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Premier – COVID-19 Response

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Monday, 6 June 2022

Tags: COVID-19

Ms O'CONNOR - Premier, I want to talk about the state's COVID-19 response. We are now at 79 Tasmanian lives cut short; 168 000 reported infections to date; 50 000 young people under the age of 19 infected. Has the Government adopted a herd immunity strategy in response to this virus? Is there a belief in Government that immunity can develop within the population?

Mr ROCKLIFF - I have outlined where the Department of Premier and Cabinet is responsible for the pandemic response, Ms O'Connor. Dr Veitch and our Health Commander will be available this afternoon at 2 o'clock, if I recall. I just want to reiterate that we do take Public Health advice on these matters. We have been, as a Government, as close to Public Health as possible when it comes to our pandemic response, unlike other states. I am sure Dr Veitch will be very open to discussing a number of matters with you when it comes to the pandemic and our response.

Ms O'CONNOR - Dr Veitch will have the pleasure of our epidemiologist, Dr Woodruff's company, at the table today. I note that you haven't commented on whether the state is adopting a herd immunity strategy -

Mr ROCKLIFF - Not to my knowledge, no.

Ms O'CONNOR - When you talk about 'living with COVID-19', is it the plan for Tasmanians to face repeat infection with a novel coronavirus that causes long term health consequences for those infected, even those who are vaccinated?

Mr ROCKLIFF - I want to assure you, Ms O'Connor, and all Tasmanians, that we are removing restrictions safely, sensibly and in line with national and Tasmanian Public Health advice. We are taking sensible steps to remove restrictions, including -

Ms O'CONNOR - They are protections.

Mr ROCKLIFF - density limits, as an important step in Tasmania's ongoing transition to living with COVID-19. As I've said before, every death is a tragedy, and I feel every death as I see the information come through. I extend my condolences to all the loved ones, the families and friends of those affected by such tragedy. I could point to statistics to say that we have a relatively low death rate and hospitalisations compared to other states of Australia; but I know that would give no comfort to families that have lost loved ones.

Ms O'CONNOR - The Kirby Institute modelling which was commissioned by the Tasmanian Government, forecast that about this period after the border was opened, there would be about 70 thousand reported infections. We're now at more than double that and, as I said earlier, 79 people have died as result of contracting COVID-19. Has the state done any revised modelling on infections and death rates? I simply note to you, that now the national forecast for deaths to COVID-19 this year, is 20 000 Australians.

Mr ROCKLIFF - That Institute reporting was done with the Delta modelling in mind.

Ms O'CONNOR - Have you updated it?

Mr ROCKLIFF - Not to my knowledge. We have a very different variant. The Omicron variant is a lot more transmissible but, as you would appreciate, far less severe.

Ms O'CONNOR - As a result of vaccination only, according to the research.

Mr ROCKLIFF - Far less severe. You mentioned vaccination, and the importance of it. Other states opened up earlier than Tasmania, when it came to the percentage of vaccinated population. I stand corrected, but other states, opened up at 80 per cent. We waited until 90 per cent until we opened up our borders. I can only reinforce that message of the importance of being up to date with your vaccinations, which is the terminology.

Ms O'CONNOR - The Scientific American magazine has just released a paper, which is a study of 13 million people. It found that vaccination lowers the risk of long COVID-19 by only 15 per cent, which points to a flawed policy on the part of governments to rely on vaccinations only. You didn't answer my question earlier. Is it the plan for Tasmanians to face repeat infection with a novel coronavirus that causes long-term health consequences for those infected, even those who are vaccinated? What is the plan here?

Mr ROCKLIFF - We will continue to work alongside, and be guided by, not only our state advice; but public health gets regular reporting through the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) and we're using that national advice. When I say 'we', public health is using national advice through AHPPC. We will maintain our policy of being guided by Dr Veitch and his team, and public health advice.

Ms O'CONNOR - Public Health has refused to confirm it is an airborne virus.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, do you want me to name you too?

Ms O'CONNOR - You need to warn people before you name them.

CHAIR - I am talking, you have had your quota of questions.

Ms O'CONNOR - I didn't get an answer.

CHAIR - You said before, that was going to be your last question on that line.

Ms O'CONNOR - I just wanted an answer.

CHAIR - I'm going to hand to Mr O'Byrne.

Ms O'CONNOR - Well, an answer would be good.

Ms O'CONNOR - Premier, we didn't get any clarity on what the plan actually is in relation to COVID 19, other than rolling waves of infection in the community. Given that we are at hundreds of daily cases reported each day, 168 000 reported infections in Tasmania, getting close to one in three Tasmanians infected with a novel coronavirus that has long term health consequences, do you believe the state is doing the best it can to protect the health of Tasmanians?

Mr ROCKLIFF - Yes I do, Ms O'Connor.

Ms O'CONNOR - Really?

Mr ROCKLIFF - We've done the best we can -

Ms O'CONNOR - You removed indoor mask mandates.

