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Wednesday, 13 May 2020
Page: 2223


Senator DI NATALE (Victoria) (11:13): I rise to speak to the Privacy Amendment (Public Health Contact Information) Bill 2020. Let me start by sending my profound thanks to the many unsung heroes of this pandemic—the doctors, the nurses, the healthcare workers, the patient care attendants and the health officials, all of whom have put themselves on the line. But, beyond health, the childcare workers, the teachers, the scientists, the supermarket employees and the cleaners—the people who have allowed us to continue to function as a society—have, at great risk, sacrificed so much to help save the lives of others and to support us during this critical time.

I've spoken to many of my medical colleagues about the real-world implications of this virus and they have told me some harrowing stories. When the data was emerging from Europe and we heard those stories about what life was like in ICU in Italy and other parts of Europe, I spoke to some of my colleagues who themselves are anaesthetists and intensivists. They were discussing how they would live apart from their families during this epidemic, so that their children, their wives and their elderly parents weren't put at risk. I want to say thank you to them.

At a personal level, of course it has been difficult for many people. I resigned to self-isolate. I didn't think it would be forced on the entire Australian community. I've stayed at home; I've followed the advice of health experts. Lucy, the boys and I are finding new ways of doing everyday things. I know it has been hard on my elderly parents. They miss their grandkids; they miss the social connection. It has been tough on everyone, but it must also be said that it could have been a hell of a lot tougher.

Australia's response so far to COVID-19 has been, by most measures, a success. There's a hell of a long way to go, but, to date, we've made some good decisions and had some good luck because we're an island continent; we're a long way from the rest of the world. There's the tyranny of distance, but, when it comes to a pandemic, there's also the tyranny of proximity. We're lucky that this pandemic reached us in summer. We think there might be some seasonal variation with regard to the way this virus behaves—so, yes, we've had some good luck, but we've also made some very good decisions. When it comes to a government that has made some terrible decisions over so many other issues, you have to ask yourself: why? The simple answer is that this response has been led by the medical and public health experts on the basis of the best possible evidence and modelling. The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee has brought together the vast expertise of our public health community. We are absolutely blessed to have some of the best public health professionals anywhere in the world helping to drive the response to this epidemic. They made some tough decisions early that proved to be the right decisions such as restrictions on travel, particularly from China, then Europe and other countries across the world. We've seen a proportionate response in terms of the restriction of activities, driven—it must be said—by significant pressure from some state jurisdictions. Overall it has led to us flattening the curve, which was our objective at the start.

I have to say, I've asked myself a number of times: why it is that the government decides to listen to the experts when confronting a major threat to our health, yet ignores the experts and the science when faced with a threat not just to human health but to all life on earth? Look at our response to climate change to date. We know what the answer is: a response driven by vested, powerful interest groups; by money; by massive corporate donations; by the lobbying that goes on behind closed doors; and by the threat of campaigns from some of those vested interest groups. Just imagine if, in terms of responding to the threat of catastrophic climate change, this government had put science and expertise front and centre—more jobs, more investment, clean air, energy independence, freedom from the shackles of big energy companies. Yet it has failed comprehensively to deliver.

As I said, the response to COVID-19 to date has been a success. I've tried to cut the government some slack along the way; we are confronted with significant uncertainty when it comes to how we respond to this virus. But it must be said that early on many of the messages were confused and contradictory. It must be said that, when it came to outbreaks like that on the Ruby Princess, there were some very, very poor decisions made. It should cause a rethink to the way we structure border security in this country.

There were many other lessons learnt. We learnt that, when it came to personal protective equipment in our medical stockpile, the government simply did not have enough to keep our health workers safe. There was a lot of talk about providing ventilators during the initial stages of this pandemic. But ventilators are no good if you don't have the personal protective equipment to operate them, the gowns, the masks and the face shields. On talking to my colleagues in intensive care units, they weren't concerned about access to ventilators; they were concerned about access to personal protective equipment. Through the course of this pandemic, we've learnt that the medical stockpile was dangerously unprepared. We must learn those lessons and learn them for any future pandemic.

The government have got to make sure that they conduct a detailed review of the medical stockpile not just when it comes to personal protective equipment but when it comes to all facets of the drugs and other equipment necessary when confronted with a pandemic like this. That means ensuring that we've got local manufacturing capacity to produce those goods when and where they're needed. We've also called for the government to make the influenza vaccine free for all Australians. We know how critical it is, with the flu season upon us, that vulnerable Australians—indeed, all Australians—protect themselves against the risk of influenza. We do know that if someone were to contract the flu, they would be at significantly higher risk of complications from COVID-19.

