21 March 2020


SUBJECTS: Testing for Covid-19, Self-isolation, National Coordination Mechanism, Border Force and Bondi Beach, Newstart, States closing borders, Second cruise ship arrival.
CHRIS BOWEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Good morning, everyone. I'll make a few brief comments before passing over to Kristina on related matters. Obviously as this crisis unfolds we continue our approach of supporting every step that the Government has put in place, but constructively calling for more. Kristina and I we will be doing that this morning in relation to a couple of matters. Firstly, in relation to testing, we need to test test test. People across the country are working their guts out to test more people, but we need to do better as a country. I understand the constraints. I understand the limitations on testing, but we need to do more. Today we say it must be the formal objective of Government policy to have people tested if they are in contact with people who've suffered Covid-19 or have symptoms, not 'and' have symptoms. People across the country are exhibiting symptoms. Obviously very worryingly going for tests and being denied tests because they don't meet the criteria. The deputy chief medical officer has made it clear if there were more tests, they might consider different criteria. We know from South Korea, that testing is one of the key elements in beating this virus. In South Korea 5,500 people per million have been tested, in Australia: 3,300. That's a big difference. We need to do more. Also, people are waiting too long for test results. I've heard reports of eight days, sometimes six days, we need to do more. Interestingly, other pathology tests aren't occurring at the same rate. People are getting less testing done. There's been notifications to the stock exchange by pathology companies for profit warnings, we have spare capacity in the pathology sector, we need to ensure that every single pathologist in the country is deployed, every single pathology practice in the country is deployed to get these tests turnaround more quickly. Again, we don't underestimate the complexity, but much more needs to be done. 

Now, another issue is self isolation and ensuring the support for people in self isolation. The Prime Minister correctly said yesterday, self isolation means self isolation and people should comply with the law. But we also need to ensure we're supporting those people so that they aren't tempted to break the law. And Kristina and I have been talking about that and Kristina will have further comments to make about that particular suggestion and also other breaking developments.

KRISTINA KENEALLY, DEPUTY LABOR LEADER IN THE SENATE AND SHADOW MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS: Thank you, Chris. There are right now in Australia, thousands of people self isolating. Some of them are self isolating because they have been diagnosed with Covid-19 some because they have been in close contact with someone with Covid-19 and some are isolating because they've been directed to by the Government having returned home from overseas. Labor supports that direction from Government and thanks those Australians who are taking steps to self isolate during this health crisis. We also know that many people are self isolating because they are elderly, and they run a high risk if they  contract Covid-19. 

Now, when it comes to self isolation, one of the things we need to ensure is that people have access to a secure supply of food. And in the last week, we have seen major retailers take a decision to discontinue home delivery of groceries. Now our food retailers in Australia have been working incredibly hard. They have taken extraordinary steps to meet extraordinary demand and we acknowledge the work that they have been doing and no one here is blaming the food retailers for taking what is a necessary decision in order to ensure that we have food stocks on the shelves. But what is happening now is that people who are in self isolation who cannot access home delivery groceries are being directed to Food Bank and that is a completely unacceptable way to address this gap. People who can shop at grocery stores should not be directed to Food Bank. Food Bank is there for the most vulnerable in the community. It is a charity. It is a charity that is there to supply people who are most in need with food and the demands on food bank are extraordinary at this time. I have spoken with senior officers at Food Bank in the last 24 hours who tell me not only are their stocks running low, but their supply of volunteers is drying up. This is not an appropriate response. 

Now two weeks ago, the Government stood up a National Coordination Mechanism. This National Coordination Mechanism sits within the Department of Home Affairs. It is there to resolve bottlenecks that are non health related during the Covid-19 crisis. The fact that people in self isolation are not able to have food delivered to them is exactly the kind of problem that the National Coordination Mechanism should be resolving. Now Labor stands ready to work with the Government. We call on the Government to urgently through its National Coordination Mechanism, step in and work with grocery retailers, transport companies and others in the community, including our public servants who may be able to resolve this problem, this bottleneck. What will rapidly emerge is a crisis as thousands of more Australians are directed to self isolate. 

We also call on the Government to make clear which Minister is leading the National Coordination Mechanism. We know when it comes to the Health Committee that has been stood up that is part of the National Cabinet is being chaired by Brendan Murphy, the Chief Medical Officer and that Minister Greg Hunt is the lead Minister. We do not have clarity yet from the Government as to who is the lead Minister for the National Coordination Mechanism. We call on the Government to make that clear. And we advise that when they do so Labor will of course, as we always do, appoint a relevant Shadow to work alongside the Government and the community as we work to be constructive during this crisis. This is too important. Australians need a Government to get it right and we stand ready to be constructive in that endeavour. 

Happy to take any questions. I think we have some people on the phone?

