06 August 2020

STEVE AUSTIN, HOST: Chris Bowen, thanks for coming on this afternoon.

BOWEN: Pleasure Steve, good afternoon.

AUSTIN: Do you have the COVIDSafe app on your phone?

BOWEN: Yeah, I do. I do. I downloaded it the day it came out and we have supported the concept of the app. We've always said, it's up to the Government to design it correctly. But you know, we're not going to stand in the way of the app unlike some National Party MPs who discourage people from downloading the app. We constructively said, it's a good thing to download it. 6.9 million Australians have. So that's enough Australians for it to work, but it isn't working anywhere near as well as it should.

AUSTIN: Why isn't it?

BOWEN: There's been a number of problems with it. The bottom line is that we are not entirely sure. The Government will tell you that it has traced you know, lots of people, but they've been people who've been traced manually anyway. The key is how many people has the app found that the manual contact traces could find?


BOWEN: And it's a very small number, 14 in New South Wales, we believe none in Queensland, none in Victoria. Now. That means it is really adding no value. They've got contact traces, one of whom you heard from this morning, working their guts out particularly in Victoria, really tough work and -

AUSTIN: It's found no one in Victoria despite what's happening there, it's not been successfully used in Victoria.

BOWEN: That's the last update we had. And the Victorians found it so frustrating they stopped using it for a while. Again, I think people would cut the Government some slack. Fair enough, they are acting fast. But I think the key thing is to admit that it hasn't been working, and then explain why. Now there are some IT experts that have said that it would freeze after 100 contacts, and it's not many. You think how long would it take you to come across 100 people within a metre and a half. Not long, if that's true, that's a big problem.

There was an update this week, which might have solved the problem or certainly would have improved it, we certainly hope that works. But we're also concerned that many, many people would still be using the original version of it, not everybody updates their apps all the time. I know I don't always update my apps.

AUSTIN: It doesn't happen automatically.

BOWEN: Not always no and if the Government wants people to update, they really need to have that community information as well. So, again, you know, the Government says it's found these people I'm sure Stuart Robert will try and ramble with hundreds of numbers Scott Morrison did he said 'it's been involved in at that point 300 contract traces' but they are people who had already been found. Now that's like saying that was, you and I are involved in a test cricket match. We go and watch it. We're just sitting on the sidelines. Not really involved. We stay on the sidelines.

AUSTIN: My guest is Labor's Shadow Health Spokesperson Chris Bowen. This is ABC Radio, Brisbane. So the IT quirks, we've done a number of stories in the past but was not able to at the time to get any federal government rep spokesperson onto to respond. But there are problems with Apple iPhones in a particular sort of related to their brand. For some reason there were other problems. You don't think those IT quirks have actually been ironed out or fixed properly yet.

BOWEN: Not well enough, and certainly if the upgrade is what is required to fix them, it would have been better if the Government had just come out and said okay, we've got a few things wrong to start with but the upgrade fixes it please go in your app store and upgrade your apps. But they haven't done that. And it's the same as everything else. If
you don't admit a problem you can't fix it, if the government just won't, just be honest with people say the app wasn't working, then they're not going to be able to properly fix it by encouraging people to upgrade the app or update it. You know, they had choices here I don't second guess those choices, but they had choices it didn't have to be designed this way. They're also options around the Google Apple app, which was jointly developed by those two companies to avoid some of the interoperability issues. There's issues in how those systems can collaborate with each other, or don't collaborate with each other, which has stopped the app working on some occasions. I don't say this with any sense of triumph. I wish it had worked and I still hope it does, because it can play a role if it's done properly, and I certainly, let me be very clear, I certainly wouldn't encourage anybody to delete the app. I mean, it's not doing any harm. It's just not doing anywhere near enough good.

AUSTIN: It's an expensive way to not do enough good, though. Does - the federal Government's seemingly gone quiet about the app. Unless I've missed it they were advertising significantly encouraging Australians to download it.

BOWEN: Yeah. Millions of dollars on advertising.

AUSTIN: I think they've stopped that unless I've missed it, I could be wrong.

BOWEN: Certainly a lot less if at all that's right. They spent about two million developing the app but many, many more, advertising it to convince Australians to download it. And okay, yeah, we did need Australians to download it because if not enough Australians downloaded it then it clearly wouldn't work. But Australians did respond. We did,
enough of us to make it work, to get that critical mass 6.9 million Australians, is not bad. But it's still just found those 14 people - that the contact tracing app found.

AUSTIN: Now they had a contact tracer from Queensland here on the program on this radio station this morning with Rebecca Levingston and the person said, 'we think it has worked somewhere, but they haven't'. And it's very difficult to find any case of it being successful and your latest update that the Federal Labor has had, as it's been not successful at all in Queensland, not successful at all in Victoria, but has found 14 instances in New South Wales.

BOWEN: That's right. That's right. That's the best advice we have. Obviously, you know, we hope that improves, we hope it improves very much, particularly in Victoria.

AUSTIN: What should the federal Government do? I mean, a technology company was paid 3.8 million to develop it, I think the total of about 6 million, and it was also sorted out what should the federal Government do to get everyone else on it.

BOWEN: I think the first thing to do would be to be honest, so I think the ministers responsible should hold a press conference and say, here's the update, here's why it hasn't worked as well as we would like, what went wrong and fair enough. Again, I think they will cut them some slack if they were honest about that. And here is how it has improved and here's what we need you to do. And we need you to update your app. That would be, I think, the reasonable and fair approach, but they're not doing that. They just bluster through and say so it's nothing to see here, no problem that's working. Give nonsense figures about how many people it's traced when they'd already been found by the manual contact traces. So that's adding no value whatsoever.

