8.00am | August 31, 2021


AIKEN: Katie Allen, first to you, how worried are you right now about the strain on our health system in both New South Wales and Victoria? Can it cope with the circumstances it looks like facing over the next couple of months or so given that the New South Wales Premier says she expects the system is going to face its toughest month in October, still some time away?

KATIE ALLEN, MEMBER FOR HIGGINS: Thanks, Kirsten. We do know that we have to prepare ourselves for this next stage. As we move to the next stage of the pandemic, we need to make sure that the healthcare system is prepared and I am happy that the states and Federal Governments are working hand-in-glove to make sure that the  capacity for our healthcare system is actually utilised to its full extent. That's the one thing about our Australian healthcare system is that it's universal and we know the private and public health system can work very nicely together and the private health system has some capacity to take on the extra strain of the public health system. And the Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, last year in March 2020 introduced a private hospital guarantee and I know in my own electorate of Higgins, local hospitals working together, private and public, shoulder-to-shoulder, to make sure the extra capacity within the healthcare system was released to ensure that every Australian who need as bed can get a bed. Last year, we increased the capacity of the intensive care beds from 2,200 to 7,500. We know that in New South Wales it's been increased from 500 to 2,000. So, there is capacity there. The big issue will be the workforce. We know that when there is COVID contact-tracing going on that staff have to be furloughed in some instances and so because of our experiences last year, I know there'll be extra tensions on their frontline workers. They have been working day and night for such a long time. I know they're going to roll up their sleeves for this next critical phase as we transition forward to the 70 to 80% vaccination target. It's going to be tough but I believe the healthcare system is ready and waiting to actually take on that extra capacity.

AIKEN: Jenny McAllister, you are a former union official, what are you hearing about the strain on our front-line workers right now?

MCALLISTER: Look, there are many frontline workers speaking out and we should listen to them because particularly in New South Wales they are pointing to problems for nurses, problems for paramedics, problems for doctors. My concern is that the Government federally, Mr Morrison, has repeatedly been too slow to grapple with crises. We really do need to be thinking very, very carefully about whether the health system in New South Wales will be able to withstand what's coming. We need to be preparing for what's coming and my concern is that there's no real sign that the Prime Minister has grasped the urgency of that task.

AIKEN: We have just heard from Katie Allen about how capacity is being managed, the private and public health sectors are working together. Why do you fear that still that may not be enough to deal with what we can see in the coming months?

MCALLISTER: Two things. I think it is the voices from the front-line who obviously do not feel confident at all that the work is being done or the resources are being applied to support them at this really critical time. Secondly - because of our experience. Because the Prime Minister appears to wait until things get very, very serious before he's pushed into action by other people. There's a reluctance to act, a reluctance to lead and what I see at the moment from this Prime Minister is taking pot shots at state premiers instead of rolling his sleeves up and getting stuck into what is a very serious situation.

AIKEN: Katie Allen, could we see - here what we saw happen overseas, hospitals completely overrun, doctors and nurses tearing their hair out and patients refused medical care when they should have been in a hospital and instead dealing with COVID on their own at home?

ALLEN: Absolutely, last year was a very different situation in that we saw these terrible, terrible scenarios in both Italy and then again in New York with massive and overwhelmed healthcare systems. It was terribly frightening to watch. I'm very connected into my international colleagues in the US and the UK having studied and worked abroad and I speak to all of them every weekend, not all of them, but many of them each weekend to find out what the systems are doing over there and what aspects they're learning from. I know that the Department of Health and the Minister, all of them are very interconnected with what's happening overseas and watching very carefully so we don't make the mistakes of any other overseas country. But I do know that last year in an unvaccinated outbreak in Victoria, unfortunately there were 891 fatalities, every death, you know, for those families is absolutely dreadful. This year, we have a system that is better prepared, we now have vaccination rates, particularly in our most vulnerable with more than 80% partly or fully vehicled in our older population, the ones that are most at risk from fatalities, and in New South Wales we have terribly had 91 deaths, but compared to last year, we can see that even partially vaccinating the community, but particularly targeting and supporting and protecting the most vulnerable has had an effect so that the fatality rate is significantly less. Australians should take heart from that that with the great work of every Australian, you know, doing the physical distancing they need to do, wearing their masks, putting their shoulders forward for the jabs but the healthcare workers who have been on the front-line day after day, the nurses, the doctors, the allied health professionals, people adjusting their lives and pivoting through COVID, it's been an extraordinary, extraordinary period of our history quite frankly and I know there's more to come and we need to continue to face each day, you know, with our best, you know, best face going forward. We need to work together to make sure we can get through this. This is a tough time for Australia, no doubt.

