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COVID-19 - Essential Worker Status

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Tags: COVID-19

Dr WOODRUFF - Madam Speaker, I thank the Labor Party for raising this issue. It is important that Tasmanians can see there is an opportunity for their parliamentary representatives to scrutinise the Government and to be very clear about the decisions that have been taken that affect people's lives and have a profound impact on people's job opportunities and the fabric of Tasmania.

The economic and social fabric of Tasmania is being altered beyond a state that any of us could have predicted a year ago. We are in a very different place than anyone could have imagined. My heart goes out every day when I think of young people in their last year of college in year 12. What a year they have had, the one they were expecting to have is not the one they are having by any stretch of the imagination.

My heart goes out to all the people who were in a job this time last year and were in a thriving business who were looking forward to the summer season, whether they were preparing for festivals, Dark Mofo that did not happen, all of the exciting things over summer that will not be happening. We are all affected. Some people's lives are more than affected, they have been seriously damaged. They have lost people that they love, either the 13 people who have died in Tasmania from coronavirus disease and their families and friends, or people who have not been able to attend funerals and say goodbye to people they love on the mainland or have members of their family come to funerals that have occurred in Tasmania.

It is very important that we are able to understand what is behind the decisions that are taken and the recent decision that has been made to keep the borders closed until 1 December 2020 is one that the Greens support and we understand the reason for that. As an epidemiologist I am keenly looking at what is happening in other countries, in other states, and it is really clear that we simply do not have a choice because things are changing so quickly. I remember I was asked questions of the media after the Premier made the announcement - it seems like years ago but was only four or five weeks ago - that we would probably be opening up on 7 and 14 August to Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory.

Very sensibly, the word 'probably' was in there because what happened was that Victoria got bigger and bigger and low cases appeared in South Australia. That is not surprising; the borders are pretty porous on the mainland and despite the best efforts, when at the peak of the restrictions in Victoria you had 180 000 people movements a day between Victoria and New South Wales, you can understand the challenges that are placed on other states and why, despite the horrendous impact on our hospitality and fruit harvesting industries and agriculture in Tasmania generally, we cannot do other than keep our borders closed for the time being.

This is about people who are coming into the state. We still have a porous border and even though the Premier talks about 'fortress Tasmania' we are not a fortress. People do come and go from Tasmania. If they did not we would not be going to the local supermarket and eating food. We would not be filling up petrol and putting it in our car, despite the price. We have to keep an exchange of import and export for our island state to function and that requires that a level of risk is taken at every interaction. We still do not know what has happened in New Zealand. Their outbreak is hopefully coming to a place where it is under control but I do not yet know if they have got to the bottom of the outbreak. I might have missed something in the recent moments but I do not think they have. They have the genetic connection between the four people who were infected but they have not found the index case. They have not found exactly where it came from. There are suggestions that it could have been from a hard surface that came from cold freight storage. It seems unlikely but it is possible. It is more likely that there was a breach in quarantine that still has not been tracked down.

These are the fine-grained issues that Public Health and contact tracing have to go to in order to keep New Zealanders safe and keep us safe here in Tasmania. At every point we are making decisions based on risk and the Director of Public Health in Tasmania has that responsibility for Tasmanians. I know people would like to believe that we can eliminate risk but as I have just outlined, it is not possible to do that. If we did that we would not be importing anything or allowing anyone into the state and no one could leave and ever come back. There is always some risk in life. Getting out of bed and coming in to work involves risk on the roads, but that is the basis of life, really. Life is beautiful and life is exciting and life is risky and we all want to be alive and well for as long as possible. It is our job as members of parliament to look after the conditions and to create as safe a place as we can for people so that we can all live our lives as best we may.

This motion really reflects concerns that people have about the fact that there is not a requirement to have mandatory testing for people coming to Tasmania as so called essential workers and for the people who are essential workers who do not have to enter into a period of quarantine.

We do agree with point 2 that essential workers who are required to have a test do not need to quarantine until they get a result, which means that they are allowed on the worksite when they could be COVID-19 positive. That is theoretically possible.

I had a meeting with the Director of Public Health - and I believe members of the Labor Party were also at that meeting; it would have been a month or so ago now - and I asked questions in relation to that. I was informed that people who come into the state as essential workers, who do not have that test, are required to take certain safety precautions - including wearing a mask on a worksite, and including I understand - and perhaps the Premier could provide more detail on this - they are not allowed to circulate in the community. They are basically here to do work. They go to the worksite, and they go back to the place of residence, and a number of other precautions about how they move around that worksite were mandated.

