan to make hospitals safe and strong. That means all hospitals in regional and remote Australia, and, let me tell you, it means our hospitals here in the Northern Territory: our Alice Springs Hospital, Tennant Creek Hospital, Nhulunbuy hospital, Katherine Hospital and our city hospitals in Darwin and Palmerston. We do not have time to waste. We must be prepared, and that is what leadership is.

Instead, we have a Prime Minister who refuses to take responsibility. For Scott Morrison, every problem is someone else's fault; every crisis is someone else's responsibility. When he's called out on his failures, Scott Morrison's response is always the same: it's not my job; it's a matter for the states; I don't hold a hose. Whether it's COVID, bushfires, robodebt, aged care, car park rorts or climate change, he never shows leadership, just more spin. But Australians deserve so much more than this, and the people of the Northern Territory deserve so much more than this. Our health workers deserve much more than this. They are exhausted and they are anxious. Come on, Prime Minister. Give us the modelling. Let us prepare to fight this.