16 July 2020

TOM CONNELL, HOST:Joining me now is Shadow Health Minister, Chris Bowen. Thanks very much for your time. What do you make of the eradication/elimination debate is it one that needs to be had at the moment?

CHRIS BOWEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH:Good afternoon Tom. Well, states and territories have each taken their own approach and in some states and territories most states and territories - the virus has effectively been eliminated in terms of community transmission but an aggressive suppression strategy can achieve that result. Now if you go for an explicit elimination strategy, youre really calling for a very harsh lockdown, a very tight lockdown more on New Zealand levels than what we have done in Australia. That's a legitimate discussion but we have to be clear about what the difference is between, if you like, an aggressive suppression strategy which has been the approach and an elimination strategy and there are implications for not just the economy but mental health and other aspects. If theres is an even harsher lockdown contemplated than what has been put in place so far, so for example in Melbourne, if the restrictions on leaving the house were even tighter than they had been which would be part of an explicit elimination strategy that would have ramifications for mental health and other issues.

CONNELL:Well on everything a huge impact. When you say a legitimate discussion, do you think it's one Australia should be having?

BOWEN:Look like it should just simply say people are entitled to their views. I've supported if you like going hard and early, certainly at the at the beginning of this outbreak, putting out that harsher action taken earlier in the pandemic means the restrictions can come off more quickly and we can get through it more quickly. Having said that, we have achieved good results across the country with an aggressive suppression strategy and I think an explicit elimination strategy really is if we have to be clear we have to be clear about what we're talking about there and that's really saying that the Victorian restrictions need to go further and certainly I'm not advocating that, I'm not calling for that. I understand those who do but that's not what I'm suggesting. I'm suggesting we support premiers acting as I've consistently supported all premiers regardless of state, regardless of partisanship and the sensible measures they've taken based on the best advice they have available to them.

CONNELL:So would you agree with the assessment essentially that the aggressive suppressive, suppression strategy I'm getting a bit muddled here but the one that it's shown that it can work in New South Wales and it can work in Victoria theoretically. They've had issues with implementation but it's not the strategy, it's one notation that's failed.

BOWEN:Well look that's right. Even if you had an aggressive elimination strategy, we'd still be facing the situation we are in Victoria because that's been by all evidence an issue about quarantine. Theres a judicial inquiry into that and time will tell exactly what's happened there. But based on all the evidence that this was a quarantine issue, you could have an elimination strategy in the community which still be in this situation. So in that regard let's just be clear about what this debate is about. I respect people putting the view forward. There is a balance to be struck as I said I was calling for further measures to be taken earlier in the pandemic because I thought that was the right approach and I think it was the right approach. And it does, as I said, if you taken action earlier it can come off more quickly and it can be in place for less time. But this idea of an elimination strategy we will want to see eliminated. I mean that's not what's at issue here. Everybody wants to see it eliminated. It has effectively been eliminated in the states that aren't New South Wales and Victoria by all evidence so far. But if you are going to have an explicit elimination strategy you're really saying we need lockdowns which go further and harder than what is in place in Melbourne at the moment and I'm certainly not advocating that.

CONNELL:So what do you make then of those states you're talking about South Australia, Tasmania, to an extent WA given a lot of their cases are in quarantine, they have zero or near zero cases. They're still keeping the borders up to all of New South Wales. Is that actually theyre going for eradication and that could damage the rest of the nation's economy? Borders do affect the whole nation?

BOWEN:No I wouldn't put it that way. Again I've supported those premiers who've taken the tough decision to take a cautious approach to their borders. Ive supported all of them. I thought it was particularly unfortunate that Annastacia Palaszczuk came in for some partisan attacks from not only her State Opposition counterparts but also the Federal Government. I don't think she has been proven wanting in that decision. It's been vindicated frankly her caution has been vindicated. Imagine if she had opened the borders and Queensland was now dealing with an outbreak from Victoria. I think she would have regretted that. She's taken a cautious approach, as has Mark McGowan, as has Steven Marshall, as has Peter Gutwein and I've supported all of them in that approach of course again we all want to see the borders open as soon as it's safe to do so. Public health comes first. Even in the case of my own community in Western Sydney, I pointed out yesterday with the Queensland Government declaring Liverpool and Campbelltown a hotspot. The people in the communities I represent the community next to Liverpool you know we're very close to each other, people in western Sydney understand that public health comes first and that tough decisions are necessary. So I think where a premier makes those calls, they deserve the support of all who are interested in public health.

CONNELL:And look they're getting the support. I just wonder though whether there could be some more honesty if nothing else. If you've got states where theres zero COVID and they want at least two weeks plus of zero community transmission in other jurisdictions they let in, that's an eradication policy or elimination, isnt it?

BOWEN:Well look I think it's a policy of keeping the results theyve already very achieved. It's quite different to arguing for harsh lockdowns

CONNELL:- But its keeping it to zero which is eradication.

BOWEN:Yeah and as is a prudent and cautious thing to do. If you've got zero cases, you're hardly going to make a decision to import more as a matter of policy. You are going to wait until you've got some evidence that you can safely open the borders. That's what each of those premiers have done and I think it's been the appropriate response for each of them.

CONNELL:Anthony Albanese said over the weekend he wouldn't be surprised if there was some sort of federal inquiry into the handling of COVID-19. This Labor think this needs to happen?