I would like to hear whether this is still the practice, or whether there has been more tightening of that practice. Essentially, as I understand it, people are not coming into the community and circulating at will, without a level of restriction on their physical movement.

We thoroughly agree with the third point of the motion, that there needs to be an assessment of the local labour market, so that we understand, and Tasmanians understand very clearly, why some interstate workers are given permission to come to Tasmania, when many people might look at the trades that people are coming to work within and think, why aren't we employing Tasmanians to do that work, given that there is an extra risk with people coming in from interstate.

We would like to see an audit of the people who have been granted essential worker exemptions. This is appropriate work, and something like the auditors' office could provide that oversight. We would like to understand which trades and activities are being considered essential work. Tasmanians would feel more comfortable if there was a level of clarity about how those decisions were being made, to make sure that when there are thousands and thousands of people without a job, there is not a prospect that those jobs could be filled by Tasmanians.

We know that when employers ask for an exemption, they are required to provide evidence that it is essential that someone is brought in from out of state, but people will always paint the best picture. If they have had an arrangement with someone from Queensland, and they just want to keep that going, they are always going to say it is not possible to get it here. Why would you not want to go with the standard person you have worked with if it has happened to be someone from interstate? Nonetheless, it is the job of government to probe a little bit more and make sure employers are not always going to the 'easy' source, given that there is an extra risk, unless that worker is going to be coming in and quarantining for two weeks.

An audit, or a demonstration from the Government of some evidence about the criteria that are being applied when exemptions are granted, and who has been granted - not people's names - and for what trades and activities, would be good.

We acknowledge that there have been enormous sacrifices made in Tasmania through the COVID crisis, and that we have to continue to look after the health of our community and our economy. There is a great deal of concern in Tasmania about what is happening on the mainland and in New Zealand. Everybody I speak to is unanimous in the view that, despite the hardships people are experiencing with not being able to visit people they love interstate, or their businesses not being able to open because there is just not enough tourists around - despite that, people would rather, on balance, keep the borders closed for this period, because we just do not want to be in the same situation as Victoria. More than anything, people do not want that.

We are concerned that the Labor Party thinks that it is appropriate to come in over the top of the Director of Public Health and give direction to the Government about how these decisions need to be made. We have always supported the position that the Government is taking - of taking the advice of the public health experts in this situation. We wish the Government had that practice on other matters.

We wish the Government also had the practice of listening to people who understand that we are in a climate crisis - listening to the climate scientists; listening to the bushfire experts; listening to those people who are talking about the grave loss of our rare, threatened and endangered species in Tasmania. We wish the Government was also so respectful of those experts, and also so keen to listen to them, because we are in three crises: we are in a global health crisis with the COVID-19 pandemic; we are in a climate crisis; and we are in a wildlife extinction crisis.

However, we accept the principle of listening to the experts. We commend the Government for doing that. We do not think the Labor Party has credible form in this space. The Labor Party has changed its position so many times. They were calling for the Director of Public Health to close schools; they were calling for the Director of Public Health to open schools; they were being pushed by the racing industry. On regular days in a row during the height of the crisis, when they should have been supporting the community and bringing unity in decision-making about how we were responding to the crisis, they were seeding anxiety in the community by calling for the racing industry to be opened. They were baying on behalf of their political donors.

We do not find the Labor Party credible in this space. We do not think they have always put the interests of the community before their own political point-scoring. It is very disappointing, given the seriousness of this situation and how much people have lost.

We have an amendment to move. If the Clerk would not mind, I will read it to the House; I have just written it, so I do not have copies for other members.

We move -

That the motion be amended by replacing part 6 with -

"(6) Calls on the Government to acknowledge the community concerns about the risk of a COVID19 outbreak in Tasmania and table the advice of the Director of Public Health that outlines the rationale for not requiring mandatory testing of all essential workers coming into the State under a quarantine exemption".

We agree there is a level of anxiety in the community about this issue. We think it can be ameliorated to an extent by more communication. It is definitely the case. The Director of Public Health has made statements at press conferences about his reasons for not requiring essential workers to come in and have mandatory testing.

However, I think people forget, or do not hear, these things - or need to hear them multiple times. It would be very helpful if the director could just lay out, and the Premier could table before the House, the reasons for the thinking at this point for not requiring essential workers to have mandatory testing. Some states do; some states do not. There are differing positions on this. It is location-specific, so we would welcome some more information on this matter. I think it would be helpful for the Tasmanian public as well.