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Estimates Reply – Rockliff

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Tuesday, 14 June 2022

Tags: COVID-19, Health, Mental Health

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Chair, on behalf of the Greens I spent a large amount of time in the Health Estimates section speaking to the Minister for Health and Mental Health and Wellbeing about funding for critical workforce issue gaps. I want to note that the Greens were really the only voice in Estimates talking about COVID-19 this year.

Essentially, across all of our health services is the reality that we are in a global pandemic. What I found on behalf of Tasmanians who are concerned about where the Government's mismanagement is leading us as a community were desperately concerning responses from the minister and from the Director of Public Health. I was absolutely shocked - truly shocked - at the lack of interest from the Minister for Health and the Director of Public Health about the long-term complications of the coronavirus, of SARS-COV-2.

It is abundantly clear from Dr Veitch's comments that he has completely washed his hands of any responsibility, as our Director of Public Health, of taking either a precautionary approach to making sure that people do not get infected in the first place, or of investigating the burden of disease - which is coming like a train for us as a state, as a result of the extremely high number of people who are infected. It is very clear from Dr Veitch's comments that he has decided to retreat into a burrow and he is no longer the person who was responsible for putting Tasmanians' health first and foremost over the first two years of the pandemic.

What has happened in Tasmania is that we have decided our Director of Public Health can go back underground and sit in an office somewhere and give zero advice to this Government about how we should be dealing with reducing the incredibly high number of people who every single day are becoming infected with what can potentially be a seriously disabling and deadly virus.

What we heard again and again in response to the questions I asked about what we know about the post-viral complications of long-COVID and the long-term complications that can unfold in months and years after a person is infected, what we know about the risk to the community and how the public health response is being crafted in response to that information, was that the Director of Public Health said, 'We're just listening to AHPPC, we take our orders from AHPPC.' So we discovered there is no long-term planning in our response at all to the known seriously disabling complications of being infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The minister said, 'We've been focusing on the immediate needs of Tasmanians and ensuring that we have the health system and services as prepared as possible', and he said, 'That's worked very well to date.' Chair, that might have worked by the single and only measure the Government is using, which is to keep people out of hospitals, but it has not worked at all to protect people from becoming infected with the virus in the first place. The minister and the Director of Public Health both fail to understand the potentially incredibly serious long-term risks. Eventually I managed to force Dr Veitch really to actually put some of the things on the table. He was very reluctant to admit that there is indeed a huge body of research on the long-term complications of SARS-CoV-2 infection.

He talked about cardiovascular risk, changes to microvasculature and potential neurological impacts on immunological markers that can contribute to ongoing infections and reduced lung function. All of these things are incredibly potentially serious, but at a population level, which Dr Veitch is responsible for, these things will come back in the months and years ahead of us in increased numbers of people going to hospital for a whole range of heart diseases. People will be appearing with diabetes. Young children will be more likely to be at risk of diabetes. The neurological conditions, the increases potentially in Alzheimer's disease - if left untreated, these will all ultimately end up in hospitalisations.

The Government is simply looking at a short-term measure of the number of people who are being reported every single day as being cases of COVID-19 and numbers of people in hospital. Thanks to the Government's failed response, 173 000 Tasmanians have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 and it is abundantly clear that Dr Veitch is essentially applying a herd immunity process and has not accounted for the reality that people can be reinfected with the virus. I asked Dr Veitch about the waning efficacy of vaccines in the community, which is a known effect of our vaccinations - they do not last forever; the protection is not high forever. I asked him what the proportion of it was and what he expected it would be by the end of the winter and he said:

The honest answer is I don't think I know. I don't think that's currently knowable and it's best not to speculate.

Wrong, it is actually known. At a general population level, we have information about different brands of vaccine and they wear off after a certain amount of time. It is simple maths to work out when the majority of people in the over 50-year-old age group had their booster and look at how that is going to be dropping off over time. That is the job of the department. It is the job of the Director of Public Health to make sure that research is being done. We need to know the risk of reinfection and when different population groups are at risk of reinfection because it is pretty clear that people can be reinfected sometimes within a month of having previously been infected with COVID-19. There is no care at all by this Government to protect people from being infected in the first place. This is an appalling lack of care for the community.

The minister refuses to admit that there is absolutely no attention being put into wearing masks for protection. He said, 'We're not discouraging people'. How pathetic is that? What sort of a Public Health response is that? In the middle of a pandemic with 173 000 people infected, and the Minister for Health says, 'We're not discouraging people from wearing masks.' How weak and how dangerous, when we have new variants that are appearing, we have a government that has decided to stop taking any form of Public Health community-wide protections. Essentially, there is nothing, so we are wandering around at risk of reinfecting ourselves, with the only strategy being to have vaccinations.

The minister was clear, when I asked, that a huge proportion of the population is not even properly vaccinated. Nearly 50 per cent of 5 to 11 year-olds are unprotected; nearly 17 per cent of 12 to 15-year olds are not protected; 30 per cent of over 50 year-olds and 30 per cent of 16 to 50 year-olds. That is a terrible approach to looking after Tasmanians.