02 April 2020

CHRIS BOWEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Thanks for coming this morning. Of course, we are seeing some early signs of some encouraging figures in the slightly slowing growth rate of COVID-19. But there is a long, long way to go and there is no cause for complacency. We need to ensure that we're testing widely and we're gathering every case of community transmission, as well as those cases which have come in from overseas before travel bans were in place. I welcome the fact that more and more testing is now focused on community transmissions, but until that is the case we won't have a full handle on the extent of the spread of COVID-19.

We need to do two things, flatten the curve and also prepare for the peak. In that vein, we very much welcome the announcement this morning from the Government and the Chief Nurse about the extension of an invitation to retired nurses, and to additional critical care training for 20,000 nurses. These are good steps which allow full support, of course, we need to ensure the hospitals and intensive care in particular is fully staffed at the time of the peak of COVID-19. And these are sensible measures which we support. In keeping with our approach of making constructive suggestions to the Government we're also making another suggestion today.

There are, we estimate, slightly more than 1000 nurses in Australia who are international nurses, they are here on working holiday visas. Their requirements require them to go and do things like pick fruit, not to work in hospitals. In this crisis that is simply not sensible. And we do believe the working holiday visa requirements on those nurses should be waived. We need every possible nurse working in hospitals. We need every possible nurse available for the medical fraternity and medical services. And the Government recently made some changes to nursing students, international nursing students, which again welcome come but these are fully qualified nurses who we need operating.

Kristina will talk in a little more detail about how the working holiday visa arrangements we're suggesting would work. And of course she will also talk about the farce of the cruise ships and other matters present.

KRISTINA KENEALLY, DEPUTY LABOR LEADER IN THE SENATE AND SHADOW MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS: Thank you, Chris. So yes, in Australia, we estimate there are probably around 1000 nurses fully qualified, who are currently prevented from working continuously in our hospitals and what better place for a nurse than in a hospital. But due to the requirements of the working holiday visa, they are required after six months with one employer to go and work in a in a key area, most often picking fruit.

We have had stories of nurses who have been sent out of hospitals off for a three months stint to pick fruit in order to maintain their visa to be able to stay in the country. Now, there are some simple fixes to this, the kind of fixes that Government has done previously in for example, following bushfires. When it comes to temporary migrants who have skills that we urgently need. We need all hands on deck when it comes to having the medical support in our hospitals. And quite frankly, it is not in Australia's best interest if we have fully qualified nurses in our country and willing to work, in fact, many of them have been working in hospitals, who have been sent out to do other jobs like picking fruit.

Of course fruit picking is important. And there are ways that we can fill that labour gap. But when it comes to having a qualified nurse, we need a qualified nurse and if they are here in the country, we encourage the Government to make changes to the Working Holiday visas so that these qualified nurses can come and work in our hospitals.

Now when it comes to the Ruby Princess cruise ship, in fact, the four cruise ships that have appeared and disembarked their passengers, after the Prime Minister said there would be no more cruise ships. Well, we are starting to see the calamitous results of that decision to allow these four cruise ships to arrive and disembark passengers freely. We're starting to see those calamitous results unfold. Today front page of the Australian we see that a third of all the deaths that have occurred in relation to Coronavirus in Australia can be attributed to those cruise ships. We know that the Ruby Princess cruise ship now accounts for more cases of Coronavirus outside New South Wales than in New South Wales. That accounts for about 10 per cent of all cases across Australia. In fact, we also know that it accounts for about 25 per cent of the cases in South Australia. On the 15th of March, the Prime Minister stood before the nation and said that the Federal Government would not allow cruise ships to arrive. Four days later, the Ruby Princess arrived, it disembarked 2700 passengers, and those passengers have unknowingly spread the Coronavirus right across Australia. Now we welcome these border measures that have come in in very recent days, but they have come too late. They have come too late.

More astoundingly the Commonwealth Government, which is responsible for our borders at the ports and at the airports has hand balled the responsibility for quarantine measures to state governments. After trying to blame New South Wales for the Ruby Princess the Federal Government has now given New South Wales and Victoria as well as all other states, the responsibility for implementing quarantine measures at our ports, our airports and our seaports.

