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Disability Services – Covid

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Wednesday, 7 June 2023

Tags: COVID-19, State Budget, Disability

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, the World Health Organisation reports that people living with disability are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19. What steps have you taken as Minister for Disability Services to provide some protections for people with disability from a very dangerous virus, noting what you said in your introduction that it's important that we focus on the things we can change to improve lives. We've had multiple contacts from people with disabilities or from their family members about providers under the NDIS or otherwise turning up to their homes, the homes of people who are disabled and/or clinically vulnerable, unmasked. What are you doing as Minister for Disability Services to protect this highly vulnerable cohort?

Ms PALMER - Thank you very much for the question. Our Government certainly is committed to ensuring that people with disability continue to be encouraged and prioritised to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, which we know is our best protection against severe illness from COVID-19 -

Ms O'CONNOR - Actually, a mask is. A mask is, that's the science.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, can you please let the minister answer the question. Thank you, minister.

Ms PALMER - Thank you, Chair. The COVID-19 vaccination data for people with disability remains consistent with national vaccination rates and work is continuing both nationally and in Tasmania to increase vaccination rates of people with disability. I can tell you that this has been on the agenda of the Disability Reform Ministers' meeting that I attend, where I represent the state, and we have had a presentation from experts in the field. It's interesting that you made the comment around the wearing of masks. This particular representation was stressing the importance of ventilation, windows being open and circulating of air. It is interesting to see that. That was that person's opinion but I think with COVID-19 for people with disabilities, there needs to be that emphasis on vaccination and it's good to see that our rates of vaccination here are comparative to what is happening across Australia.

Ms O'CONNOR - With respect, minister, that's a poor answer. The OzSAGE group of experts who are healthcare experts, epidemiologists, immunologists, doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers are really clear that the best protection for all of us, but if we're talking about a specifically vulnerable cohort here, is a multilayered approach that includes vaccination, yes - but that will not stop a person with disability from being infected and potentially hospitalised. Masking, ventilation and filtration, primarily.

It disappoints me that someone came and spoke to disability ministers and felt captured by this political aversion to masks. Do you think it is acceptable that disability service providers are turning up at the homes of people with disability, unmasked, to provide support services?

Ms PALMER - I think people with disabilities have a choice in this space, as we all do -

Ms O'CONNOR - Careful.

Ms PALMER - Sorry?

Ms O'CONNOR - Well, careful, sometimes when people are housebound -

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, please let the minister finish her answer to your question. Thank you.

Ms PALMER - I think it is important to remember that for some people with disability, this is an individual choice. If they themselves wish to have a mask, or if they wish to ask care providers to do that, we have certainly through the past year ensured that disability service providers have plans in place, that they are looking at what is COVID-safe, and that they are making the appropriate decisions.

Ms O'CONNOR - They are not making appropriate decisions. There are disability support workers arriving at the door, either in single or in pairs, unmasked. The disability service providers are not consistently making appropriate decisions, and it is placing people who are already highly vulnerable at significant risk, when there is no policy of protecting people from infection.

All you have been able to offer is that someone with a disability has a personal choice about whether or not to wear a mask. They do not have a personal choice about whether or not their care provider turns up unmasked at their door. Given that WHO, the World Health Organization, has said, first of all, that COVID disproportionally impacts people with disabilities, but also that COVID is heading us toward a mass disabling event - and this is the World Health Organization's own words, ‘a mass disabling event’ - what protections apart from - respectfully, it sounds a bit glib.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, can we get a question from you please, because we are getting close to a minute.

Ms O'CONNOR - Well, what protections are there, apart from vaccination and telling people with disability they have a choice whether or not to wear a mask?

Ms PALMER - To be really -

Ms O'CONNOR - None.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, please let the minister answer.

Ms PALMER - Look, the Government has put in place numerous strategies to offer choice and to offer protection for all Tasmanians, including people with disability, and at all times following public health advice.

Ms O'CONNOR - It is not following public health advice.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, please let the minister answer your question.

Ms O'CONNOR - Point of order, Chair. It is incorrect for the minister to say that the sector is following public health advice, because there is no sound public health advice being given to the sector.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, I cannot tell the minister how to answer your question, so it is not a point of order.

Ms PALMER - Thank you, Chair. The NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission has the role to monitor and act on any risks for participants and for provider compliance in the NDIS space. All Tasmanian workplaces are expected to have COVID safety plans.

Ms O'CONNOR - They do not.

