Matter of Public Importance – The urgent need to respond to the public health challenges facing the nation.

As a Victorian, it was with a heavy heart that I watched the press conference this morning from the Victorian government, knowing the anguish and difficulty this press conference would bring and the devastation felt by communities right across our great state.

It’s possible that from 11.59 pm tomorrow night these restrictions may apply a little differently in regional Victoria. It’s a tense time, and I thank the Deputy Premier for taking into account that the conditions in regional Victoria are somewhat different to those affecting our friends and family in metropolitan Melbourne, and I say that with the greatest respect to everyone in Melbourne.

It’s important that we don’t apply broad brushstrokes indiscriminately. It’s really important that we make sure in regional Australia and regional Victoria that we take into account the particular circumstances that regional Victorians, and regional Australians more broadly, have. Again, I say that with the greatest respect and compassion for metropolitan Melbourne.

This is important because many of my constituents will, should the restrictions change, be able to return to work. Many people have already lost a week of wages. To lose two would be devastating. Businesses are exposed, casual workers are exposed, school kids are home from school and there’s no federal safety net anymore for any of these workers.

So, as the constituents in my electorate may be able to return to work, I’m conscious that the workers of Melbourne will not. This afternoon during question time we had the federal Treasurer boasting about the economic recovery. Of course, we are all pleased about an economic recovery. But to boast about our position in the world and not be providing some form of support to the workers of Victoria during what is now an extended lockdown, is, I think, highly, highly problematic. Because what is a lockdown in Victoria now will surely be, inevitably, a lockdown somewhere else during this long pandemic crisis.

Because that’s what it is. This virulent strain of COVID-19, with its many variants and now its very dangerous variant, will continue to escape from hotel quarantine. That’s inevitable. We know it will. To boast in question time but not have a plan about how we’ll respond, community by community, as they’re affected by this ongoing public health crisis, is really concerning to me. Because this isn’t a game. This isn’t about passing the political football. This is about real people: people who have to pay the rent and people who have to put food on the table and petrol in the car. They have to buy medicines. Casual workers are exposed and businesses are frightened and uncertain.

We’ve talked a lot about a race in this parliament this week and, frankly, I’m sick of talking about races. This is an Olympic year. In a normal year we may be talking about a race. But, honestly, this is a nation which has had a proud history of public health response, and, right now, when it comes to vaccination, if this were the Olympics we would be right at the bottom of the medal tally.

That is really, really disappointing, because access to vaccination is problematic, and it is problematic in my community. Just this morning, I had a constituent absolutely irate that in his little community, a tiny village called Yackandandah, there’s no ability for him to get a vaccine. He’s unable to get to the vaccination hub in Wodonga, and, even if he could, he actually would be turned away right now, because those poor health workers in Wodonga are trying to catch up on the 1a and 1b vaccination priorities that should have been done months ago.

Many of our GPs are not vaccinating. One of them rang me this week to say she would love her clinic in Beechworth to be vaccinating. But, quite frankly, her frontline staff are exhausted and burnt out, and they’re burnt out from the numerous phone calls they’re getting from confused and worried people in the community—people who are wondering how they can get this vaccine now that the urgency dial has been turned up so acutely.

It seems to me that none of this appears to have been predicted, that this surge requirement was not predicted. I find that extraordinary. Surely it was predictable, knowing what was going on around the world and knowing that, inevitably, this virus would escape from our hotel quarantine. This go-slow attitude is really having consequences now, and I say to the nation, wherever you are: Think about this. Think about this very, very carefully, because what’s happening in Victoria can happen anywhere now. We know that.

Our vaccine hubs in Victoria are turning away people right now because there is simply not the capacity to vaccinate the number of people who are coming forward. In regional Victoria—indeed, in regional Australia—if everyone was vaccinated by now we could feel a little more reassured, but we’re not.

The mayor of Indigo Shire contacted me during the week. She told me that the stand-up vaccine hubs that are planned for her community won’t be there until July. That’s a long time to wait. She’s really worried. So I do say: please let this be a lesson to the rest of the nation, particularly in rural and regional Australia, to get those vaccination hubs working in a way that works for little communities as well as big ones.

So, yes, the government needs to ramp up the vaccination program. It needs to ramp it up fast. It’s a folly, a total folly, that we haven’t done this until now. I’m really tired of hearing both sides talk about the politics of this. What we need now is a prime minister—and a government—who stops talking about politics and really acts and listens to many of our GPs in particular and to those health services in our smaller communities.

Albury Wodonga Health run the vaccination program in the top end of my electorate, and they are an extraordinary health service. There are an incredible team doing an incredible job, but they have a limited workforce. They did before the beginning of this pandemic. They haven’t got any more workforce; they’re doing additional work. They are in fact the busiest regional health service outside of Geelong in Victoria—incredible, really—and they have highly inadequate facilities in their hospital, which is seeing demand in their ED greater than they’ve seen in many, many years. They’re crucial to our response. They need urgent capital works. Our region in the northern end of the electorate needs a world-class single-site regional hospital on the border. If ever we knew that, we know that now, and I really call on the government to get behind Albury Wodonga Health and put in capital funding to get that single-site hospital. It’s a clear message from Albury Wodonga Health. By 2040 that hospital will have to handle 150,000 emergency presentations, 40,000 surgeries and 1,900 births every year, and we could still be in a pandemic—who knows? That’s the thing, we don’t know and we need to be ready and we need to predict. That surge capacity needs to be able to be brought on board when we face public health emergencies such as what we’ve got.

We need to make sure in this public health crisis that we’re facing that rural and regional Australia is not left behind, that we have the facilities, that we have the workforce and that we have the capacity to surge when we need to in order to meet the challenges that are quite unique to small places. In the last week I’ve met with Christine Morgan, the CEO of the National Mental Health Commission, and Professor Ruth Stewart, the National Rural Health Commissioner. We all talked about similar things. We talked about the absolutely crucial need to make sure that with our rural health services we are not trying to fit a metro model into a rural context. It’s important that we look at the whole workforce and that we look at practitioners such as nurse practitioners, who right now are not able to participate fully in the vaccination program, because they’re not covered by Medicare. That’s a lost opportunity, and one we could fix. We truly could.

I’m looking right now at the minister for regional health, the member for Parkes. Minister, the report of the multipurpose services program is still sitting on the government’s desk. In that report are key elements that could really improve our capacity to deliver high-quality aged care in rural and remote situations. Multipurpose services was a key finding of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, and I’d love to work with you on that and make it a reality.

These rural health services are crucial to this pandemic response. I call on the government to do everything they can to protect rural and regional Australians.

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