BOWEN:Look I think at the appropriate time yes it would be appropriate to have some sort of review. We will obviously make appropriate consideration to that. We've been very constructive, we've been concentrating on giving support where we can, holding the Government to account where we must like we have on the app in recent days for example. But of course that's a legitimate discussion to be had in due course.

CONNELL:What would it be, a Royal Commission?

BOWEN:Well look I'm not here to make a policy announcement on your show Tom. I agree with that Anthony Albanese said. And of course this has been a very big issue facing the country and of course there should be consideration given to appropriate reviews when the time is right.

CONNELL:All right. Now the COVIDsafe app. You've criticised the Government for not waiting for the Google and Apple style apps. The Government has said it doesn't want to outsource the apps to those companies because it wants to keep control of the information. Isn't that the right approach?

BOWEN:Well Tom let's be clear about what we said about the app. We've given support to the concept of the app unlike the National Party. We were very supportive. We encouraged Australians to download it. We made the point that we've downloaded it. We didn't play the spoiling game that some Government MPs have played. We're also going to call it as we see it. The fact of the matter is the app is not playing a role in the outbreaks in Victoria and New South Wales. It hasn't found a single contact trace which wasn't already detected via manual trashing. The Prime Minister is being quite disingenuous and frankly dishonest when he says it's involved in 200 cases. As my colleague Tim Watts pointed out, saying it's involved is like saying he's been involved in a cricket test match because he's watching it. It's just simply not playing a role and we have to call it out. It has not worked and Im not the only one saying it

CONNELL:Im trying to get to the reasons behind it.

BOWEN:So there has been a whole range of reasons.

CONNELL:The Government has said if you adopt the Google/Apple apps or outsource you also outsource control of the data. Would you agree that we should avoid doing that?

BOWEN:Well what I've said is it's a matter for the Government to design it. They've made the decision not to wait for the Google/Apple app. Other Governments around the world have made different decisions to that of some other Governments have started go down the road developing their own app and then not done that and they've gone for waiting for the Google/Apple app because it doesn't have those interoperability issues that this app clearly has and that's been part of the issue. The one thing I know is it's not the Australian people's fault Tom. I mean the Government asked the Australian people to download it. More than six million people have downloaded it. They were told it was the sunscreen. They were told it was the bee's knees and the key to recovery to getting out from under the doona and simply we're calling it out as it is, that that's just not the case.

CONNELL:I understand what youre saying and the efficacy of it seems to be extremely underwhelming. But I'm asking about the reasons behind it. Again

BOWEN:Well the Government's has to explain why this is..

CONNELL:Well this is, what the Government is saying. This is the explanation though so..

BOWEN:With respect Tom, the Government is claiming that it is working. I mean I've given them plenty of slack in this crisis. Ive given them plenty of benefit of the doubt. They're saying it's working, the Prime Minister said its involved in 200 contact tracing. I mean I think the Australian people deserve honesty and you can't have a debate about why the apps not working if you don't accept its not working. The Government hasnt accepted it's not working. They haven't been honest with the Australian people. If they just went out and said Yep okay we accept it it's not working as we said it would I'd give them at least some points for honesty but they're not doing that. If you accept that fundamental premise then you can get on to the conversation about why its not working, what could've been done differently but if you dont accept the fundamental premise.

CONNELL:Ill accept that it doesnt seem to be having a big role and now I'm putting this to you that outsourcing the data might not be the best option if you have to go that way. It might work better with a Google/Apple app but you'd lose control of the data would you agree with that or not.

BOWEN:Well there's always a balance to be struck there including the privacy ordata protection. I haven't said that the Government should do Google/Apple I've just simply pointed out that they've made a decision not to. They've had all the information available to them and they have to justify the decisions they've made. We've supported the app, we werent consulted about the detailed design. I wouldn't expect to be, to be frank but that's a decision they've made. They're accountable for it and it would be best if they were just upfront and honest about it and say Yeah we said it would work it hasn't worked and now we have to work out why. But they're not accepting the fundamental core principles

CONNELL:Just finally, you've had a push to list the migrant drug Emgality on the PBS. The Minister has indicated that this particular medication hasn't met all the legal requirements. Is there an issue here thats holding it up?

BOWEN:No. The issue that's holding it up is Greg Hunt. I mean there are 400,000 Australians who suffer chronic migraine. He has a recommendation from the PBAC to list the drug. It's been now more than 12 months. He claims to list every recommendation made by the PBAC. He doesn't and he hasn't in this case. He's completely wrong and he misled Parliament when he said he is obliged by law to accept every recommendation or every element to the recommendation of the PBAC. That's just not right. Ministers for Health haven't accepted every single element of the recommendations from the PBAC including his good self. He knows that that's wrong because he hasn't done it in other instances. Get on with it.

CONNELL:- delays on things arent there?

BOWEN:Well there's 400000 Australians who suffer chronic migraines Tom and that deserve better than this from this Minister. And he talks a big game when it comes to PBS listings, he beats his chest and says he will always list them. Well he hasn't. He's let down the 400,000 Australians who suffer from chronic migraine. I've met people whose lives have been transformed by these drugs. They've had migraine for 25 years and they take the drugs and they stop. Well surely those Australians who can't afford the drugs deserve to have them listed on the PBS when it's been recommended by the PBAC.

CONNELL:All right. Chris Bowen, we'll have to leave it there. Thank you.

BOWEN:Good on you Tom.