20 April 2020

CHRIS BOWEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Thanks for coming out today. A few things to cover this afternoon. Our firstly and briefly can I just pay my respects to those Australians of Orthodox faith who are celebrating Easter today. It's a special day right across the country for all Australians who subscribe to the Orthodox faith and regardless of what part of the world they're from it's a difficult day that people can't gather on, but a sacred day and I pay my best wishes to all Australians of Orthodox heritage today.

Two issues that I'll just deal with upfront before taking questions. Firstly we've seen today Liberal and National Party MPs saying they won't be downloading the proposed app, the COVID tracking app. I just want to say this. I think Australians have shown that they are willing and able to do what's necessary to defeat COVID-19, but Australians need a lot more information about this app.

They need to know about the transparency, the privacy, the accountability. At the moment, New Zealand Parliament has been given more information than the Australian Parliament. For this app to work and I welcome the fact that Prime Minister has now said it won't be mandatory, which is a change of position. He indicated that it may be mandatory, if not enough people downloaded it previously.

For it to work somewhere upwards from 40 per cent of Australians need to download it. Now that will require a big effort on behalf of the Government and a big effort to explain to Australians why it is necessary and what protections are in place. At the moment that effort has not been forthcoming and so in that respect, it's unsurprising that Liberal and National MPs are saying they won't download the app.

Secondly today is the one month anniversary of the Ruby Princess. What a rolling debacle which lies firmly at the feet of the Federal Government and the Minister for Home Affairs. Scott Morrison said he would stop the cruise ships and he then said what cruise ships would be docked because they had Australians on board would be under the direct control of Border Force. His words, not mine, not Kristina Keneallys, his words. Now we have one month later the Ruby Princess still here. We have the Ruby Princess with crew on board. We have the Ruby Princess which was meant to leave tomorrow. Now it appears it wont and the Ruby Princess which is responsible for 10 per cent of the cases across the country.

Now, this is a direct result of negligence by the Federal Government. The blame game between the New South Wales Government and the Federal Government and the cruise company goes on. And sure perhaps many people could have done things better, but for the Federal Government to deny the responsibility, for Scott Morrison to shrug his shoulders when hes asked about it say he's not going to answer questions about what could have gone wrong, what went wrong, what could have been done better, is arrogance beyond belief.

Australians know that this is a farce, they know it can't be allowed to continue and they want answers on the Ruby Princess one month later.

Happy to take questions and I'll go to Jean first who's here and then to the colleagues on the phone.

JOURNALIST: Okay, well I guess to the app first will you be downloading it?

BOWEN: Look my inclination would be to do whatever it takes to support the Government's efforts, but I think all Australians regardless of whether they are Members of Parliament or not deserve as much information as possible about the transparency, privacy and accountability settings of the app.

JOURNALIST: So are you comfortable about downloading it?

BOWEN: Well, as I said, my inclination would be to support the efforts by downloading the app, but I think whether you're a Member of Parliament or an ordinary Australian or any Australian you're entitled to know a lot more about this app before you're asked to download it.

JOURNALIST: What would your concerns be? Where would you draw the line?

BOWEN: Like all Australians I would look at the proposal being put forward by the Prime Minister, I'd look at the data protections, I'd look at where the data would be stored. I'd look at all that information to determine whether it was something I'd want to do. Obviously as I said, my starting position is if the Government is trying to do something positive to deal with COVID-19, we've supported that as Opposition, weve supported it as individuals, but we're all entitled to see much more detail, much more accountability. How do we know there's going to be an app? Well, we know about it firstly because the Chief Medical Officer had told the Parliament of New Zealand. Well, how about telling the Parliament of Australia as well?

JOURNALIST: Just to the Ruby Princess then before, a couple of other questions, but on the Ruby Princess. I mean isn't it too early to be saying who's to blame? Youre saying blame is you know, fairly and squarely in the Federal Government's court. We've got an independent inquiry that's been announced that we'll report within three to four months. Weve got a coronial investigation, and a police investigation separately. Should we let them take their course before we start saying who's to blame?

BOWEN: You are right to this degree, the first priority has to be those who are still left on the ship. The more than a thousand people who are left on the ship should be tested and they're going to be there our priority at the moment. But it's good that New South Wales Government has called an inquiry but we know when you ask is it too early for to determine who's to blame. Scott Morrison said cruise ships would be under the direct control of the Border Force. He said any docking would be under the direct command of Border Force, a Federal Government agency. He said it. He is accountable for it.

JOURNALIST: Can I ask about elective surgery, we have been told that it could be reopened sooner rather than later how pleasing is this news?

BOWEN: Obviously it's good news if elective surgery can be restarted it was right of the federal and state governments to cancel elective surgery, we had some concerns about how it was done, but it was the right decision fundamentally. Also I welcome the Minister's statements today that they're actively working towards restarting elective surgery obviously there's a lot of Australians who are hoping to get some electric surgery done soon, there's a lot of prospective parents who are waiting for IVF to start again, it's been deeply concerning for them. So if we are in a position where we can manage some elective surgery again, that's a very good thing which we very warmly welcome.

JOURNALIST: Does that include IVF?

BOWEN: Well that's for the Government to outline but certainly if we are able to start IVF again soon, that will be a good thing for so many parents who have been waiting so long going through so much.

JOURNALIST: The Federal Government says it's sourced 16.5 million flu vaccine doses, will that be enough?