Mr ROCKLIFF - since the start of the pandemic and we were the first state to close our borders, way back in early 2020. Since that time, we have implemented a number of restrictions, which we are lifting in a sensible and measured way.

When it comes to the health and safety of Tasmanian people, it has always been the number one priority. Of course, vaccination is a key part of that. We have consistently led the nation, or almost led the nation, when it comes to our vaccination rates. That is still the point. Our planning, our preparation, including boosting the number of health workers and ensuring our surge capacity, means our health system is operating well with COVID-19. Yes, there are some challenges but the current impact on hospitals is significantly less than what we had prepared for, albeit we did do a lot of preparation. COVID@home would be a very good example of our preparedness.

Ms O'CONNOR - Are you done?


Ms O'CONNOR - Okay. What you have just confirmed by not answering my previous three questions is that there is no plan on the state's part to do anything other than allow continual rolling infection. You would be aware in your capacity as Health minister that we have now got subvariants of Omicron - BA.4 and BA.5 -which are on the rise in other countries. What you call 'restrictions' independent epidemiologists and immunologists call protections.

Do you think it is good enough to have a public policy which doesn't let Tasmanians know COVID 19 is airborne, removes protections like masks from indoor settings and allows for hundreds of new infections every day? That, to me and Dr Woodruff, looks like a Public Health failure, as it does to Dr Raina MacIntyre from the Kirby Institute, who did the original modelling.

Mr ROCKLIFF - I am sure we will be able to talk further with respect to these matters in Health Estimates but our Public Health measures such as vaccination, our booster program, safeguards in high risk settings, isolation requirements for positive cases, the continued physical distancing and good hand hygiene have helped us to avoid a very challenging scenario.

Ms O'CONNOR - You don't think 168 000 infections is a challenging scenario, given that the Scientific American paper shows, in a study of 13 million people, that the risk of long COVID is only reduced by about 15 per cent as a result of vaccinations?

Mr ROCKLIFF - I am advised that the state specific modelling showed that if we were to implement no public health and social measures at the peak of the outbreak, we would see more than 630 people in hospital, almost 170 people in the ICU and, there would be more than 200 deaths -

Ms O'CONNOR - Is this based on the modelling that -

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, please let the Premier finish without talking over the top of him.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you. I would like to understand what modelling the Premier is referring to, given that he has confirmed there is no updated modelling after the Kirby Institute's modelling, which projected 70 000 infections at this point after the border reopening?

Mr ROCKLIFF - Removing our border restrictions and reducing our quarantine and isolation requirements was not a decision that was made lightly. We knew that once they were eased, it was inevitable that COVID 19 would enter our community. Such was the case for other Australian jurisdictions when they opened their borders.

Ms O'CONNOR - Are you citing the old modelling -

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

Ms O'CONNOR - because you don't have any new modelling?

Mr ROCKLIFF - I am advised that there is regular national modelling for AHPPC. The Public Health Emergency Declaration is being extended to 30 June 2022, as outlined. The Director of Public Health has determined that the public health threat posed by COVID 19 will soon be manageable -

Ms O'CONNOR - What does that mean?

Mr ROCKLIFF - with workplace health and safety practices and community continuing with COVID 19-safe behaviours. Positive cases and contacts will be managed like other notifiable communicable diseases. From 21 May 2022, density and capacity limits for all events and premises are no longer required. However, owners and operators are free to voluntarily use capacity limits as part of their ongoing management of COVID 19. In addition, only events with more than 5000 visitors and music festivals with more than 2000 patrons will need to have a COVID 19 event safety plan approved.

Our focus now is on our winter strategy as we prepare to manage both the COVID 19 and our influenza peaks should they occur separately in tandem.

I will go back to early May, with asymptomatic close contacts no longer having to quarantine. Instead, they will need to follow a set of rules for seven days to reduce the risk of potential spread, which includes testing, when they plan to leave home wearing a mask in all indoor settings outside of the home, avoid high risk settings such as hospitals and residential aged care, and informing their workplace that they are a close contact.

Ms O'CONNOR - Still not getting any answers, Chair.

Mr ROCKLIFF - We are providing answers, Ms O'Connor, respectfully, and we have Health Estimates this afternoon where, of course, you are welcome to prosecute your arguments.

Ms O'CONNOR - I'll leave that to Dr Woodruff who knows her stuff here.

Ms O'CONNOR - Premier, do you understand that when governments say we have to live with COVID-19 that makes people who are disabled and immunocompromised afraid? Many people I speak to who are disabled or immunocompromised this sort of half-life where they rarely go out in Tasmania, where most people now don't wear masks in indoor or public settings. Do you understand that for the disabled and immunocompromised living with COVID means a very difficult life?