Ms PALMER - We know that it is not mandated that masks must be worn, but if any service provider feels that is appropriate, then they can of course -

Ms O'CONNOR - That is so glib. It is not about what is appropriate.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, we only have about 40 minutes to go. Please can you just let the minister finish her answer.

Ms O'CONNOR - Okay, well I thought the minister had finished her answer. To me, it points to a lack of leadership to say, oh, well if a service provider thinks it appropriate that they wear a mask in order to protect someone from potential infection and death. That is not good enough. Do you think that is good enough?

Ms PALMER - The Health department has commenced winter planning, recognising the disability sector as a priority group within this work. A key focus of that winter planning is to support the primary care sector to achieve high influenza and COVID-19 vaccination coverage –

Ms O'CONNOR - Honestly, pathetic.

Ms PALMER - that includes residential aged care, people with disability and disability support workers. Public health services in the Department of Health continue to work with disability residential settings, providing updates and information and the support to prepare for and respond to acute respiratory viral illnesses. We also have COVID@homeplus, which is available

Ms O'CONNOR - Irrelevant.

Ms PALMER - to people with disabilities -

Ms O'CONNOR - Once they catch it

Ms PALMER - as it is with other members of the community, to ensure any Tasmanians with disability who are indeed COVID-positive are supported in the best environment for them.

Ms O'CONNOR - Pathetic.

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, I want to go back to your statement about the things that we can change to improve lives. For example, we could change the requirements on disability service providers, so, when they go into the homes of clinically vulnerable disabled people, they are not placing those people at risk, couldn't we?

Ms PALMER - I think I have answered this question as comprehensively as I can.

Ms O'CONNOR - No you haven't.

Ms PALMER - We have asked all service providers to have their COVID-19 plans in place. It is not mandatory to wear masks, but there is that individual choice of people with disability and people without disability for those who work in the sector as well as those who operate in the sector. We have been following public health advice and followed directions of the state Health department.

Ms O'CONNOR - No you haven't. I'd dispute that public health advice is actually being applied. It's become very politicised and that is a matter of historical record.

Do you accept or acknowledge that the lack of broad mitigations in our community, and even if you don't support masks as the simplest, cheapest way to stop people from being infected, there is a whole range of things that government could do, or, service providers or businesses could do around ventilation, filtration and those things you talked about earlier?

Do you accept that the failure of Government to provide any mitigations at all, excludes people with disability from society because they're worried about getting infected or reinfected?

Ms PALMER - This is something that I have raised with my disability advisory group. We have had discussions around this. I don't think it is fair to say that we haven't provided any measures to protect people with disabilities.

Ms O'CONNOR - Apart from vaccination, what?

Ms PALMER - I don't think it is fair to say that we haven't provided people with disabilities with anything. There is the encouraging of mask wearing among vulnerable cohorts, but it is not mandated. The state does not have a role in regulating the disability workforce. The commonwealth takes heed of public health advice in the regulations for the sector.

Ms O'CONNOR - Rubbish.

Ms PALMER - Again, people can make their own choices. If service providers choose to have masks as part of their plan, then there's no issue with that.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you, Minister. I'd like to understand how a person, for example, who lives with a cognitive disability or a psychosocial disability that has a profound impact on their life's functioning is able to protect themselves. It's actually kind of confronting to hear a minister for disability say that people who have a cognitive or acquired brain injury or psychosocial issues should be able to take personal responsibility every time. It's quite ableist.

Ms PALMER - Sorry, what was the question?

Ms O'CONNOR - Do you accept that it is ableist to say to someone who has psychosocial or cognitive or intellectual disability, 'you need to take personal responsibility for your own health'? Given that we provide in-home supports and care and therefore, we acknowledge that people with disability need, potentially, an extra level of support to live independently, do you agree that it's ableist to say to the whole cohort of people for whom you're responsible 'you need to take personal responsibility'?

Ms PALMER - I think we've made it very clear that we are following public health advice.

Ms O'CONNOR - What is that advice?

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor.

Ms PALMER - Also, again, I reiterate that I assume that the Commonwealth takes heed of public health advice in relation to this sector. We have put in place numerous strategies, including vaccination, which I know doesn't satisfy your -

Ms O'CONNOR - It doesn't prevent infection.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, please let -

Ms O'CONNOR - I'm just trying to help the minister understand.

CHAIR - No, Ms O'Connor, you know exactly what you're doing.

