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The pandemic bill elephant in the room

The pandemic bill elephant in the room

ANMF (Vic) Branch Secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick, VAU General Secretary Danny Hill and AMA Vic President Dr Roderick McRae speaking at a press conference on 25 November 2021. Photo: Melissa Chubb

ANMF (Vic Branch), along with the Australian Medical Association Victoria, the Australian Salaried Medical Officers Federation and the Victorian Ambulance Union have together called on Victorian politicians to remember ‘it’s about health’ in their last-minute negotiations over the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021.

At a press conference at ANMF (Vic Branch) headquarters on 25 November, Branch Secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick called on members of the legislative council to take seriously their elected role in protecting all Victorians.

‘Nurses and midwives and other health professionals across Victoria are exhausted,’ she said. ‘The pandemic, and the toll that it has taken on them, is relentless. Our members are unable to take leave. They’re working additional hours. They’re working additional overtime. They’re working in areas other than those they might specialise in. They’re making extraordinary sacrifices every day to protect Victorians. The least that the members of legislative council can do – not just crossbenchers but also the opposition – is to actually stand up for Victorian healthcare workers and the community.’

Ms Fitzpatrick said the ‘sport’ around the pandemic bill debate is playing with people’s lives. ‘We need our politicians to take this matter seriously and ensure that come the 15th of December, we have strong legislation in place that continues to require that public health directions are enforceable.’

Noting recent revelations of 30 residents with COVID-19 at the Baptcare Westhaven private aged care facility in Footscray, she reminded politicians of the horrors of 2020 and warned they will return ‘if we do not have mandates that continue to require vaccination, that continue to require mask wearing, that continue to require QR coding on entry – all of these protective initiatives are part of the existing emergency orders. We must have these continue, otherwise we will see a repeat of 2020 in the private aged care sector.’

Ms Fitzpatrick also referred to a 25 November Roy Morgan poll indicating that 76 per cent of Victorians support vaccine mandates for all workers. ‘It is double vaccination that has enabled us to enjoy a reduction in restrictions, but we have only arrived at that because we have over 90 per cent of our community being double vaccinated. This occurred as a result of the emergency laws, and we desperately need a pandemic management bill to be passed that will support the ongoing decisions the government is going to have to continue to make.’

A war-like emergency

AMA Victoria President and ASMOF federal Assistant Secretary Dr Roderick McRae called the pandemic a war-like emergency. ‘Think about Pearl Harbour,’ he said. ‘The Japanese jets are coming over and bombing the cruisers. We have to act. We can’t have a situation where we sit back and form a committee and contemplate the right thing to do.’

Noting that a pandemic is different to other forms of emergencies, he said it’s imperative to have pandemic-specific legislation. ‘In the setting of a rip-roaring pandemic, where we’re dealing with a viral illness that can kill people very rapidly, there’s no opportunity to sit back and review and think “was that the right thing?”. It’s imperative to have appropriate legislation in place to act very quickly in order to save Victorian citizens.’

VAU General Secretary Danny Hill was blunt: ‘There’s been a lot of debate and discussion in the media about people feeling that they haven’t been properly consulted, crossbenchers upset that they weren’t included in discussions. I want to say to those people: cry me a river. We have a pandemic on and we desperately need your help.’

Mr Hill praised politicians who consulted lawyers and talked with experts but questioned if any of them had visited a hospital and consulted the people ‘who are genuinely leading the way on this pandemic’ – our nurses, doctors, ambulance staff and other healthcare workers. ‘The health system is under enormous pressure,’ he said. ‘It’s an enormous crisis. Getting vaccinated is the great collective action, and we need our pollies behind us on this.’

Protecting COVID and non-COVID patients

ANMF (Vic Branch) is confident the bill provides the equivalent powers as the legislation of other Australian states. It also addresses concerns in Victoria raised over the last 18 months that too much power lies in the hands of an unelected official. It provides the health minister with the critical ability to receive expert health advice and to respond quickly and decisively. These decisions cannot be made via a committee and must be entrusted to the elected position rather than a committee. The health unions also believe the bill provides appropriate transparency and accountability.

Without the new pandemic laws the Victorian Government will not be able to:

  • respond to a sharp increase in hospitalisations by pausing or re-introducing some restrictions
  • require aged care, healthcare workers and others to have the COVID-19 booster
  • require COVID-19 positive people to isolate until they no longer pose a risk. It would also be difficult to contain an outbreak in a small town with no mechanism to isolate the population
  • implement different levels of isolation according to vaccination status
  • require masks on public transport or in high-risk transmission settings
  • require people to comply with a QR code check in.

Significantly, the bill’s purpose is to ensure the health system and the health workforce have the capacity to care for both COVID and non-COVID patients. Ms Fitzpatrick suggested that ‘we will have parliamentarians who will be screaming about the length of the waiting lists in Victoria but we can’t get to the waiting lists while COVID patients are taking up the beds. We have got thousands of patients who aren’t suffering from COVID, who have other illnesses, other issues that need to be addressed.’