Federation Chamber

Australia’s COVID-19 health response – answering the Ministerial statement

I’ve been in the healthcare workforce as a nurse, as a midwife and as a rural health academic for over half of my life. From experience, I know what’s important in a crisis, and that’s clarity, consistency and making decisions based on evidence.

These qualities have been on display since day one. There’s been no fear of experts taking centre stage. Compared to other countries, it’s clear that preferring scientific consensus over political expediency has set Australia apart. In a few months, we have gone from a nation slow to react to a horror unfolding in a distant place to one leading the world in flattening the curve at home. I thank the Minister (for Health, Greg Hunt), the Chief Medical Officer and his deputies, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, and the hardworking Department of Health staff and their counterparts in states and territories for their leadership, which has brought us this far.

Today, June 11, 2020, there is optimism in the air. It does feel like we have turned a corner. But only a fool would dare to make predictions. Two months ago, parliament was suspended for five months, yet, happily, we’re here today. Three months ago, our Deputy Chief Medical Officer said the best-case scenario was a sobering 50,000 deaths. Six months ago, COVID-19 was a meaningless collection of letters and numbers. Are we halfway through the crisis or has it only just started?

What we do know is that it’s far from over. Last weekend, after 71 days of zero reported cases in my electorate, an aged-care resident tested positive to COVID-19. Cases like this will continue to happen. The difference now, though, is we are prepared.

Today, I want to pay tribute to the extraordinary commitment and achievement of healthcare workers in my electorate of Indi: nurses, doctors, allied health professionals, disability and aged-care workers, pharmacists and GPs, healthcare administrators, and leadership across the board. Their hard work has transformed our local healthcare system into one prepared for whatever may come. The two large public hospitals in my electorate, Albury Wodonga Health and Northeast Health Wangaratta, rapidly boosted their capacity to address any surge in COVID-19 cases. In partnership with private hospitals, they pooled infrastructure, workforce and supplies to meet demand while keeping patients safe. Their screening clinics have conducted thousands of tests and fielded many times that number of calls to their hotlines. Sally Squire, director of Pandemic Response at Albury Wodonga Health, and Rebecca Weir, executive director of Clinical Services at Northeast Health, have been central. My constituents report that the screening clinics are smooth and well-attended. I congratulate Albury Wodonga Health and Northeast Health Wangaratta for their clear and engaging communication about COVID-19.

Advice from a trusted institution is invaluable in uncertain times, and I have no doubt that their Facebook posts and media posts generally have changed behaviour and led people to take social distancing seriously.

Last month I was proud to open the Wodonga Respiratory Clinic at the Central Medical Group with doctors Greg Gladman and David Tillett and general manager Suzanne Fisher. This clinic is responding to huge demand for testing, particularly for children under 10, and easing pressure on the public health system.

Another clinic leading the way is Tristar Medical Centre, next door to my Wodonga office. This service has a multicultural, elderly and family clientele. They were early adopters of proper hygiene measures, setting up a sanitiser station with masks outside the clinic, and they have excellent isolation and barrier techniques installed for all their clients.

Benalla Health’s drive-through testing service began in early April and is now completing a blitz of nostril-tickling tests for teachers returning to school. Benalla Health sits on the Benalla Rural City Pandemic Committee, which is a fantastic model that brings together government agencies and healthcare and aged-care providers, including Carrier Street Clinic, Church Street Surgery, Coster Street Medical Practice, Cooinda Village, Estia Health and the Royal Freemasons.

Mansfield District Hospital, in consultation with the Department of Health and Human Services, the Mansfield Shire and Mansfield’s general practices, began preparations as early as January, and are working under the shire’s multiagency pandemic plan. I especially thank CEO of Mansfield Health, Cameron Butler, for his extraordinary leadership during this time.

The Yea and District Memorial Hospital and Alexandra District Health have continued their excellent record of dedication and care for their patients and community while taking measures to keep everyone safe.

Our local emergency food and relief services have pivoted to providing a lifeline to emerging pockets of need, to people isolating at home or the newly unemployed, who never dreamed of accepting charity. These services include Albury-Wodonga Regional FoodShare, Mansfield and District Welfare Group, Quercus Beechworth, Salvation Army, Uniting Limited, VincentCare Victoria, and Loaves and Fishes. In a frightening time, where we often think of ourselves first, thank you for not forgetting the vulnerable.

The shift to universal telehealth, and assurances from the Minister for Regional Health that it’s here to stay, is the brightest silver lining in this pandemic. Telehealth can dissolve the regional and geographic and financial barriers to healthcare across rural, remote and regional Australia. Across Indi, telehealth consultations are now happening with speech pathologists, physiotherapists, dietitians, social workers and occupational therapists. The impact will be transformative. I’d particularly like to give a shout-out to Clare Wright and Sean Warfe of North East Family Medicine, who did a trial telehealth video with me on Facebook at the beginning of this pandemic to give people reassurance about how easy it is to have a telehealth consultation with your family doctor.

The community has stepped right in behind the healthcare frontline. Galen Catholic College student and innovator Ryan Falconer assembled a team to produce 3D printed face shields and bands for North East Health Wangaratta. With the help of VEX coordinator Maree Timms, 3D printing lab BioFab3D, Brett Ambrosio and Craig Murphy from GOTAFE’s Innovation Hub, and Rohan Latimer of the Jewellers Coworking space, dozens of face shields and headbands have been added to supplies. Schoolkids and innovators across the electorate have got on board too.

Across my electorate more broadly, amateur tailors and accomplished seamstresses are putting the pedal to the floor to stitch scrubs and face masks. Pangerang Community House has coordinated sewing volunteers. The Upper Kiewa Valley Community Association brought together volunteers to produce surgery gowns and masks for the local hospital and medical centre. The Rotary Club of Euroa donated free hand sanitiser to Euroa Health after buying bottles in bulk to give to those in need.

As a former nurse, I am proud but not at all surprised by the hundreds of non-practising nurses who did refresher training so they could join the surge workforce. Then there’s the nurses who upskilled in critical care nursing so they could support coronavirus victims in intensive care units. To my fellow nurses: whether you stepped out of retirement or out of your comfort zone, your willingness to go above and beyond has been truly inspiring, and I thank you. To the health workforce in Indi: you’ve had your clinics closed, rotations postponed, plans thrown into disarray. Almost as hard has been the state of readiness that you remained in for weeks, expecting the worst to flood through the door, not knowing if it would. You have worked long hours under increased pressure. Your calm reassurance has made all the difference to your patients and to your peers. Thank you for caring for us, and thank you for caring for each other.

To the families and partners of those health professionals: you’ve let those you love go into danger to protect us from an invisible threat. COVID-19 has made every day uncertain for you too. I see how hard you work to put aside those worries and keep the ship afloat and the family ticking along, with a smile or, indeed, the gallows humour that so many people employ in times of crisis. Your bravery is the unsung hero of this pandemic.

Finally, to the people of Indi who followed the health restrictions to stay at home—the same restrictions which have paralysed our tourism, hospitality and accommodation industries and led to job losses—I see the sacrifices you have made. I know it has saved lives. In Beechworth, Bright and Mansfield last weekend, I saw the first real influx of tourists for the year after fires chased them away and COVID-19 locked them out. Before the weekend, business owners told me they were excited but nervous; desperate for customers but scared about disease they might bring. This tension will be a fact of life for months and possibly years to come. But with strong local health systems working together with a supportive community, we are now more prepared than ever to face whatever comes. I thank you all.

[June 11, 2020]

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