17 March 2020

CHRIS BOWEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Good afternoon. As we deal with the biggest health crisis facing the nation and indeed the world in the last 102 years there's one overriding principle which should apply; we can't get to the other side of this and ask could we have done more? Could we have acted sooner? Could we have taken bigger steps? That's the overriding principle that the nation should apply, that the Government must apply and that Labor applies. That's why we've backed every single Government measure including some that were at the time controversial. We made the decision to support every single decision made by the Government but we also say let's do more. I'll just cover a few of those issues today before taking questions.

Testing. Testing is vital. We know from those countries that are succeeding in containing, turning around and stopping this virus taking hold that widespread testing is important. Of course who to test should be based on the very best medical advice. It cannot be driven by any shortages. The decision about how many tests to apply should only be driven by one factor; how many people will need them. Now I recognize this is a complicated issue. I recognize there are some international shortages. I recognize that this is not easy to fix but fixed it must be. Now the Government has indicated to us they're working on some plans with testing. We welcome that. We will await further details. Of course anything sensible to get more testing material out into the field will have our full support. But it's urgent and if more needs to be done we won't hesitate to say so.

Secondly in relation to telehealth. Now telehealth is very important. We don't want anybody who can avoid going to the doctors to have to go to the doctors. There's so much that can be done over the phone or online, on video conferencing, on Skype. The Government introduced a telehealth rebate. We welcome that. We called for it. We welcome it. But it is far too limited in scope. It only applies to people over 70, people in isolation, people who are pregnant and some sectors of the Indigenous community. It should apply to everyone. And more broadly I've been talking with doctors across the country both in person and on the phone who are crying out for more when it comes to telehealth, who also want and need the telehealth rebate to apply if they're working from home. They might be working from home because theyre in self isolation. They might be working from home to avoid the risk of infection at a doctor's surgery. They can do a lot of work from home via telehealth. That needs to be covered. It's not currently covered is what the doctors have told me. This needs to be fixed and fixed urgently. A telehealth rebate is a step in the right direction but it needs a much bigger step.

A couple of other quick issues; the Government or the APS, the Australian Public Service has today said that they will pay casuals who can't work due to Covid-19. That's a welcome development. It's a good thing. Kristina Keneally and Tony Burke raised the fact that it should apply to Border Force some time ago and had some frustrations. It will now apply across the public service. That's a good thing. We welcome that very much but it needs to apply to every casual in the country. If for whatever reason casuals can't work, if there's restrictions, if there's some reason whether they're in self-isolation themselves or their business has been shut, casuals need to be paid. It's a matter of economics, it's a matter of fairness and it's a matter of health. We don't want casuals saying Well if I get tested I might not be able to work and I'll lose my pay. We want people being tested who should be tested and paying casuals is an important part of that.

So the overriding principle is if in doubt do more. Do it early. Also inform the Australian people what your plans are. Also tell people what the trigger points are for further decisions. We all know that it's likely that further decisions will be necessary in relation to schools, in relation to broader measures. I say to the Prime Minister and to the Government and to all Governments; please take the Australian people into your confidence as much as possible. Tell them what might be needed. Tell them what might bring about those decisions. Tell them when these decisions might be made. They must of course be based on the best medical advice and there's plenty of eminent physicians in Australia giving that advice but the Australian people deserve to know. If we want people to trust the Government the Government has to trust the people with the information as well. In particular in relation to schools and the likelihood that schools be closed, I highlight again the urgent need for works to be done now to support health workers who have their children in school. We cannot afford the risk of health workers not being able to go to work because their kids school has been closed. In Norway they've closed the schools but given an instruction that a skeleton staff remain at the school for the children of health workers and essential workers. That's one way. Let's do it in Australia. Let's look after our health workers and make sure they can do what they do so well and look after us. Happy to take any questions.

JOURNALIST: Shadow Minister, would you be calling on local manufactures to start producing equipment that we usually rely on being imported from countries like China?