JOURNALIST: Jen from Seven News. Chris Bowen, can I ask; We're on a frightening curve at the moment, the rate is almost doubling every three days, we'll reach 30,000 cases based on this projection in about two weeks time, which could mean hundreds of deaths. Was this rapid increase preventable? Did the Government act fast enough considering we were the first country to declare a pandemic? Are you being told to have to expect higher rates than that? Or hopefully will we start to see a decrease as a result of the strict measures?

BOWEN: Well Jen, you're right that the news we're seeing everyday is not good and we're currently doubling cases every three days, which is not a good trajectory for the country to be on and frankly, the Government needs to be honest with the Australian people about that. We cannot have the message that we've got this. We've all got to stick together. We've got to work together, we will get through it. It is a very, very serious situation. And as I said during the week, we cannot look back on the other side of this and say; 'Could we have done more earlier?'. If in doubt, do more do it earlier. I understand there are some complicated issues to work through. I think we're being more than constructive and reasonable with the Government in making suggestions to them about what more can be done. At the same time supporting every single measure that they put in place, including some that were controversial at the time. Don't look controversial now but were at time. 

So it is a very serious situation, we all need to be honest about that. It's going to get much worse before it gets better. There's no point gilding the lilly. There's no point pretending that everything's going to be okay. Our health system will be under severe pressure. And perhaps that can lead me to say; we all have responsibilities here. We all have to be ensuring that we're engaging in proper social distancing. Young people might feel that you know that they're not going to get it or that they're well enough to withstand it. But it's about our responsibility to the country. We all must engage in the appropriate social distancing, because not only your health but the health of somebody you love might depend on it. So this is a very serious situation. We cannot look back later and say; ""Could we have done more? Could we have done better?"" That is why we've supported every single step that's been taken and asked for more to be done.

KENEALLY: If I might Jen off the back of Chris' comment there about young people, it's incredibly important that this message is driven home to young people. This is a disease that young people can get. They can go into hospital, they can die from it. And I was quite concerned and I know Chris was as well, we were quite concerned by pictures circulating on social media of particularly young people at Bondi Beach, clearly not practicing social distancing, clearly gathering in large numbers. And it's incredibly important that the messaging that we are getting from Government is loud and clear and consistent, that it's targeted at relevant groups and in mechanisms and ways that they will hear and understand. And I will also flag that earlier this week I wrote to the Minister Alan Tudge, the acting Minister for Immigration and Citizenship and make clear that while Labor has concerns regarding the 1.6 million temporary migrants that are about to be trapped in Australia in terms of their access to health testing and support, we also would support the Government in sensible measures such as those implemented in New Zealand for Border Force and other authorities to conduct spot checks at backpacker hostels and other enforcement measures in relation to temporary visa holders. It's incredibly important that everyone in the community, citizen or not, complies with the health directions that we are getting. A virus does not check your visa before it infects you. The reality is the coronavirus is going to spread throughout the community and we need everyone in the community, citizen or not, complying with the health directions.

I've got Fi Whelan next on the list for questions.

JOURNALIST: Yes, yes. Hello there. I just wanted to ask what do you think of the idea of increasing Newstart as a way of helping people through this who lose their job?

BOWEN: Well, I'm happy to take that one Fi. We've consistently seen way before this crisis, that Newstart is too low and the Government needs to deal with that. Now, if anything, this crisis provides even more evidence that everything should be on the table when it comes to supporting people through this crisis, everything. And this is no longer frankly, just about stimulus. It's about ensuring people's well being through the most challenging circumstances that we might possibly begin to imagine including not only including but especially our most vulnerable. And you know, people are being put out of work already, already. Companies under great-- small business in particular under great pressure in hospitality and elsewhere, under great pressure. So, Newstart increases very much should be on the table for the Government. We would say as a principle it should have  been anyway. But let's take this crisis as increased evidence that the need for a Newstart increase is justified and urgent. 

JOURNALIST: Can i ask, are there any other-- when the Government unveils its package tomorrow, is there anything else that you would like to see in there?

BOWEN: Oh, look, we've said we will be constructive. We've said, you know, Jim Chalmers has made a series of markers, if you like, of constructive suggestions and things that we would like to see. But again, it's similar to the health challenge facing the country; If in doubt, do more. And we have said consistently what the Government's done so far, in health and in the economy is good, but not good enough.

KENEALLY: I think we've got another question from Jane Norman unless you had another question there Fi?

JOURNALIST: No, I'm good. Thank you.

KENEALLY: Jane Norman, ABC.

JOURNALIST: Thanks for taking our questions. I've just got two. The first is that we're gradually starting to see the states close either all of their borders or partially. Today Queensland closed its border with the Northern Territory. My question is whether you believe that needs to the extended where the states need to be closing the borders to basically shut down or curtail domestic travel. And the second question, if I can is just about the testing. I see the point about South Korea having a much more aggressive testing regime but given there is a worldwide shortage, where is Australia going to be sourcing these additional test kits from?