Ms O'CONNOR - I certainly do.

Ms PALMER - Again, we know that people have the opportunity to make these choices; we know that service providers in this space can and this can also be part of their plan. I think there is that recommendation and encouragement that vulnerable cohorts do wear masks if that is your choice. Also, for NDIS providers, the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission remains the lead agency providing regular advice, certainly to registered NDIS providers, with information about provider requirements.

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, I thought I heard you say earlier that the Disability Services Act - did I mishear? - was being reviewed and updated to have a stronger rights focus.

Ms PALMER - We're actually rewriting the act.

Ms O'CONNOR - And, from what I understand from previous maybe exchanges across this table, you'll be able to do what I couldn't do as minister, which is to get more of a rights focus into the Disability Services Act, so you can protect the rights of people with disability better.

Ms PALMER - That registration is being drafted at the moment, and then it's going to go out to quite extensive consultation. That's where advocacy groups, stakeholders, people with disabilities will be able to have their say on what their thoughts are on that draft legislation. Of course, the intent of the new legislation is to establish principles that serve to promote the human rights of people with disability and a full and effective inclusion of people with disability in our community. It's intended to achieve this by establishing a framework to support a whole-of-government approach to inclusion of Tasmanians with disability in all areas of life. A requirement of the Tasmanian Disability Inclusion Plan, this would set out the purpose of the plan -

Ms O'CONNOR - The irony.

Ms PALMER - Responsibilities for the development and implementation, consultation requirements, reporting requirements and publication requirements. There is also a requirement for disability inclusion plans to be developed by defined entities; this would define the purpose of the plan, who needs to develop a plan, consultation requirements, time frames for development and review, reporting requirements in publication; also, a requirement for development of a guideline to assist with the consultation, inclusion and preparation of the Tasmanian Disability Inclusion Plans and Disability Action Plans, and establishing the role of the Disability Advisory Council and the development and the monitoring of the Tasmanian Disability Inclusion Plan. We are hoping this bill will be tabled in parliament by the end of this year. It has been drafted at the moment and will go out for community consultation.

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, do you understand that the way society is currently geared where we have governments that have decided to let a novel coronavirus with long-term disabling affects rip, excludes people with disabilities and other clinically vulnerable people from society?

Ms PALMER - I think it is important to remember that whilst mask-wearing, which is where you are going to -

Ms O'CONNOR - No, I am not.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor.

Ms O'CONNOR - There is a range of measures.

Ms PALMER - There is a range of protections. One of them is mask-wearing and people have a choice. If they wish to do that, if they feel they are vulnerable -

Ms O'CONNOR - How can you say that to someone with a cognitive disability?

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, the minister is still answering the question, thank you.

Ms O'CONNOR - But the minister is -

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, we have only got 20 more minutes to go, so can you please not interrupt the minister while she is trying to answer your question? thank you.

Ms PALMER - There are a number of things - things is the wrong word. I do actually feel, with respect, that I have answered your question -


Ms PALMER - I am not quite sure how this relates to the Budget.

Ms O'CONNOR - Are you serious?

Ms PALMER - Too be fair, I have made it very clear to you, I have given information about the vaccine rollout for people with disabilities, how it is comparing nationally; I have told you that disability services and workers in this space of course can wear a mask, it is not mandated. that is following public health advice, but if people feel vulnerable, of course the wearing of a mask is what they can do if that is what they choose. I am just not sure that I can add any more to your question.

Ms O'CONNOR - I have just one more on this line of questioning. You have talked about developing disability inclusion plans. How do you make that work for people with disability if society right now is geared to exclude them from public indoor spaces if they are clinically vulnerable?

Ms PALMER - I do not believe anyone is excluded from any space. If someone makes the decision that they do not want to go there, that is a decision for them. We have put forward

Ms O'CONNOR - Why are they making that decision?

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, can you please let the minister answer your question. You told me that was going to be your last question, and now you are firing another question across the table to the minister before she had even finished answering your last question. Thank you. Minister.

Ms O'CONNOR - It is the ableism in her answers that is offending me.

CHAIR - As I have told you before, Ms O'Connor I cannot force the minister to answer the way you want her to.

Ms O'CONNOR - An answer would be good, thank you, Chair.

CHAIR - Well, she is giving you an answer if you are prepared to listen to it.

Ms O'CONNOR - She is reading from a brief and not answering my questions.

CHAIR - Thank you, Minister, if you are finished. Ms Dow.