SPEECH

I rise, Mr Speaker, to make the House of Representatives aware of what is happening in my electorate of Indi and to call for urgent attention and resources for the COVID-19 situation in towns like Albury Wodonga, Wangaratta and others in regional Victoria.

I have just notified Health Minister Greg Hunt of the situation on the border and I thank him for his commitment that Wodonga will be front of the queue when rapid antigen testing becomes available next week.

Mr Speaker, many communities in my electorate are facing COVID-19 outbreaks and transmission in the community for the first time as our economy opens up.

And we knew this was coming. In fact, it was part of the National Plan. Yet it seems there has been no plan to make sure we have the resources we need to respond to outbreaks when they occur in regional places like mine.

When asked about cases in Wodonga today the Victorian Chief Health Officer seemed unaware of what we are facing.

An equivalent sized outbreak in Melbourne would be around 3,000 cases a day – for us, this is a very serious challenge.

And for smaller communities the numbers we are seeing are pushing our health services to the brink.

In Indi we are blitzing vaccination targets – I’m very pleased about that. More than 81 per cent of people 16 years and over are fully vaccinated, and almost 95 per cent have had one dose.

I am so proud and grateful to everyone who has got vaccinated.

But despite this amazing effort, COVID-19 has found its way into our community and especially to children who either can’t get vaccinated or only recently became eligible. Mr Speaker, almost half of the cases in North East Victoria yesterday were aged under 18.

And every day we hear of new schools that have been affected.

In Indi more than 13 schools have been closed due to cases of COVID-19 in the past two weeks. Even more schools in the neighbouring town of Albury have also been closed, again affecting people in Wodonga.

It’s less than a week since all students at regional Victorian schools returned to in-classroom learning. A time that should have been a return to normality after two challenging years is instead full of disruption, with even more uncertainty and demands on families.

Due to the high demand on contact tracers in the health department, schools are now being expected to do their own contact tracing.

Schools are contact tracing, coordinating deep cleaning and offering both on-site and remote learning all at once. Mr Speaker, something has to give.

In Wodonga people were turned away from testing centres before 9am this morning. Less than two hours after opening their doors, our local health service was already at capacity, telling people to stay home and isolate and try again tomorrow.

Imagine being so desperate to be tested for COVID-19, to do the right thing, so desperate not to be turned away yet again, that you would arrive at a testing centre and camp out at 4am. Because that is what is happening in Wodonga.

This is absolutely unacceptable.

The federal and state governments have known this moment would come for more than a year, yet still regional health services are being left to respond without enough support from the major cities.

Now epidemiologists have been flown in to assist today, and I’m very happy about that, but it’s not enough – we need more.

Albury Wodonga Health has already wound back non-core services, services such as dental, community allied health and pain management services, to move staff into testing.

In Albury Wodonga, the Cancer Centre has had to convert a ward to become ready to take COVID-19 patients, because Albury Wodonga’s main hospital simply does not have any negative pressure rooms.

Mr Speaker, nowhere else in Australia has a specialist cancer hospital had to be used for COVID-19 – this is one of many reasons, but a core reason today, why we need the Government to fund a new hospital for Albury Wodonga. We need it urgently.

For years regional health services have cared diligently for those in their communities, but people needing complex or high-level care were transferred to bigger cities. But if hospitals now in Melbourne and Sydney are already at capacity, where will our people be cared for?

I can’t say enough about how proud I am of our regional health services, of the dedicated workers putting in extreme hours to keep up with the demands. As a nurse and midwife, I know you will do anything for your patients.

But I plead you now. Send us help for testing, for contact tracing, send us extra staff. Our communities need it and they need it now.

Read Indi’s $150,000 Stronger Communities Programme opens for interest