BOWEN: Well, as I said, just I'll take the second part first Jane. In relation to testing, we don't underestimate the complexity. But other countries are testing more. Now to be fair we're testing more than some other countries but other countries are testing more than us as well. So we need to be, I'd say, world's best practice. Australians deserve the best and other countries are securing the testing. South Korea has, that's as an example, a country that has really tackled this very, very strongly and is having some success, some success in very difficult circumstances. So I'm not here today to say the Government has a magic wand that they can waive and get more testing into the country. I am saying the objective of Government policy should be that every single Australian who needs a test gets a test. Not every Australian who wants a test, every Australian who needs a test, I think is a legitimate benchmark to be setting. And by that I mean, if you have symptoms, even if you have no known link with somebody with Covid-19, even if you haven't been overseas, if you have symptoms, the test should be available when it's been approved by a doctor. That should be the objective of Government policy. The Government says most of the cases we have identified are mainly because of overseas contact. I accept that's the fact based on the evidence from the testing, but the fact of the matter is, we're not testing people who simply have symptoms, who haven't been in contact with somebody-- known contact with somebody who has Covid-19 or been overseas. That means that that statement, that statement is based not on the full facts, because we're not fully testing everyone. 

In relation to domestic flights, I'll just bring you back to the principle that we've applied consistently. If in doubt, do more. Now, the Government and the state Governments have all the evidence available to them and all the data and all the legal advice about what's possible when. But we'll support any measures that are put in place if they help stop the spread of this virus.

KENEALLY: Are there any other questions?

JOURNALIST: I have another one Jen.

KENEALLY: Yes. Go ahead, Jen. 

JOURNALIST: Yep. There's a promising trial in Brisbane, some of our researches using an HIV drug and malaria drug to combat the virus and it's proving, as I said, very promising, Do you think the Government should fund this?

BOWEN: The Government should do everything possible. You know, you won't often hear me say-- I've seen with some approval what's happened in the United States and in relation to malaria drugs. But there are some without without, if you like, developing a false sense of hope and security, there are some promising signs. But much, much more work needs to be done and our Government needs to find every available opportunity as do other like minded Governments around the world. If there is a chance that an existing medicine has some benefit in this environment, which has already been tested and we know it doesn't cause harm. Of course, we need to be taking every single opportunity.

JOURNALIST: And Chris your reaction to the Government lifting the debt ceiling yesterday to $850 billion?

BOWEN: Well, I'll leave Jim Chalmers to comment on particular matters in relation to the to the fiscal situation but we've shown we've been constructive in every element. 

KENEALLY: Before we wrap this up, I just would like to know we've had some information while we've been here in this media conference. It appears the second cruise ship has been-- has been allowed to disembark passengers. Can I say I am concerned about this situation. It is an indication of the continuing mixed messages that have been sent by the Government as we work our way through this crisis. Now I understand that this crisis is complex and evolving. However last week the Government said there would be no cruise ships. We have had yesterday a cruise ship, we understand that there is, there are reports of another cruise ship being allowed to release passengers. This is a matter in which the Government needs to urgently get on top of as we are seeing people from these cruise ships testing positively and now people having to be tracked down as they spread across the country. 

This is a matter that while Border Force is responsible for checking people and releasing them, once they have checked their documentation, Border Force does not enforce the health-- They enforce the health measures, they don't design the health measures. And so this is a matter where the health advice needs to be clear and consistent and consistently applied. And Chris may want to say a bit more on this but I am concerned that the advice being provided to our Border Force officials and to the community appears to be inconsistent at this stage.

BOWEN: I'll just add very briefly because Kristina has covered the field very well in relation to cruise ships. I think all Australians will be looking at the situation very concerned as Kristina and I are, and it underlines the fact that as we've seen in relation to other matters in this crisis, consistency of communication is key and frankly, we are not seeing it. We are not seeing it. And to have-- I saw one instance today of somebody who was only notified that they need to be tested for Covid-19 when they got back to Adelaide from Sydney having got off that cruise ship, that's just not good enough. We need to have consistent messaging and we need to have consistent policy decisions being put in place. And I thought, if I might say so, I thought the prime Minister was dismissive of this issue yesterday, and, unfortunately, excessively dismissive of what is a significantly concerning event with those cruise ships, which aren't being managed anywhere near as well as they should be.

JOURNALIST: Sorry, where was the second cruise ship? 

BOWEN: We've only got information coming into us while we're holding the press conference so there is a second ship, but we'll have to, obviously, Kristina and I've just responded to events as they emerge, but I'm sure more details will emerge. But the first ship was concerning enough, even if it is only one ship, that's concerning enough.

KENEALLY: All right. Thank you very much everyone.