Therapeutic Goods Amendment (2020 Measures No. 2) Bill 2020 Second Reading

February 03, 2021

It is a pleasure to speak on the amendment to the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (2020 Measures No. 2) Bill 2020, which was moved by the member for Hindmarsh. I very much look forward to working with him as our health and aged care shadow minister. I note his comments about the Therapeutic Goods Administration. It's an agency that we and the community need to have confidence in, and we need to defend its independence and make sure that it is able to stay independent and separate from political influences. I'll come to that mater later in my contribution. Of course, we have said that we'll support this bill, but there are some matters I'd like to speak about. I want to start with the COVID-19 vaccine, one of the measures in this bill.

Australians can be very proud of how they have responded to the pandemic. Their discipline and their willingness to comply have made it possible for us to be guided by science, knowing that people will, by and large, be willing to take the steps that are needed. There's no doubt that the majority of people I speak to have a huge desire to see the vaccination rollout get underway. It is vital that this rollout is done efficiently and fairly. I think we all recognise the absolute challenge of rolling out a vaccination program such as this on such a huge scale. We're not alone in facing this challenge; we're watching countries all around the world grapple with it. We are talking about 50 to 60 million vaccinations over the next six to eight months, depending on how quickly this can be done. This will obviously be made more challenging because you will need to have two doses of the Pfizer vaccine—and we need to see what other vaccines ultimately become available—so it's not going to be just one visit to a nurse, a doctor or a pharmacy; it's going to be two. And it will happen at the same time that the flu vaccinations are administered as usual, which in itself is already a major logistical undertaking. Certainly, I know from talking to my local GPs that that is a really busy time for them.

We have never before seen anything on this scale in Australia. I think we are right to be asking questions about the logistics of how it will happen and asking the government to clarify things and share their plans about it or identify the issues they haven't been able to find solutions for. One of the key things we're all aware of is that the Pfizer vaccine needs to be kept extremely cold, at minus 70 degrees Celsius, which is colder than winter in Antarctica. That is an extraordinary logistical challenge, when you think of it being rolled out around the country. There are other vaccines that have different requirements, and the different needs of vaccines, again, will be one of the things we have to adapt to. I'm told the Moderna vaccine, which we don't have access to, also needs to be frozen, but only at minus 20 degrees Celsius, more like a regular freezer.

I'm really conscious that the community wants this vaccination rollout to succeed and GPs want to be on board. GPs in my electorate have put up their hands to be part of it and I'm sure pharmacies also are going to put up their hands to be part of it. But they need to have confidence that the processes to support them in doing so are in place. We know the vaccine we have access to and which, hopefully, will begin being rolled out soon arrives in packs of 10. Having packs of 10 means our normal labelling processes don't apply, nor will the labels stick to something being stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius. That's one of the measures in this legislation, and we're very happy to support it and help expedite the rollout. Let's keep in mind that the community are deeply unsettled at the moment. They know that outbreaks can occur, as we saw only this week. What we need is confidence in the way the rollout occurs. That will flow through to consumer confidence, which in turn will impact on business confidence. Health is our No. 1 priority, but the way the rollout happens will have its own effects.

I want to note that, at a local level in my electorate, no hub has been identified for a local rollout, although I know that GPs have offered to be part of it. The Nepean Hospital has been identified as a second-phase hub, but it isn't clear exactly where people who are eligible for phase 1a in the far west of the city and in my electorate of Macquarie but outside the electorate of Lindsay will be able to get access to the vaccine. I know that if you're in Lindsay it's obvious where you go, but once you move further west or north-west there are much longer distances to travel. I'm really hoping that we see as much local access as possible for my frontline people so they can have the vaccine that they so urgently want to have to reduce the risk that they're facing every single day when they go to work.

I think that we can't talk about this issue without looking at the supply of the vaccine. It's been interesting hearing the claims that we are at the front of the queue to access supplies of the vaccine when I think the evidence shows that we clearly are not. We weren't even at the front of the queue in signing deals for the vaccine. There's been, from what I can see, just under 100 million doses of the vaccine administered worldwide. Israel has reached around a 35 per cent vaccination rate. They are about half the size of us, but that is a very impressive vaccination rate. We have had precisely zero vaccinations. We understand that the TGA needed to go through the processes thoroughly, and it is good to see they did that in a very timely way, but, some weeks on, we're still not seeing any exact start dates for the vaccine rollout. So I do look forward to seeing those soon.