Now, it does lead us to ask, why has there been deafening silence from Peter Dutton? I mean, for heaven's sakes, where is Peter Dutton? We have a border security crisis on our hands and we have heard nothing from the Home Affairs Minister. Now when he was diagnosed with Coronavirus, I was one of the first to wish him well, I have wished him well in letters since then. I wish him well today. But the Minister for Home Affairs has turned up on 2GB radio, he has said that he is feeling well, he is capable of working from home. So if he is capable of working from home and continuing to do his job, it is incumbent that he stand up and explain to the nation how this border security failure occurred and what steps he is going to take to ensure that those responsibilities that have now been handed to the state governments are being implemented in a way that ensures that Australians stay as safe as possible. Stay as safe as possible when it comes to the spread of the Coronavirus.

So I look forward to Peter Dutton standing up in whatever form he can, whether it's from home, whether it's on radio, whether it's an interview through Zoom or Skype. We're all doing it now. Mr Dutton can do it, and if he's not capable of doing it, then perhaps the Prime Minister needs to look at appointing an Acting Home Affairs Minister because we are talking about nothing less than the security of our Australian borders.

We are happy to take questions. We have some media in the room and I will just say for the benefit of the media who are on the telephone, we have you here as well, I have a list. We'll start, though, with the journalists in the room.

JOURNALIST: Regarding the visa nurses idea, is something you've discussed with the Government? And is it something that they are open to?

BOWEN: Well, I hope they are open to it. We've made a series of suggestions as we've gone through this crisis, some of which have been taken up, which were very much welcome. Telehealth expansion was probably the first and most significant. We suggested amending the Health Package, they've done that. In the same vein, I would very much welcome them doing this. It's a sensible move to our way of thinking. It complements what they've already done, which we've welcomed. And it would be a very natural addition to the steps already being taken. I mean, let's be very clear. The horticultural industry is very important, and these visa arrangements make perfect sense in normal times. But in this crisis, it makes no sense to have fully qualified nurses picking fruit.

JOURNALIST: If the Government does go with that idea, how soon should these nurses, or could these nurses, be employed?

KENEALLY: They could, with the stroke of a pen, make this change this afternoon. They've done it before when it comes to after bushfires and cyclones, when we have had to make changes to working holidaymaker visas, they could do it quite quickly. And you would imagine, many of those nurses would be able to leave near-instantly and come back to the hospitals where they were previously employed.

JOURNALIST: Does this also include those people who may be qualified nurses but haven't been previously employed by NSW Health or whichever Health agency?

BOWEN: They have to be fully registered to operate in Australia. We believe there's more than 1000 who are -- who have been working as nurses. And then their time comes under the visa requirements; hospital management says to them, 'Sorry, your visa requirements require you to go now', and they have to a regional are to pick fruit. As we stress, under normal circumstances, that's a perfectly fine arrangement. As with the rules they came to Australia under, they can't go home, for obvious reasons. They're good nurses, fully qualified, fully registered, they should be working in hospitals.

JOURNALIST: Have you approached Government with this idea?

BOWEN: What we're doing is suggesting, in the same way we suggested telehealth expansion, other things, and we very much would welcome taking it up.

JOURNALIST: Can I quickly ask you another question? Today, the New South Wales Police Commissioner, Mick Fuller spoke on ABC TV about a plan that's going to begin in a couple of days before the launch of the cruise ships, which are docked off the East Coast. Although you don't seem to be in this loop, what do you think of this idea? And should the military be involved in helping out?

KENEALLY: When it comes to our borders, the responsibility sits with the Commonwealth Government and the Commonwealth Government need to get a plan in place when it comes to cruise ships that have both Australian citizens as well as foreign citizens sitting right off our coastlines. It is not appropriate to handball all of this to a state jurisdiction. Particularly to a State Police Force that has multiple other responsibilities during this extraordinary time. Now, I do acknowledge and support the measures being taken by Premier Berejiklian as well as Premier McGowan in Western Australia, who are seeking to deal with this problem. But they are right, as Premier McGowan has done, to call in the Commonwealth to come in and be part of the solution here. This will require capacity that is quite simply beyond that of any individual state jurisdiction. Okay, if I can go now to the journalists on the phone, I have Eryk from Nine newspapers.