AIKEN: Katie Allen, Jenny McAllister, just touched on the politics of this situation and accused the Prime Minister of taking pot shots at the premiers, this is about proceeding from here, how the country can open back up. Do you think we would be having a different conversation about opening the economy back up, allowing Australians to travel more freely if we weren't staring down the barrel of a federal election?

ALLEN: I think this is nothing to do with politics. This is to do with what is right for the Australian people. And there's no doubt that this Government is absolutely focused, laser-like focus, on responding to what has been an incredible pandemic globally. The fact that day after day, decisions, tough decisions, have been made object where resources should go and how best to get this country through what is its greatest crisis since the Second World War, I think actually, you know, of course, there are things that could have gone differently, but I actually back in that the vast majority of decisions taken by this executive of this government have been quite extraordinary and they have worked hand-in-glove with the experts and with the evidence base. This is about getting together. This is why we're here, both Labor and Liberals and crossbenchers and National Party, everybody, we're all here to make a difference. So, of course, there will be a contest of ideas both within Parliament here at the federal level but across the layers of government that are the elective - elective representatives, that is what we would expect, we want there to be debate. Hopefully the debate is pushing the agenda forward and it's great that people are making, you know, having debates about what's the best way forward but at the end of the day, it's the elected leaders that make those decisions, that's why they're elected, so make those decisions by listening to everyone, then acting in the interests, the national interests, of each and every Australian. I believe that is what is actually being delivered.

AIKEN: Jenny McAllister, Mark McGowan is threatening to deviate from the nationally-agreed plan to open back up at 80% double dose vaccinations saying he does not want to deliberately infect his citizens. If that is his position, will WA ever be able to open its border back up to the rest of the country?

MCALLISTER: Well, the national plan is going to require state and territory Premiers and First Ministers to work with the Prime Minister. And in return, it's going to require the Prime Minister to open a respectful dialogue with both state and territory leaders. These are complex questions. The national plan is not yet a detailed plan. There are many questions to be worked through including questions about borders. The national plan is silent on the question of border closures, for example. (INAUDIBLE) And I think we’ve got a situation when the New South Wales Liberal Premier apparently, is reported to consider the Prime Minister evil. It doesn't bode well, does it? It doesn't suggest he's the kind of leader who is going to be able to steer through this very complex and consequential decision.

AIKEN: Can I ask you - who do you - do you think premiers do have autonomy after the 80% threshold has been reached to keep their borders closed? Jenny McAllister first to you.

MCALLISTER: These are things that are going to have to be worked through, through the National Cabinet. It makes it clear that to have a safe reopening, as I think we would all like to see, there needs to be adequate test, trace and isolate capabilities, there needs to be - well, a workforce and hospital capacity. There need to be strong vaccination outcomes, and the rollout is still far from complete. We are a long way off 70%. There is so much work to do and it's a time for leadership and cooperation, not taking pot shots.

AIKEN: Katie Allen?

ALLEN: National Cabinet has agreed and in that National Cabinet plan is the desire to move away from lockdowns. It's there in the plan and we know that there's a transition that we need to go through and, of course, there will be differences of opinions. But reducing it to talking about a discussion that had not occurred between Gladys, the premier of New South Wales and Scott Morrison the Prime Minister of Australia. It's not helping the agenda. The agenda is about the proper debate about the way forward and that is being had by the National Cabinet, by elected members who are representing their states and territories and the Federal Government, it's happening on extremely regular basis and we can see those sorts of contest of ideas is what's going to give the best outcome for Australia. So reducing it to some sort of politicisation is not helping what is a very, very critical discussion and debate that is around what is the best thing for Australia going forward and I would say the National Cabinet continues to deliver for Australia. Yes, there is debate around the edges but at tend of the day, I think that the people are getting what they need which is good government.

AIKEN: It has been terrific to have you both continue the discussion here on the ABC News Channel this afternoon. Liberal MP Dr Katie Allen and Labor Senator Jenny McAllister, thank you.

MCALLISTER: Thanks so much.