My community is conscious every time they read about some sort of tightening of supplies, as we read about with the EU in the last little while. That's another factor that we in this place and our communities are aware of. No-one can ignore the fact that it heightens our inability to produce the volumes of vaccine in our own country to look after our own people. I do hope that this lesson is something not just being learned. It's all very well to learn a lesson, but we then need to see actions in place, because it has highlighted how much we need to be able to make things here, in Australia. If you can't make the things in your own country that are needed to protect the health of your own people, you really are failing your community. I think we have a responsibility to act on that, and I look forward to seeing action.

The other issue that I would like more clarity from the government on is the online booking system. There is meant to be a single point of entry. When I talk to my GPs about the rollout of flu vaccinations, they are very clear on who needs to have a flu shot fast. They know their patients. They know who's on the list. They reach out to them. Sometimes it takes more than one phone call to organise to have them in. The process they use to make sure that the flu vaccination is effectively rolled out is very intensive. I want to understand how a single point of entry into a system, what GPs are used to doing and how effective that is in getting good rates of flu vaccination coverage, is going to be supported. How is an elderly person going to use that single point of entry?Will people in my electorate, for instance, pop in a postcode and be advised that their nearest place is maybe some 60 or 70 kilometres away? How is it all going to work? We know the challenges, but what we haven't heard from the government is what the solutions are.

There is no doubt that there are some people who are hesitant about being vaccinated. We need to give them confidence. I welcome the government's campaign. I think it's something like a $24 million dollar campaign to promote vaccination; that's a good thing. But then, to have that effort undermined by people like the member for Hughes, who has continued to peddle his views and spread misinformation on Facebook, on social media, on TV and today in the corridors, undermines any efforts being made with a huge portion of the population who are willing to listen to those words.

It's reported today that the Prime Minister has spoken with the member for Hughes and not only advised him that he isn't his doctor but apparently asked him to change his sort of communication. I'll believe it when I see it. The fact that it's come now—the member for Hughes has been peddling this misinformation about COVID from almost the day COVID was identified as a pandemic. Only this morning he was haranguing the member for Sydney in the corridors about it, all because she had the audacity to say that she believed the Minister for Health and the Chief Medical Officer of this country. He's been peddling these dangerous views for such a long time, and the Prime Minister has failed to do anything other than turn a blind eye. He's failed to take any responsibility for the things that a member of his government is doing—things that were contradictory to what the minister for health and the Chief Medical Officer were saying.

In case people need to be reminded of what some of those things are, there has been a systematic undermining of confidence in all our medical and scientific institutions where they've spoken on COVID, not least the TGA. He went so far as accusing the chief medical and health officers of 'crimes against humanity'. There have been conspiracy theories about big pharma from the member for Hughes. He has planted so much doubt about a range of therapeutic practices. He's promoted so-called therapeutic practices that have no medical basis. He jumped on the Donald Trump bandwagon on a whole lot of things to do with this issue and thrived on being controversial about it. He was promoting things to people who were apt to believe. He didn't do it just once; he didn't do it twice. He did it every day. He did repeatedly. He did it over days, weeks and months.

For the Prime Minister to speak with him today is far too little, too late. We have asked the Prime Minister to speak publicly about the member for Hughes's views, and to my knowledge that is yet to happen. It's extraordinary that nobody on the other side has really had the guts to call him out. He must be an embarrassment to those opposite.


They really should speak out in droves about what he is saying and how he is undermining the very things that their government is standing for and we are supporting them on—that is, to encourage people to be part of the vaccination rollout so that we can really start to tackle the consequences of COVID and recover from the impacts that it has had, not least being able to keep our people safe.

In the time remaining to me, I will touch briefly on the other measures in this bill. One aspect of the bill deals with medicine shortages. These are not new. They are pre-COVID issues and they've been further exacerbated by COVID. There have been serious medicine shortages. This bill is good in as much as, if a serious shortage is declared by a minister, it allows for a pharmacist to substitute a different medicine, not just a different brand of the same medicine. But this really doesn't address the underlying supply chain issues, and that's what we need to see this government do. I will give you one example that's been raised with me. The acid reflux drug Famotidine can be ordered by mail from the US—it's available over the counter from Costco in the US—but you can't buy it for love or money in Australia. Pharmacists are raising this issue about a range of medications, such as for thyroid treatments and even for anaesthetics in surgery. So we need to see more than this.

The last thing I will mention is the medical devices register. Many people have said that it is easier to track a car part than it is a medical device, so I welcome the fact that this is a register, but I note there is a long way to go before it is in place.