JOURNALIST: A couple of questions. So the Chief Medical Officers appear to be backing away from publicly releasing their modelling of the virus. Should it be released and why? And, just quickly, secondly, Geoff Wilson has said capping franking credit should be considered as part of the measures to pay for the Government's stimulus package. Should the Government begin now planning for measures like this to avoid what could be decades of debt?

BOWEN: Thanks, Eryk. In relation to the first question, yes. The more information that is available to Australian people, the better. And the various modelling done by experts, Raina MacIntyre and others. If the Government disagrees with that modelling, it would be better than they released as much information as possible about their modelling and said they would. If we want the Australian people to trust governments, governments have to trust the Australian people. And, that includes providing as much information as possible, as much modelling, and data, as possible about what is coming. As I said at the outset, while some of the figures are encouraging, we have a long, long way to go. And while we're now doubling the rate, or the number, of cases every six days, on average, that will still bring enormous pressure on our Intensive Care Units until that doubling figure comes down to a much slower rate of doubling. So yes, whatever modelling the Government has, it would be better that was made available to the Australian people. In relation to the second question, I saw those comments. We're focused on the coronavirus crisis at the moment. That's our job. That's what we're focused on. All matters about other revenue measures are a matter for another day.

KENEALLY: We now have a Tegan, Network 10.

JOURNALIST: Good morning, just on the debacle of WA. Is there a solution that you favour in terms of how it should be fixed? Should crew be flown out? And also the Government is expected to announce Childcare Package today. Is a little bit too late to be announcing something like this?

KENEALLY: On the first question, regarding the cruise ships, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Home Affairs need to get on top of this situation immediately. It will require a range of measures quarantine, medical assistance, transport of people back to Australia to remain in quarantine or indeed working with foreign countries in order to transport their citizens and arrange for the transport of their citizens back to their home countries. This is not a simple problem to be solved. It is complex. It requires the Commonwealth Government, because it requires the Commonwealth Government's responsibilities at the border, the Commonwealth Government's responsibilities for biosecurity and the Commonwealth diplomatic relationships to come to the fore and be part of the solution. The question about childcare; Labor is keen to see the Government come forward with a package in relation to childcare. We are already seeing a number of childcare providers starting to shut their doors or go to extraordinary measures to try and ensure that they can keep the various subsidy and benefit schemes in place for as long as possible. We would encourage the Government to bring that forward, as we have been doing, as soon as possible. Our colleague, Amanda Rishworth, has been quite vocal on this matter, calling on the Government for clarity. We know that parents, as well as childcare providers, are desperate for this clarity from the Commonwealth Government. We have Finbar from AAP.

JOURNALIST: Good morning. Just wanted to know, with the Government's announcement today about the Intensive Care courses for about 20,000 nurses. Should this be expanded? And, is there any concern about, I guess, how good this training would be. It's hands on, you know, it's fitting ventilators. Will online courses be enough to prepare nurses for Intensive Care wards.

BOWEN: Look, Finbar, the Chief Nurse who's in charge of this process, and she wouldn't, I would have confidence she would not be putting in place a process which is not fit for purpose and providing good quality training for the circumstances. You're right, intensive care nursing is a very specialised field. Having said that, we are dealing with very accomplished nurses who are experienced and I would have confidence in whatever measures the Chief Nurse has put in place here.


JOURNALIST: Good morning just to Senator Keneally. Can I ask you about what concerns Labor has about the 16,000 Australians that flew out defying this do not travel advice that was put out by the PM on March 18? And what do you say to the suggestion, I think from Premier Mark McGowan, that they should foot the bill for the quarantine when they do come back here to Australia?