Mr ROCKLIFF - I would understand that, yes, and that's why we have been very measured in our approach to lifting restrictions and protections and have followed Public Health advice. The health, safety and wellbeing of Tasmanians has always been our priority throughout the pandemic, Ms O'Connor. We have a disability emergency operations centre which supports people living with disability and their support providers to respond to COVID challenges, including outbreaks in residential settings. Some people are more vulnerable to serious impacts from COVID-19 and we have prioritised these groups for vaccination and this includes those with disability. The Tasmania vaccination team has been working with disability peak bodies, offering tailored and information sessions to people with disability, their families and carers. Additional support such as quiet day clinics has been offered and additional support is available at clinics if needed.

A Public Health direction was signed on 29 March requiring that a person employed or engaged in providing high-intensity support to an NDIS participant must have received the booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by 23 April, or if not yet eligible then receive the booster within four weeks of becoming eligible.

As at 26 May 2022, NDIS registered providers reported that 96.8 per cent of disability workers required to be vaccinated had received two doses and a booster, while as of 19 May 2022, 88.6 per cent of NDIS participants aged 16 and over had received one dose and 84.1 per cent of participants aged 12 to 15 had received their first dose. The DOC works directly with disability support providers and the people with disability they support through outbreak preparedness and response in management. Support may include support from exposure or outbreak declaration through to stand-down and beyond if necessary; linkages and liaison with Public Health in relation to infection, prevention and control measures; PCR testing and Public Health advice regarding contact definitions and isolation requirements; a liaison with Health ECC logistics to ensure residential disability settings have sufficient PPE and rapid antigen tests during exposures and outbreaks; liaison with COVID@home to ensure that people with disability are being appropriately prioritised and supported; and advice regarding maintaining social supports, safe and effective isolation in quarantine and previous learnings from other outbreaks. I could continue -

Ms O'CONNOR - Well don't, because it didn't actually answer the question. What you call a 'measured' response is refuted by independent experts like Dr Raina MacIntyre from the Kirby Institute who talks about the wearing of masks in indoor settings as a critical prevention measure. I've seen the information that is provided to people with disabilities or service providers and first of all it doesn't mention that COVID is an airborne infection, and secondly, it talks about what to do in the event of infection, it doesn't advise people on how to prevent infection. Why not?

Mr ROCKLIFF - Again, we can take these matters up with Public Health, as we said we would, Ms O'Connor, or Dr Woodruff will.

Ms O'CONNOR - This is a whole-of-government thing.

Mr ROCKLIFF - We have always been mindful of people in high-risk settings and that is why there are still restrictions in place for people -

Ms O'CONNOR - They're protections.

Mr ROCKLIFF - Protections, restrictions, whatever terminology you prefer - they are being maintained.

Ms O'CONNOR - Not for long; you've already foreshadowed that they will be removed.

I have one more question. Premier, have you been advised by Public Health that the risk of reinfection with COVID, and including the Omicron variant, is high? That means that people can be infected even though they're vaccinated and then be reinfected, and in some cases, according to the evidence, within a matter of weeks. Have you been advised that the risk of reinfection within the Tasmanian population is high?

Mr ROCKLIFF - Of course we have.

Ms O'CONNOR - Have you?

Mr ROCKLIFF - These are questions for Dr Veitch.

Ms O'CONNOR - Not entirely, because it is a whole-of-government response, and that's why you're getting these questions.

Mr ROCKLIFF - This is a Public Health question and Dr Veitch will be able to provide you with the scientific analysis and evidence with respect to the pandemic and COVID-19. We have always worked very hard alongside Dr Veitch and those within Public Health.

Ms O'CONNOR - I didn't think that was a hard question. Have you been advised that the risk of reinfection is high, which it is?

Mr ROCKLIFF - I am not aware of this advice coming to MCEM.

Ms O'CONNOR - To who?

Mr ROCKLIFF - The Ministerial Committee for Emergency Management.

Ms O'CONNOR - So you haven't been advised that the risk of reinfection is high? That is confronting, given that the evidence is that it is.

Mr ROCKLIFF - You're putting words into my mouth -

Ms O'CONNOR - No, I'm not.

Mr ROCKLIFF - It was a detailed question that you had. These matters can be taken up with Dr Veitch and he can provide all the scientific information that you require with respect to these matters.

Ms O'CONNOR - But we're just confirming that you are setting public policy without the evidence. That's what's happening here.

CHAIR - Order, Ms O'Connor.

Mr ROCKLIFF - No, Ms O'Connor, we listen to the Public Health advice and set public health -

Ms O'CONNOR - They haven't given you good advice.

Ms WHITE - Have you asked for advice?

Ms O'CONNOR - No, they just don't want to know.

Mr ROCKLIFF - We do want to know, Ms O'Connor. We have worked very closely with Public Health over the course of the last couple of years.

Ms O'CONNOR - The evidence is incontrovertible that the reinfection risk is high.

Mr ROCKLIFF - We are always working alongside Public Health advice to ensure that we keep our Tasmanian community as safe as possible throughout the pandemic. We have done that.

Ms O'CONNOR - There are 170 000 infections.

Mr ROCKLIFF - I accept the infections. There are daily statistics when it comes to the matters pertaining to Public Health.

Ms O'CONNOR - Epic fail.