27 April 2020

FRAN KELLY, HOST: Chris Bowen is the Shadow Health Minister. Chris Bowen welcome back to Breakfast.

CHRIS BOWEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Good morning, Fran, good to be back.

KELLY: Can I ask you have you downloaded the app? And are you encouraging others to do so?

BOWEN: Yes, I have downloaded the app, downloaded it last night, along with many other Australians. We've always said this app could play an important role, a constructive role, part of our response to defeating COVID-19. Of course, there are legitimate concerns to be worked through that many Australians would have. But it is ultimately a personal decision as to whether you download the app or not. I have, my family has, because I think it's Australians have shown that they do want to do what it takes to help defeat COVID-19 and downloading the app can be a part of that if people are comfortable.

KELLY: Early uptake numbers are promising, as you mentioned, but the scheme only works if people trust the Government with their private information. Now, in more recent times, we've had the experience with MyHealth and the metadata regime where people with MyHealth particularly didn't have confidence, it took a lot to get it anyway. Do you see enough people having confidence in the Government and the way personal data is managed to put their faith in the app?

BOWEN: Well, international evidence does suggest that we need 40 to 60 per cent of people to download the app for it to be truly effective. Now, of course, you know, of course, any number of people signing up the app does help, but to get the critical mass to be truly effective. They're the sorts of numbers we're looking at. And yes, you do point to a pretty poor track record in the past by the Government on data issues, and that has led to legitimate concerns. Hence, we do think it's appropriate that there be legislation, and we encouraged Government to do that. And the Government is doing that, there will be legislation introduced when we sit on May 11. It's certainly the view of Mark Dreyfus and I that we would recommend to the Shadow Cabinet and the caucus based on everything we know, we haven't seen the legislation yet. But based on everything the Government has told us publicly and privately, that we would support that legislation because that will help provide some reassurance to people.

Also, we suggested to the Government that the legislation and the privacy elements of the app be referred to the Senate Select Committee looking at COVID management, which is being chaired by our colleague Senator Katy Gallagher. I appreciate the fact that the Government has accepted that recommendation and that will be referred to the Katy Gallagher COVID-19 Select Committee, to enable before the legislation is considered by the Parliament, a hearing for people to express concerns, for experts to give evidence and for those issues to be properly aerated before the Parliament. That's a good sign Fran, that things are working the way that it should, between the Government and the Opposition on things like this, to have a suggestion from the Opposition that it be referred to a Senate Committee, that suggestion accepted by the Government, and for those issues to be worked through.

KELLY: Do you have any concerns at all the app is being released now, and yet Parliament is not back for a couple of weeks? And do you think people might be worried about that because the Minister's assurances that this is quote probably the safest data that's ever been provided anytime in Australian history - do you accept that guarantee?

BOWEN: Ultimately, Fran, it's a matter for the Government when and how to introduce the app. There's questions about the timing. There's questions about the form of the app, whether it would have been better to wait for the Google/Apple App, for example. These are all legitimate questions. Ultimately, that's a matter for the Government. All we can do as Australians just respond to what's put before us and I responded by downloading the app. That's my response.

KELLY: So you have confidence in this privacy access?

BOWEN: Look, I think on balance given the size of the challenge before Australia, and given the opportunities available to Australia, if we can defeat COVID-19 on balance, that's a decision I am personally comfortable to make. That's a decision that as far as I'm aware, all the Labor MPs are making. I've seen a number of Labor MPs say they've downloaded the app, the only MPs I've seen say they are not downloading the app are Liberal and National MPs. But certainly that's the approach we're taking to provide as much constructive engagement as we can. Ultimately, there are matters before the Government which don't require legislation which, in and of itself doesn't require legislation. The Government has done it, and they're entitled to do it. It's a legitimate function of Executive Government to do it. We've suggested legislation would be appropriate to ensure one, that it's truly voluntary, that you know, there can't be any requirements on people to do it, to become a customer or employee of any particular body. And secondly, that the information can only be accessed very genuinely by state health officials for the purposes of contact tracing. Now, we're told that's what the legislation will do. And on that basis, if that's what the legislation does, then certainly we would support it.

KELLY: Just one more question on this, the source code the Government has said that it would release the source code so people could sort of, you know, who know about these things could deconstruct it, have a look at it, check the privacy arrangements and guarantees. That's been put off, quote, subject to final advice from cyber security agencies. Will you insist that we do see that source code made public Do you have concerns about that?