KENEALLY: First of all, on the quarantine arrangements, the Prime Minister has made clear that the quarantine arrangements including the form in which they take, where they're delivered, and the cost of that and the cost recovery of that is a matter for individual states and individual states will need to determine and explain the arrangements theyve put in place. Again, it is rather extraordinary that the Commonwealth have abdicated these border security, biosecurity and quarantine measures to state governments at a time when we face an unprecedented health and biosecurity crisis. It is the Commonwealth Government's responsibility, and yet they have handed it to the States. And each state is now scrambling, understandably so, to make those arrangements. As a former state Premier, myself, I can't even begin to imagine how much responsibility is being faced by state governments as they are contemplating the rapid rollout of ICU beds, the need to have appropriate staff, what is going on in our schools, how they are going to deploy the police force as its most effective at this time. And then to be saddled with quarantine responsibilities, with border security responsibilities, is really quite an extraordinary step for the Commonwealth to hand them that and ask them to do this. When it comes, Pablo, to the first part of your question, if you could just repeat that oh, the 16,000 people. Yes. When it comes to people who have not taken into account the travel advice, what we don't have is a breakdown for the reasons some of those people have travelled. The Commonwealth made clear that the advice not to go overseas did have some exemptions for it in terms of necessary travel that might relate to aid or charity work or for compassionate reasons. Some of those people may have actually sought to travel to countries to look after family in their home country. That being said, we encourage all Australians to take heed of the travel advice that is being provided by the Commonwealth Government. Not just in terms of now, obviously, not exiting the country but indeed we are concerned about those tens of thousands of Australians who are across the globe and unable to get home. My colleague, our colleague, Senator Wong, the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, has been actively encouraging the Commonwealth Government to make arrangements for charter flights and the like to ensure that when Australians are trapped by border closures and the shutdown of international airlines, that we are able to do as Australia, what other countries around the world are doing, and that is bring our citizens home. And lastly, I have Daniel from the Guardian.

JOURNALIST: Hello Senator Keneally, Daniel Hurst from the Guardian. I just wanted to clarify two things. One is what role if any of you see for the Australian Defence Force in helping to deal with the issue of the ship. Im obviously not suggesting that they be pushing people off, but what role do you see the ADF in resolving the situation with the cruise ships? And secondly, do you see this developing into a legal quagmire when these companies and (inaudible) with the state and federal authorities about whether they have to leave or not?

KENEALLY: From the briefings that have been provided to the Opposition, I'm aware that the Australian Defence Force does stand ready if they are called upon in a range of ways to assist not just with cruise ships, but other aspects of the coronavirus and the challenges that it's posing here in Australia. And we would encourage the Commonwealth as they're developing a plan to deal with these cruise ships to ensure that they have looked at all the possibilities including the use of the Australian Defence Force. As to the second part of your question. I think it's a bit premature for me to be canvasing as to how this might unfold legally. I think the first and the top priority right now has to be for the Commonwealth Government who are responsible for border security, who made some calamitous mistakes when they allowed the Ruby Princess and three other ships to disembark thousands of passengers without testing or quarantine measures in place, to now make sure we do not have a repeat of that. That we have a clear plan in place. That will involve working with state and territories as well as foreign jurisdictions about how we're going to deal with these cruise ships that are currently off the coast.

We cannot afford another mistake like the type we saw with the Ruby Princess. Australians lives and Australians livelihoods are at stake, and it is the responsibility of the Commonwealth to secure our borders. They need to get on top of this situation today and as I said earlier, we have a Minister for Home Affairs. His name is Peter Dutton. We have not heard from him on this issue. Where is he? What is his responsibility? And what is the Commonwealth doing to resolve these situations?

JOURNALIST: Sorry is there an opportunity for one more question?


JOURNALIST: Just Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has called for New South Wales Labor MP Shaoquett Moselmane to resign after he made comments, saying that President Xi Jinping, praising him for his unswerving leadership in handling the kind of coronavirus crisis and talking about how he had made empathetic and decisive actions. Do you agree with those comments?

KENEALLY: I haven't seen Mr Moselmanes comments in full but I have to say, I think Peter Dutton has more important things to do, than to comment on what a New South Wales Opposition State MP is saying. Quite frankly, we are having a crisis on our borders at our ports and our airports. Peter Dutton, who pops up on 2GB for his weekly chat, has not popped up anywhere else, has not put his head up anywhere else to explain to the Australian people what he is doing. What the Commonwealth are doing in order to secure our borders. I mean, this is a Commonwealth Government that says they stopped the boats. Well, they didn't stop the boat that mattered the Ruby Princess. They didn't stop the boat that mattered. Now Peter Dutton and the Prime Minister said the Commonwealth would stop the cruise ships. That did not happen. The calamitous results are being seen right across the country. And quite frankly Peter Dutton needs to stop playing political games and start dealing with the border security questions the crisis that is confronting him and the Commonwealth Government. Okay, thanks, everyone. Thanks everyone on the phone too.