BILLS - National Health Amendment (COVID-19) Bill 2021 - Second Reading

BILLS - National Health Amendment (COVID-19) Bill 2021 - Second Reading Main Image

I of course agree with the National Health Amendment (COVID-19) Bill 2021. I would like to say at the beginning that the smooth-tongued member for Goldstein has at least conceded that there have been significant delays in our vaccine rollout. That has been a very important factor in the outbreak we are facing in New South Wales—together with the failure of the hotel quarantine system. But my main concern with the so-called national plan and the Doherty modelling is that not enough is being done to protect the most vulnerable. For example, the vaccination rate in our Indigenous population in far western New South Wales was less than eight per cent, which is a huge problem when you consider the vulnerability of those communities.

I also believe that not enough is being done to protect other vulnerable people, those at higher risk, people who are immunosuppressed. That includes people who are pregnant and people who have some of the chronic diseases that we see, such as lupus and other inflammatory diseases, who may be taking immunosuppressant medication. My concern with the Doherty modelling is that, unless we protect the most vulnerable, we are at risk of seeing a significant difficulty in controlling any outbreak that occurs. That will put our health systems at extreme risk. In my electorate of Macarthur, the main hospital is Campbelltown Hospital. It is now inundated with COVID-19 patients in the respiratory wards, in the COVID wards and in intensive care. And the main teaching hospital in the area, Liverpool Hospital, is, I would say, past capacity with COVID-19 patients. Unless we are able to control outbreaks when they occur, which depends on a very well-organised and quick testing regime and very good contact-tracing regimes, the Doherty modelling is less successful. And that is going to be a major difficulty for the high-risk areas.

I just wanted to say those things to begin with. I appreciate that the member for Goldstein has concerns about the perhaps not-so-obvious effects of the response to COVID-19—the lockdowns et cetera. I'm well aware of that. And I agree totally with the member for Dunkley that the suspension of BreastScreen in New South Wales is a major concern. I think that should be reconsidered on an urgent basis, because people do need to have mammograms performed. I think just because we're in the middle of the pandemic and an outbreak in New South Wales it does not mean that we should suspend BreastScreen and other specialised screening processes.

We support this bill of course, because it does provide the government with the ability to urgently acquire some of the drugs and some of the other treatments that are required for our response to COVID-19. I want to say that part of the reason that we're in this situation in New South Wales, with this huge outbreak—of over 1,000 cases again today—is because the vaccine rollout was very sluggish. The reasons for that, I think, are pretty obvious. I think all of us were a little lulled into a false sense of security because we'd done so well with the alpha variant, the original variant, and I think that the government didn't see this as an urgent priority.

They made mistakes with vaccine procurement—I think because they were fixated on local manufacture and they shouldn't have been. The University of Queensland vaccine, because it caused false positives to a number of conditions, including HIV, was impractical to use, so that couldn't be used. CSL produced the AstraZeneca vaccine in Melbourne, which I think initially gave the government perhaps an overly optimistic idea about how quickly those vaccine doses could be rolled out. And the government did not procure enough vaccine doses of the messenger RNA vaccines, which have proven so successful overseas—the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine. There are other vaccines becoming available. The Novavax vaccine, which is a simple protein vaccine, will become available later in the year, but, again, that has been a little delayed. So, there were difficulties with vaccine procurement, and the member for Goldstein has conceded that.

Over and above that, the government has also failed on a number of other issues. I've made the point about the government not calling out those on the very conservative side of politics such as the member for Hughes, Senator Rennick and others, including a previous member of this House—Clive Palmer—who are spreading false information in our population, increasing vaccine hesitancy and delaying uptake of the vaccines. That's been going on for a long time. This government has failed to call them to account, and that's part of the price we're now paying for being so slow in the vaccine rollout. It's ramping up now, which is good, but there are still difficulties with the vaccine uptake and still difficulties with people obtaining the vaccines that they need. For example, my daughter showed me recently a text message from Central Sydney Area Health Service saying that there are over 100,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine available through the Central Sydney health district and to come and get it if you want to get it. Yet I know people in my electorate, which is in south-west Sydney and is one of the areas of interest, can't get access to the Pfizer vaccine. That includes some people who are at risk, including pregnant women. So there is a real problem with the chaotic nature of the vaccine rollout.

I would also suggest that the government has been tardy in obtaining supplies for some of the other medications that are used to treat COVID-19. In particular, there's a medication, a monoclonal antibody, called tocilizumab, which is what is called an interleukin-6 inhibitor, and this is part of the inflammatory cascade that occurs with inflammatory processes such as COVID-19, but it's also used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, including juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Many of the rheumatologists who see these people who have severe rheumatoid arthritis have been told that tocilizumab is in such short supply that Australia might run out in the next month or two. And this is one of the treatments that's used in the management of severe COVID-19, for people who are in intensive care on respirators, and yet Australia could run out because this government has not procured enough supply of tocilizumab. I believe also there are concerns about possible shortages of other medications such as remdesivir, which is an antiviral drug which has some effect in severe COVID-19. So I'm worried that this government has not procured enough supplies of those medications that we know will help. They are also very cheap medications. Dexamethasone, which is a steroid, is used for severe COVID-19. Luckily, we have plentiful supplies of that. It's a cheap medication and readily available.

But there are also emerging medications, including some of the other monoclonal antibodies, that are used to treat severe COVID-19. I just hope the government has procured supplies or supply agreements for some of these new treatments. One that they have secured some supplies of, but I'm not sure that it's enough, is the Regeneron CoV multiclonal antibody mixture. I think we need to be very careful about that and make sure we have enough. There are some emerging antiviral medications produced by some of the major pharmaceutical companies, but it is unclear whether the government has procured enough.

The other thing I would suggest the government has also done very, very poorly is the messaging about COVID-19 treatments, particularly about the treatments that don't work. We hear a lot from some members of this place and other people about things like hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin et cetera. It is quite clear that these medications do not work in severe COVID-19, and neither do they work as preventatives, yet this government has done nothing to show people how poorly they work—in fact, how they don't work—and the side-effects that they can cause. There are a number of studies now that have shown that they don't work, yet we allow the member for Hughes, the member for Dawson and others to spread this absolute rubbish that people hang onto, because people want simple treatments that work. Of course they want them. The British Medical Journal, one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world, has concluded:

… research related to ivermectin in COVID-19 has serious methodological limitations resulting in very low certainty of the evidence, and continues to grow.

It concluded that it doesn't work. The use of ivermectin is not at this time recommended in any way for COVID-19. The FDA in America has said the same thing. We have a lot of false prophets out there, such as Professor Thomas Borody, who, as far as I can see, has never treated a case of severe COVID-19, talking about protocols using ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, amongst other things that don't work, but this government has done nothing to inform the Australian population about how poorly they work. I will finish on that note.

Of course we need to support this bill, but I do have major concerns about the government's procurement policy and their lack of transparency, and I am worried about the outbreak in New South Wales and the pressure it is putting on our health systems and our supplies of medications that are used to treat severe COVID-19.