BOWEN: Look it is important it is made public. Now I understand the Government is currently going through the process of working out how much of the source code they can release without undermining the security of the app. And they say that if they release it all, it could actually be counterproductive. It could actually undermine the security of the app and undermine the privacy provisions. They want to release as much of it as is sensible, I'm prepared to take the Government on good faith on that. That that's what they're working through. Of course, it should be released. But if they need a little bit of time to sort that through and work out how much they should release, I'm prepared to give them that in good faith because that's the process they say they are undertaking.

FRAN: If there is a strong update uptake, it should expedite the lifting of social and economic restrictions. Basically, the Prime Minister says that that's the deal. And restrictions will be reviewed by the National Cabinet on the 14th of May, I think in three weeks time anyway. But the all important effective reproduction rate the REF is already below the crucial threshold of one and has been for a while now, which means the active number of cases in this country should continue to fall. Do you think National Cabinet should be following WA and Queensland and start lifting some of the social distancing rules very soon, even if we start off slow and cautiously?

BOWEN: Slow and cautious is the right approach. Fran, there's a, there's a balance to be struck here. Of course, we all want restrictions to be released, as soon as it is safe to do so. We all want that. Absolutely. But also, there is a risk which Governments are acutely aware of that if you rush, then you will see a second wave and you'll have to slam the brakes right back on. And in fact, sign them on more harshly than you did to start with. And that would be bad for the economy, of course. So while say release everything now it's better for the economy. I think they're, they're under estimating the risk involved in having to come back and slam the brakes on again.

So obviously, we support a sensible approach, rational approach of cautious relaxation when and where the medical evidence allows that to be considered. I think that's what state governments are doing. They'll be at different points on that because there are different elements of community transmission, concerns in different states. But a slow and cautious approach to those relaxations is sensible. We all want to say them lifted Fran, nobody more than me, and nobody more than the Opposition, but it's got to be done sensibly and carefully. And we'd certainly support that being the case, we're not going to play politics and say, you know, release this quicker, do that quicker, that would be irresponsible. The appropriate thing to do is for federal and state governments to cooperate on a sensible relaxation, when and where recommended on all the available scientific and medical evidence and to proceed cautiously.

KELLY: The Business Council Australia has released some modelling today that shows if the lockdown extends to six months, which is the original period we were told of, the hit to the economy would be around 400 billion dollars. It's obviously a huge amount of money. You know, given your determination there that health trumps the economy, it nevertheless brings the economic damage or potential damage into sharper focus.

BOWEN: Can I just stop you there Fran, I don't accept that health trumps the economy. It's the same question. What is ultimately best for Australia's health outcomes, is also ultimately best for Australia's economic outcomes. I don't accept this dichotomy. As I said before, if we release these restrictions too quickly, and we have to slam the brakes back on, that is terrible for the economy as well. So of course, the economy is a very important consideration. But to my way of thinking and to the Labor Party's way of thinking, they are the same consideration. It is the same question before decision makers. I don't accept that there's some sort of trade off here that, 'oh, well, we'll go with health and the economy. we'll forget about that'. Because ultimately, it is the same decision metrics which you're looking at when you're making these calls.

KELLY: Okay, what about getting kids back to school? It's obviously an important prerequisite to reopen the economy properly. And there's new evidence today this new report or evidence that shows transmission rates from students to teachers and to each other is extremely low. Do you think the states like Victoria in particular, and the ACT, which are saying schools will be closed for term two, do you think they should think again?

BOWEN: Well Fran I think premiers and education ministers can, must and will be guarded by the best medical advice. And can I say I've been disappointed -

KELLY: But is it the best medical advice from the Commonwealth or the best medical advice from the states?

BOWEN: Their own medical advice. I've been disappointed to see federal cabinet ministers falling over themselves to criticise state governments, which I think undermines the process here. State governments are responsible for schools, they are considering the best advice available to them. I live in New South Wales, and I'll be guarded by the loss of the Liberal Premier Gladys Berejiklian about my kids. When she says it's safe to go back to school and appropriate to go back to school on a staggered basis. That's the approach my family's been taking. I'll be guided by my state premier who happens to be a Liberal state premier. I think it's disappointing that federal cabinet ministers including education minister Dan Tehan and Peter Dutton have been falling over themselves to engage in some sort of culture political war against state education ministers. Everybody's trying to strike the right balance here. I'm happy to be guided by my state Liberal government here in New South Wales. I think others would do well do also allow their states to make the decisions they need to make on the best advice available. I don't think there's a premier or education minister in Australia who wouldn't want to see schools back tomorrow if they could. But they are also not going to risk the sort of things we talked about earlier of a rash relaxation against medical advice which sees us coming back and having to be harsher later.

KELLY: Chris Bowen, thank you very much for joining us.

BOWEN: Good to talk to you as always Fran.