03 February 2021

I rise to speak on the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (2020 Measures No. 2) Bill 2020. This bill amends the Therapeutic Goods Act to make a number of changes to the regulation of medicines and medical devices in Australia, especially during a pandemic. Before I get into the detail of the bill I want to take a moment to thank all the health professionals who have worked, and continue to work, so hard as we deal with the COVID pandemic. To the doctors, the nurses, the pharmacists, the carers: you stood in pouring rain, blistering heat and fume-filled car parks testing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Australians for COVID. To the pathologists who worked around the clock to get those tests out and to those wonderful people at the TGA who've been working incredibly hard as well: you are the reason that Australia has fared so well.


The bill's main provisions are to facilitate the importation of COVID-19 vaccines to Australia. This is the most pressing matter in the bill, as it deals with the labels that will be affixed to the bottles of the different COVID-19 vaccines.


The bill will also allow pharmacists to substitute medicines where certain shortages arise. Medicine shortages, as we heard from my good friend the member for Macarthur, are increasingly common. Around 150 a month are now reported to the Therapeutic Goods Administration. This bill would allow the minister to declare a serious shortage of a particular medicine, the medicines that can be dispensed instead and the circumstances in which substitution is permitted. As the member for Macarthur has pointed out, medical shortages have been happening since long before COVID, and this is a well-overdue measure.


Finally, the bill will facilitate a unique device identification database for medical devices. Under the status quo, there is limited collection of data on medical devices that have been implanted in patients. This means patients can't be contacted, let alone treated, in the event of safety issues down the track. There have long been calls for the creation of an essential database or registry to address this issue, including by a Labor-led Senate inquiry in the last parliamentary term. The bill allows the making of regulations to establish such a system but it doesn't directly establish one.


Labor will be supporting this bill. But, as the member for Hindmarsh has noted, there is no bigger task for 2021 than the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. The enormity of the logistical challenge involved in undertaking as many as 50 million to 60 million vaccinations over the coming months is really something. Labor wants this to work. We need a successful vaccine rollout that allows people to get back to work, not have to worry about border closures and see an end to the lockdowns, but we're worried that the Prime Minister has already fallen into his old trap of overpromising and underdelivering. The PM's track record isn't pretty. Throughout the pandemic the Prime Minister has failed in the two areas the federal government is responsible for: aged care and quarantine. The rest of the time he has hidden behind the incredibly good work of state premiers, taking credit when it goes well and getting his attack dogs out when things get tough. As a Victorian I was outraged to sit in this House and listen to the attacks on the Victorian Premier. In our state we worked so hard—so hard—to control the outbreak of COVID and we were successful. We were actually the envy of the world with regard to how we managed that, yet here in this House, my state—the people of Victoria and our Premier—was heartily attacked. And I find it galling when the Minister for Health and Aged Care stands here in this House and takes credit for the incredibly good outcomes from exactly the same measures that earlier were being attacked in this House.


There are three clear paths to delivering a successful vaccine rollout, and Labor will be putting some questions to the government on these points. There's the issue of vaccine supply—that is, getting enough vaccines to Australia to cover the whole population. There are the logistics of the rollout, and there's ensuring that Australians get clear, fact based information that is scientific and backed in by the experts. As an opposition member and as a nurse—and I'm proud to say that I'm still registered as a nurse—it's obvious to me that we already need clearer answers from the government on some of these points. These are important issues. The community needs to have confidence that the vaccine rollout is going to operate in a smooth, timely and effective fashion.


On the first point—the supply of the vaccine—the Prime Minister has already overpromised and underdelivered. Despite his promises that we were right at the front of the queue, Australia signed our first deal a full six months after other countries started securing theirs. We understand that there are emergencies, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, at levels that, luckily, we're not experiencing here in Australia. But tens of millions of people around the world have already been vaccinated—in countries like Israel, which has vaccinated one-third of its whole population.


The Prime Minister has promised to vaccinate four million Australians by the end of April and all Australians by the end of October. Despite these promises, though, it's unlikely that we will see even half the number of doses required to do that in this country by the end of March. We're still not clear when the Pfizer vaccine and the importation of the AstraZeneca vaccine will be delivered.