We've supported the rollout of the broadscale telehealth item numbers. It has been a hell of a long time coming, and we know now that it has served Australians very well during this pandemic. It's of concern that many Australians aren't seeing medical professionals during this crisis. I would encourage everybody to continue to maintain a relationship with their local doctor, with their community health centre and with practice nurses because those chronic medical conditions—diabetes, heart disease, hypertension—all need to be managed, and need to be managed with regular engagement with a health worker. See a doctor. Make sure that you're getting the appropriate treatment that you need.

The government has to keep these telehealth items in place after this crisis. They are an essential part of modern medicine. They give people more choices about how they engage with health practitioners, and they've got the potential to go some way to bridging the divide between urban and rural and remote communities with respect to health care. Of course, it's not just in health care. We know that, in so many other industries, the move to use online technologies has the capacity to reduce pressures on commuting and to support women in the workplace and more family-friendly work environments. We need to speed up support for everybody to be able to access those technologies.

To the COVIDSafe app: I have to start with the government's track record when it comes to establishing legal protection for the use of data that they collect. Their track record is abysmal. From mandatory data retention to the My Health Record site, the government have a history of surveilling their own citizens and failing to protect private information. The data retention laws allowed warrantless access to personal data. We fought against it and we lost. It's absolutely crystal clear that the My Health Record legislation, for example, required amendment, and we achieved that in the Senate as a result of long and sustained advocacy so that personal data could be protected and that important reform could be implemented. We saw people's Medicare numbers, a key piece of identity information, being sold on the dark web. That caught people by surprise. So the government's track record on managing people's data is not good.

However, I am pleased that the government has listened to the criticism directed against it when it comes to this app and is looking at tightening up the protections in this legislation for the data collected by the COVIDSafe app. Of course, it doesn't guarantee that the data's safe. It doesn't mean that there might not be some scope creep in the future, and that's why it is so critical that the Senate support amendments that will be moved by my colleague Senator McKim to further ensure protections. I'd urge all senators to support those amendments.

I say to all Australians: this is clearly a voluntary decision. People need to weigh up the decision for themselves. I've had to do that personally—to weigh up this government's track record on data protection against my role as someone who's been a public health specialist and a GP. I'm aware that, from a public health perspective, this app does have the potential to help contact-tracing officials to more quickly and effectively identify and contact people who may have come into contact with COVID-19.

It's new technology. We aren't sure just how effective it'll be. It's not going to render traditional contact tracing redundant. It won't be a panacea, but it may help and, if it can stop an outbreak faster, it has the potential to save lives. So it's on the basis of weighing up those options and considering that, if we were to download this app, we could potentially save lives that I have decided that I will download this app. Whether we download it or not, it's so critical that we continue to invest in our public health workforce and that we continue traditional contact tracing, because that is at the heart of a sustained response to this pandemic. That's why I support this legislation and that is why I will be downloading this app.

Right now the concern is that we are potentially facing, with the easing of restrictions, a second wave. We've seen that in many other jurisdictions, such as South Korea and China, and that is obviously of concern to many of us here. We don't know right now what the pathway out looks like. We know that the hunt is on for a vaccine. I'm watching that closely. There's a very promising candidate here, at the University of Queensland, but the truth is there have been many candidates for vaccines and many failed candidates for vaccines. A vaccine to treat this pandemic is a possibility, not a certainty. Remember, when HIV first emerged, we were promised that a vaccine would be developed within a few years. Many decades down the track, we still do not have one.

Look, many armchair experts will tell you what they believe the pathway out of this is. The truth is that none of us knows exactly what the blueprint to move forward through this pandemic looks like. What I do know is that restricting people's activities has bought us some time and that some of the decisions informed by our public health experts have bought us time. I know that the virus is likely to be with us for years. I know that easing restrictions risks another peak in the pandemic. But I also know that the longer these restrictions are in place the harder life will be for many people.

This isn't a trade-off between health and the economy, because poverty and unemployment and lack of access to education also have a profound impact on peoples' health. It's why we need to continue to invest in the response that's needed, it's why we need to continue to trust expertise and it's why I will be downloading this app.