BOWEN: Well I'm sure that if a local manufacturer can they will and they should absolutely. Not just China but a lot of medical equipment is also made in Italy. So yes theres masks that are made in Wuhan, a lot of equipment is made in Italy and around the world and there are some international shortages no doubt about that. And its a reasonable point that if there are Australian manufacturers who can step up they need to and the Government needs to work with him.

JOURNALIST: Should the Government be bailing out airlines in the event that they fail?

BOWEN: Catherine King and Anthony Albanese have made this point. We all know how much pressure airlines are under and it's not going to get any better anytime soon. And if an airline, if an Australian airline does start to encounter any financial difficulty the Government should step in with plans. We can't afford to lose an airline in this environment. Good airlines and sound airlines but airlines around the world are doing it tough.

JOURNALIST: So the Government should be prioritising supporting airlines?

BOWEN: Well of course all affected industries but Catherine King has been correct to point to the pressure on our two airlines, our two major airlines Qantas and Virgin. Two wonderful companies whom we need to continue operating and operating strongly. I'm not suggesting that they're under any immediate threat but we all know they're under pressure and the Government needs to be ready to help them.

JOURNALIST: What are the terms of the deal with the Government about reducing numbers in the Parliament next week and is this affecting the Senate as well as the House?

BOWEN: So there have been discussions between Scott Morrison, Anthony Albanese and Christian Porter and Tony Burke and their equivalents in the Senate. I'll leave detailed commentary to Tony Burke in particular. I understand the Prime Minister made some unilateral announcements as to how Parliament will work yesterday without any consultation with the Labor Party. That's now been fixed and Mr Morrison and Mr Albanese had a discussion this morning. Mr Porter and Mr Burke have been in further discussions. I'll leave them to update the situation in Parliament. Parliament needs to sit to pass a stimulus but obviously we should sit as efficiently as possible because of the obvious health implications for all involved.

JOURNALIST: So in your opinion should Parliament cut the number of days?

BOWEN: Ideally but that's a matter for Mr Burke.

JOURNALIST: Have you agreed to the stimulus package?

BOWEN: We haven't seen it but Jim Chalmers has made clear that we would support passing the stimulus but we need to see the legislation but we're not-- we're being very constructive and you know we've said we support the measures. Indeed he said that we would indeed there should be consideration of further measures but we need to see the legislation.

JOURNALIST: So in terms of what you said about increasing testing and the pressure on supply chains. What is Labor calling on the Government

BOWEN: Well I don't want to-- I don't want to be being overly critical of the Government when I'm giving them a chance to fix it in relation to testing. I don't for one second underestimate some of the challenges. But we need more testing. I mean South Korea has been a world champion tester and that's been part of their success in dealing with this pernicious disease and we can't afford to look back and think If only there was more we could have done to get more testing. Now there are certain elements of the test which are running short and there's other elements which we have enough of. I'll engage constructively with any good idea to get that fixed. But it must be fixed.

JOURNALIST: So you also mentioned that the Government needs to be more transparent about further decisions about essential lockdowns or suspending family gatherings. So in your opinion what kind of bans on gatherings...

BOWEN: Yeah well look again I just want to make the point. Do more and do it earlier is the principle should be applied , but take the Australian people in your confidence as you go. If there are further restrictions say for example on schools, it will have a huge impact on families across the country. Now Australians are stoic, they're up for doing what has to be done but if you give people notice about what's the timeframe, what the trigger points might be to make such a decision, what measures will be put in place to support workers in essential industries I think that will make life a lot easier for Australians. And what we cant have is a last minute scramble. We can't have that. It has to be planned out and communicated to the Australian people.

JOURNALIST: Because things are changing so rapidly what do you think are the timeframe that schools..?

BOWEN: Well I'm not going to add any more detail to the answer Ive just given in that regard.

Okay thanks very much.