We also need more information about whether the government should be pursuing more vaccine deals to diversify the supply of vaccines. Currently, Australia has secured three vaccine deals—far fewer than other countries. To quote Steven Hamilton, an assistant professor of economics at George Washington University, and Richard Holden, a professor of economics at the University of New South Wales Business School:


You could be forgiven for thinking that three or four vaccines would be sufficient. But amid a pandemic that has claimed millions of lives and trillions of dollars of global economic output, you'd be wrong. By a lot.


They go on to say:


We recently failed to reach an agreement with Moderna. It's hard to conceive of any terms they might demand that we shouldn't be willing to accept—


given the stakes. And, they say:


… we seemingly haven't tried to secure any agreement with Johnson and Johnson.


Meanwhile, the US government recently secured an additional 100 million Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.


So I ask those who sit opposite: please, do more to secure enough vaccines, and soon.


As a nurse, I am particularly focused on the logistics of the rollout. I know what has to happen on the ground. It is a huge challenge. While I know our wonderful public healthcare experts are up to the job, I hope the government is putting every effort into working with them and listening to them—hearing what they need on the ground to make this work.


Two early signs worry me. Firstly, there's the proposed single entry point—the online data entry point which will be required for people to make an appointment to receive their vaccinations. That is an online booking tool for people to secure their jab. Three weeks out from the launch of the vaccine rollout, we are yet to see any details of this tool. Is this going to be another COVIDSafe app debacle? We hope not. And can you imagine our elderly having to use a computer to book their vaccine? Under the government's current plans, not every GP will be participating in the vaccine rollout, and it would be a natural assumption for many, especially our elderly and vulnerable, that, to get that vaccine, they'd just ring their GP and book in. But for many, of course, this won't work. General practitioners have already raised this as an early issue.


We're also incredibly concerned about the plans to vaccinate residents in our aged-care facilities. After watching the federal government's failures in aged care during the pandemic, I hope they're putting every effort into ensuring the rollout goes well and that they know exactly what they're dealing with. It has to be thoroughly thought through. There are key issues like informed consent, especially for people with dementia.


Can we trust the government with this kind of complexity? We want to work with the government to make sure that they are covering off every single angle necessary, because we support this bill and we want the vaccine rollout to go well. But the government's broader pandemic response needs to not only be based on science; it has to defend the science and actively counter those disinformation campaigns, including against the TGA, that risk public health and that are emanating from the government's own ranks.


It's why the whole member for Hughes debacle is just so disappointing and worrying. Yesterday I was gagged in this House for calling him 'a dangerous fool', but I stand by that term and I stand by my comments that a real leader would have dealt with him by now. He's a menace to this vaccination program and, as a direct consequence, a menace to the health of all Australians—


In fact, the PM said the member was doing a fantastic job. But he is undermining the advice of our public health experts, including the Chief Medical Officer, and he's undermining confidence in the vaccine campaign. He's engaging in systematically undermining confidence in our medical and scientific institutions. He's accused the Chief Medical Officer and chief health officers of 'crimes against humanity'. He's engaged in conspiracy theories about big pharma, and we heard the member for Gellibrand express his concern about the member for Hughes's Facebook page and the quantity of misinformation on there—that it's all a conspiracy and the vaccine is merely there to make money for big pharma. He pushes on about his remedies, like hydroxychloroquine.


We also saw the polling research out yesterday, from both Newspoll and Essential, reminding us of the challenge in making sure that as many Australians as possible are willing to take up this voluntary vaccine. Newspoll, for example, showed that only 75 per cent of Australians intend to take up the vaccine, and that rate is lower among some groups, as we heard—the 36 to 45 age group. That's why Labor has supported the government's information campaign, but it makes no sense that the Prime Minister would refuse to pull the member for Hughes into line for undoing all the good work they are trying to put into that information campaign.


The Australian community expects the opposition to work as constructively as we can with this government, and we will and we have consistently done so throughout the pandemic, and our approach to this bill and to the vaccine rollout will be no different. We want it to be the best rollout possible, so we will continue to push the government in areas where we have concerns, we will continue to push the government on issues of accountability and we will make sure that we can give Australians confidence in the vaccine and its rollout program.