Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Friday, 4 February 2022
Laura Jayes: Let's go live back to South Australia now. The Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham joins me as he does every Friday. Thanks so much for your time. We see the crisis in aged care at the moment. Hundreds of aged care residents have died with COVID Mr Birmingham. Hundreds are being locked in their rooms. There's not enough staff, food or PPE. Boosters are slow. How could your government let this happen again?
Simon Birmingham: Laura, there's no doubt that COVID presents challenges right across the economy, the system and particularly in service provision sectors like aged care. And now when you have community transmission, there's no completely keeping COVID out of places like aged care facilities. What we have been able to do is of course ensure high levels of vaccination across aged care facilities, more than 99 per cent of facilities have had the opportunity for their residents to have booster doses. We've also been able to provide additional infection control training. More than 70,000 different shifts as part of the arrangements to provide a surge capacity in terms of the workforce in aged care. And, of course, many millions of different units of protective equipment and other things that have been provided to the aged care sector and to be able to support it through these times. But it's not an easy circumstance, and it's why we've recognised the aged care workforce in terms of providing further rounds of bonus payments and retention payments, if you like, for them to encourage them and to recognise the hard and challenging circumstances that they're working in.
Laura Jayes: Minister, you've literally known about these problems for years, though COVID isn't new. Yes, you can perhaps argue Omicron. But really, can you really blame the virus for the lack of food, staff, PPE? I mean, why weren't there contingencies put in place?
Simon Birmingham: Staff is a challenge that we've seen right across different aspects of our workforce and that has been seen right around the country. And there's two different challenges that are there in terms of the staff. There is the Omicron impact, which is clear and present right across different streams of the economy that with so many more people being placed into isolation as a result of the very high rates of transmission. That has an additional impact in terms of staff shortages. Then there is there is, of course, the different pressures across the health system. It's why we've provided these sorts of things, such as surge workforce capacity for aged care and additional payments for aged care workers, because we know the competition for health workers is very intense at present. So we've responded to that by providing those 70,000 plus extra shifts, by providing the extra funding for aged care workforce. Knowing that that competition for health workers to provide vaccinations to work in hospitals and to work in aged care is very real and intense at a time where Omicron is also adding pressure and shortages in terms of that and every other workforce.
Laura Jayes: Sure, Minister. But that is cold comfort for many aged care residents who are sitting in their rooms and have been in their rooms alone for most of the day, looking at four walls, some since before Christmas. I mean, I appreciate that you're not the Minister in charge here, but we know about the staff shortages. Mike Baird called for the ADF to be brought in a month ago. What are you waiting for?
Simon Birmingham: Laura, there's not a silver bullet to these challenges and what I've been outlining are the type of actions we have taken in terms of, as I say, providing a surge workforce capacity that's accounted for more than 70,000 extra shifts working in aged care facilities in terms of providing extra payments to aged care workforce. These are real and practical steps now if there are particular things, in addition to the work that the Defence Force is already doing and they are playing a key role in terms of the logistics support for the vaccination rollout, the logistics support in directly helping aged care in terms of the distribution of those millions of units of personal protective equipment that are being provided. They are all really important additional areas of support. Of course, aged care facilities are working through the very challenging balancing act between the extent to which you provide those isolation requirements there. But you're also dealing with people who are frequently already in end of life circumstances that they are in aged care facilities because of other very serious health issues that often mean they're already in palliative care programs. And I do think there needs to be a very clear practical efforts made as much as possible by health authorities to ensure access to other individuals in those circumstances where end of life conditions are already imminent or upon somebody. And that access to family, to staff and so on is a very important consideration at those times, regardless of the COVID questions that also exist.
Laura Jayes: Where's the Minister? You shouldn't be answering these questions this morning. Minister Colbeck has not been available for the better part of a fortnight. We saw him at one COVID committee yesterday. Literally, people are dying in these aged care homes. Shouldn't we be hearing from the Minister?
Simon Birmingham: Well, the Minister I know is engaged in daily briefings, discussions, making sure all of those different logistics and supply chain issues are continuously being addressed, that the disruptions that occur to them when you have other things get in the way, such as, of course, workforce shortages in the logistics sector or indeed the natural disasters you were covering before, that they're continuously working around the clock to seek to address those sorts of practical issues to ensure the equipment that aged care facilities needs gets to them in as timely a way as possible.
Laura Jayes: The Prime Minister yesterday backed in Mark McGowan for his hard border closures. That essentially means that he's endorsing the views and the actions of the Premier, who's kept families separated and has not shown much compassion over the last couple of years.
Simon Birmingham: Laura, I think if you look at the full context of what the PM said, he acknowledged the reasons for Premier McGowan continuing the border closure, but in doing that was saying that it was about perhaps buying a little bit of time to further understand the issues related to Omicron to ensure capacity of the health system and otherwise in the WA government to respond to Omicron. Now, I continue to hold the view as I said at the time, Premier McGowan made those decisions that fine, if he's making that decision for now, that's for him to defend as the Western Australians debate but there has to be-
Laura Jayes: But he had two years. Shouldn't you be putting him under pressure. He's had two years to fix the hospitals. Why did he-
Simon Birmingham: And Laura, that's where I was about to say. The question of, if not now, when remains. If not now, when, if not under these circumstances, under what circumstances? Now there are questions for Premier McGowan to answer. It's his state that he was elected to govern. We're not going to have that debate with him about how he runs his state and what we do want is, of course, for him to provide as much confidence as much certainty in WA. And I think you've seen in the weeks since the concerns of the business community in the West, the relocation of some senior business executives from the West to the East Coast because the failure to address that question of if not now when. And that's where a clear plan is important and is necessary. It's one for Premier McGowan to work through with his community and to provide them with the confidence there. But I would say from a South Australian perspective where we opened up and the decision was made to open up with all of the information around Delta, then Omicron hit. Yes, it's had disruption, but we have been able to work through those disruptions now. The health system has coped. There have been spare and excess hospital beds available when required. There have been workforce pressures of course there are, as we were just discussing before. But these things can be overcome, can be managed and the examples are there for places like the West to work through, particularly when they're already seeing growing numbers of cases and already having disruptions in schools and the like that they, of course, need to be working through and addressing themselves, but also learning those lessons, as the PM said, from how other states have managed these things.
Laura Jayes: Okay, Minister, thanks so much for fronting up when some of your colleagues won't, appreciate it.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Laura. My pleasure.