BOWEN: Again I welcome very much the announcements made today about the flu vaccine and PPE, personal protective equipment. I've been deluged with calls about flu vaccine, about the lack of flu vaccine across the country. I've also been consistently deluged with calls about PPE shortages, obviously any positive steps there I welcome very much and congratulate the Government if they've got more of both that's very welcome. The time will come to ask whether more could have been done earlier but at this point I just very warmly welcome the announcements. There have been people trying to get the flu shot who have been failing to get it because of shortages. If that can be rectified as soon as possible that's a very good thing.

JOURNALIST: Does Labor share the US and Australian Governments concerns that World Health Organisation has been overly influenced by China during this crisis?

BOWEN: Look there's no doubt all sorts of organisations could have been could have done better during this crisis. Whether it is the World Health Organisation or governments, but withdrawing funds from the World Health Organisation now is exactly the wrong time, the wrong thing to do. We can talk about WHO governance going forward, but developing countries in particular are relying on the WHO to be properly resourced and so withdrawing that sort of funding now is a very retrograde step.

JOURNALIST; Would you support an independent global inquiry into China and the WHO's handling of the crisis?

BOWEN: Well I saw Minister Paynes comments today, and we support them. We support the fact that there should be an independent review, it's now incumbent on Minister Payne to work to make that a reality as Australia's first diplomat. I imagine and would hope that she is engaging with her colleagues to bring that inquiry about. It should be independent the WHO should feed into that enquiry, but it should be independent.

JOURANLIST: Just finally how concerned is Labor that China could use this chaotic period to increase its influence in the Pacific?

BOWEN: Well, I think the again there is a time for a discussion about the geopolitical ramifications. We've welcomed the Pacific step up but we've said more should be done. That was pre COVID-19, pre the implications of COVID-19. Of course that needs to be reviewed in light of the COVID-19 developments.

Okay, I'm going to go to colleagues on the phone now.

JOURNALIST: Is Australia right to be cautious in trusting China as we move forward and can you see our relationship with China changing dramatically post pandemic?

BOWEN: Well in relation to your question about trust, and trust in China. Trust is something which is earned and trust is something which is constantly reinforced by good actions and by full accountability. Everybody around the world would want to trust China whether that is the case or not depends on the quality of the information provided and whether it is credible and of course, we will call on the Chinese Government to be as upfront as possible at all times with the information, they're provided. Looking back yes, could China have done more in relation to accountability and transparency early in this crisis? Yes, many countries could have done more and better. And in relation to trust it is something which is not static, it's something which is earned and maintained through being truthful and honest at all times.

JOURNALIST: Do you expect the idea for an independent global inquiry to gain momentum in the international community and do you think that China will cooperate?

BOWEN: Well I really think that's incumbent on the Government to take their best endeavours to bring that about. Now Australia's one country, they can't dictate to the rest of the world, but given that the Minister has said this and we support her comments. It now can't just be a talking point. It can't be a point in an interview. It has to be made a reality. So, yes, we support it and we would certainly expect and trust that China would cooperate.

JOURNALIST: Its become apparent that Australia does not have a nationally consistent way to of reporting recovered COVID-19 patients. Theres general advice that if you had 72 hours without symptoms you are likely recovered, we are not waiting for test to see if people have cleared the virus. We dont actually know that exact figure. Is that of concern to you?

BOWEN: Well of course the more information we have the better, the more transparent the information the better, and the more accurate the information the better. Now, I've made a point of not being too critical of the Government where they are doing their best in difficult circumstances. There are things that we've said could be done better but that we've also made constructive suggestions. Now, this is a fast moving health crisis and of course if things can be improved they should be improved. Of course if things can be recorded better and tested better that should happen. But also I fully understand that the health systems across the country are doing their best in very difficult circumstances.

JOURNALIST: Just on the Ruby Princess, you've talked about how it's responsible for 10 per cent of cases. The majority of those people who are actually passengers, regardless of whether the disembarkation could have been handled differently it's likely those people were already infected, and we would have seen that huge number regardless of whether we could have stopped them from coming here. Are you concerned enough has been done to track down other COVID cases that might have been transmitted within the community from those Ruby Princess passengers?

BOWEN: That's the point, these passengers its not their fault. These poor passengers were let off the boat with no testing at all, no passport checks even and sent on their way to get onto planes, trains and automobiles back across the country to Northwest Tasmania to Melbourne to Adelaide and presumably to Perth as well. Right across the country and those people may well have been infectious as they did so. That's the very point. Of course our thoughts with the people who contracted COVID-19 on the boat, but the fact that they were allowed to move into the community with absolutely no checks, with no testing at all and at a time when they may well have been infectious is at the heart of the rolling scandal that is the Ruby Princess.

JOURNALIST: Should Australia be aiming for eradication of the virus is a possibility?

BOWEN: Oh look I think that all governments are trying to get the virus infection rate down as low as possible whether you call that eradication or suppression is an argument that academics can have. Clearly when we get to the position that the virus is clearly under controlled, then of course that is when and only when the conversation can be had about releasing the restrictions that are currently in place. Now, I fully understand and accept that eradication is a very high bar and difficult to achieve. The Government is by and large looking at the suppression model. It's up to them obviously to update the Australian people in relation to what strategy they are pursuing, but that's what they're pursued up until now and we've supported them as they do so.

Okay, we might leave it there. Thanks very much guys.