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Estimates Reply - Minister Rockliff

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Tags: COVID-19, Health, Medicinal Cannabis

Dr WOODRUFF - It was a long six-hour Estimates but I can say compared to other experiences I have had, in Health Estimates it was a respectful conversation and I felt that some of the issues that we raised were listened to, and I hope some of the actions that the minister promised will occur. I want to go back and reflect on some of them.

A major topic of conversation for some period was our state's COVID-19 preparations. I was pleased to hear that the minister has contacted the staff from the North West Regional Hospital who have long-COVID or report symptoms of a long COVID-nature. It is really important that the conversations about workers compensation and appropriate return to work arrangements are in train and the minister met with them. Now, it is really about seeing how the support continues and is handed out. In the long term, we do not know how long long COVID is, of course, and that is very hard for people who are suffering symptoms that can be very debilitating, meaning they cannot return to work as much as they would prefer to.

Our state's Delta preparations are critically important. I sought the Director of Public Health's comments on why we do not have any real strong restrictions at all in Tasmania to prepare us as a population for the likely eventuality that Delta will spread to Tasmania, despite the work that we are doing to keep out of the island. I cautioned about the situation in New Zealand where they had just one case and went in to a very strict and immediate lockdown. Despite that, it has really taken a grip on the country. It seems from the most recent information that they are turning the corner on that but it has been a very severe state of lockdown for at least the North Island for a long time now. It goes to show that communities have to be ready to immediately put restrictions in place when asked to for our own safety and to protect vulnerable people in the community.

I was very pleased that the Director of Public Health came out a few days later and announced that Tasmanians at events over 1000 people would be required to wear masks from now on. That is important because it reminds us that we are living in a COVID 19 world and that we need to have part of our brain taking this seriously all the time if we want to stay in the blessed situation that we are in, and if we want to have our best response if and when, in all likelihood, Delta appears in Tasmania.

We talked about the mandatory vaccination of healthcare workers. We support the Director of Public Health's directions for all healthcare workers listed in certain categories, which are all available on the website now, to have two doses of a COVID 19 vaccination.

The minister talked about the national plan being in place: the minister needs to stop the rhetoric being used by the Prime Minister about a national plan. The fact is there is not a national plan in place. There was Doherty modelling done and it talked about certain situations and when certain restrictions might be lifted under certain conditions. That was a conversation at Cabinet that might have been agreed to. What was not agreed to was the reality of what we do in different Delta infected populations around the country in response to reaching vaccination rates of 70 per cent, 80 per cent or above. We do not have a national plan because there is no way of enforcing it.

I am heartened to hear that the Health minister and the Premier are both saying what most sensible epidemiologists and public health officials I speak to or read are saying, which is 90 per cent or above vaccination is required to get a population level sufficient for us to be able to respond to Delta as a community and, importantly, as a healthcare system.

We will be watching this space very closely, especially looking at the rollout of a third vaccination booster, or dose, which I will ask questions about, and continuing to keep an eye on our ICU bed planning and ventilator capacity around the state.

I will make a couple of points about the ramping situation and paramedics working in Ambulance Tasmania, and patients.

We are very pleased to hear that the money has been put in to try and deal with the elective surgery - an enormous number of people who are overdue for essential category 1, as well as category 2 and 3 elective surgeries. There has been a huge underfunding of this area for seven years by the Government. In the attempt to play catch-up after so many thousands of Tasmanians have suffered - some of them for well past the national standard time for elective surgeries - money has been put into the Budget.

We are very concerned about the potential for flow on impact to other parts of the hospital system. I raised the issue about ramping and raised the complexity and unintended consequences that can come from making quick and decisive decisions which are obviously necessary in times of crisis like in a Delta outbreak.

The Royal Hobart Hospital's Acute Respiratory Illness Area, which has now been repurposed to expand the emergency department, has been closed. That is appropriate and we support that in the circumstances. However, it does demonstrate the impact for staff working in a protocol situation, or the guidelines of everyday working life. The flow on impacts for them have meant a mixing of paramedics with other health staff on the ramp in the hospital, with PPE and non PPE, full gown wearers mixing together. Having patients with respiratory symptoms in a ramp situation is clearly a high risk if we have a Delta outbreak.

At the Launceston General Hospital, the ramping times have gone up, up, up for the last three years. They were 25 per cent ramping in 2018 19, then we found they went up to 39 per cent last year. That is going to have a huge impact on surgeries.

Finally, I want to mention medicinal cannabis. I talked to the minister and Mr Webster responded with some figures about how many people have been approved. He said four applications have been made by general practitioners to the medcan board and only two of them have been approved. Not only are these patients who have been approved through the Therapeutic Goods Administration online access scheme and via their GP in that process, it went to the department and 50 per cent of them, two of four, were knocked back.

Minister, you still seem to have gatekeepers in your department. It is very concerning about medicinal cannabis. Something is stopping those people getting access to drugs and you should fix it.