AUSTIN: My guest is Chris Bowen. Chris Bowen is the Shadow Health spokesperson for Federal Labor. Before I let you go, I'd like to ask you about personal protective equipment. I understand hearing you recently with another journalist that you had done a bit of digging around to find out what Australia's stocks were of personal protective equipment prior to the virus. And what went wrong. Just tell me just how you see this. There's a lot of discussion now that we need to bring the tools of production back home and manufacturer essential products here in Australia, largely stemming from what nearly went wrong with PPE. What can you tell me?

BOWEN: That's right. Well, I mean, it's a very legitimate discussion we need to have as a country. We're not going to make everything here, but we need to make more things here. But we also need to stockpile, now there was a National Medical Stockpile, PPE stockpile, which is right and proper, the federal government owns PPE ready for a disaster. But as we went into this crisis we had 20 million masks. That didn't last very long. So we had a shortage of masks. There was a time when not an hour would pass when I wouldn't have an MP ringing me saying the doctors in my community, the nurses, the disability workers, the aged care workers, can't get masks, because there just wasn't enough. 20 million just doesn't last very long.

AUSTIN: We have the same calls to this station as well,

BOWEN: I'm sure I'm sure. And even worse we had no gloves, gowns, no goggles.


BOWEN: None.

AUSTIN: In our National Stockpile?

BOWEN: Correct. That's right and just a few years ago we had millions. Again, I'm not here to criticise you know, I'm not saying it's somebody's fault, I'm saying, well, let's get this right. We don't know. Let's just say we get through COVID-19. there's a, there's a vaccine soon, touch wood, all hopes on that. But let's say that we get through this. And there's another pandemic, it could be a particularly virulent fluid next year. We just don't know, this might not be the big one Steve. So we need to be taking big steps. We know that there were shortages in the stockpile. It wasn't big enough, we need to be building that stockpile. We know the international supply seizes up, again, I give the Government some credit, I give them a tick, they tried really hard to get more masks, but so was the rest of the world it was too late, you know, and most of the worlds masks are made in Wuhan in China, I mean, the supply just froze up. And so we just can't let it happen again, and the other thing we need to be doing much more of is getting ready for the vaccine. And we might have a vaccine in the next twelve months. Australia needs to be in there.

AUSTIN: And we'll be lucky if we do.

BOWEN: We will be lucky. But you know, every researcher in the world is - `there's about 200 vaccines under development in the world, we know the failure rate of vaccines is around 96 per cent. So out of those 200, a small number might work, but we need to be investing much more in those vaccines, in that vaccine development, the Government's put in 5 million dollars to the University of Queensland. Well, that's great. But the Queensland Government's done double that. So the state government's done double what the federal government has done, and other governments are spending billions, and that means they will be at the front of the queue for those vaccines. And, you know, we don't want all the vaccines in Australia, but we want our fair share. And I think the federal government needs to be doing much more now to get access to those vaccines, because if we wait until the rest of the world has done their deals and by the way they already have we will be missing out. So I think that's a failure that needs to be rectified as a matter of urgency.

AUSTIN: Have we solved the supply problem of PPE? In other words are we now manufacturing what our own country needs without having to go overseas to China.

BOWEN: It's better now but there's still a long way to go. There's been a lot of manufacturers, switch to PPE, so people used to make other things, clothes and other things have switched to masks. That's great, a very patriotic thing to do. And hand sanitizer is another example. There were big shortages of that, a lot of alcohol distillers have switched to that, so there is now enough hand sanitizer to go around, there was a shortage, people were running out of that. So again, while things are better I do think we need to be ensuring that we're better placed for the next pandemic and we don't know how long this will last. We'll be lucky if we get a vaccine. I think we will. We might not, it might take a while. A vaccine for this would normally take about 15 to 17 years to develop. They are trying to do it in one and it can't be done quicker than that because they have to test it and they have to test it on many many people. Make sure there's no side effects,

If you get side effects in just a small number of people, you know serious side effects then that vaccine is no good. They need to do lots of testing and it's going to take some time. So we've got a long way to go before we are through.

AUSTIN: Well given the normal 15 year horizon to get a successful vaccine. And given the 96 per cent failure rate of vaccines should we be planning to have - others say we're gonna have to bite the bullet - that's the wrong phrase. But either way we're going to have to live with the virus longer term find a way of actually strategically living with it. Yeah, well, we're certainly gonna have to adapt regardless. I mean, this, this virus is not defeated anywhere, until it's defeated everywhere. As long as it exists anywhere in the world. Until we have a vaccine then we are vulnerable. We've seen how easy it is for people, with the strictest border protections, how easy it is for people to sneak past or people who are sometimes asymptomatic don't know that they've got it and we know how easy it is we know how contagious it is. We know what a dangerous disease it is. And while it is rampant in other parts of the world, we have to remain on high alert.

AUSTIN: Quick question a listener wants me to ask you with the 20 million masks we had just prior to the pandemic, the listener wants to ask, there were rumours going around that they went overseas or that our PPE went overseas. Do you know anything about that?

BOWEN: There were some concerns about you know, privately held stocks being sent overseas but the National Stockpile is our National Stockpile and that went to Australians.

AUSTIN: And when the Coronavirus hit, we had no PPE gear.

BOWEN: No gloves, gowns or goggles. We did have 20 million masks.

AUSTIN: We're fixing it now. But it's still not properly fixed.

BOWEN: There's a long way to go. Again, I'm not here to say you know, this is a particular individual's fault. I'm here to say let's get this right.

AUSTIN: Thanks for your time.