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Liberals' COVID Incompetence

9 February 2022

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS: I want to start by acknowledging the excellent work of the people involved in this committee, obviously my colleague the Hon. Tammy Franks and the other members, because I think this committee has provided some really important oversight of this public health disaster and the government response, so it is really critical and important work.

I have not really spoken about COVID in general terms during my time here, so I want to use this opportunity to talk a little bit about some of the concerns I have around the state government's response and the federal government's response. Some of those are informed by my own experience with COVID over the Christmas break. Members will be aware that I picked up the virus at an event I went to on 27 December and tested positive on New Year's Day. It was not quite the positive note I was hoping for as I started 2022.

What was really interesting for me, though, was that it did provide an insight into the support that is provided to people living with the virus. I received daily text messages from SA Health asking about my wellbeing. As part of that regime, a number was provided for people with COVID to call if they would like assistance. One particular day my symptoms started off being very mild, but as I moved through the virus they became a little bit more serious and I was feeling quite unwell—certainly not unwell enough to call 000, but unwell enough to feel like I might want to get some advice from a health professional.

I contacted the number that was provided. I was required to go through a series of prompts over the phone and eventually told that I was around No. 60 in the queue. There was no estimated wait time and there was no option to leave a number for you to get a call back, so I simply hung up. In my case, I am in a fortunate position as a member of this parliament to be able to afford to organise a GP consult, do a telehealth session and to get advice at my own expense, but not everybody in the South Australian community is able to do that.

I am particularly concerned about elderly people, those who are living alone, those who may not be proficient with technology, for whom a text message is perhaps an inadequate form of communication. What support is provided to them as they try to negotiate this pandemic? What advice are they given? We keep being told—indeed, it is the mantra of the Liberal Party at both the state and federal level—that the Omicron variant is mild, but in clinical terms what that means is not hospitalisation. Mild means different things to different people.

All members of the South Australian community should have access to health advice. I am very concerned that simply receiving a text message, with no follow-up call, is an inadequate way to treat vulnerable people who are experiencing a virus that many of us have never encountered before. Certainly from my own experience, talking with different people in my friendship group and others I know who have had COVID-19, the virus impacts everybody differently and there is a need to receive follow-up calls and support, and that simply has not been provided by the government.

What they do provide is a highly complex and poorly designed website with a series of rules and directions that change almost on a daily basis, making it very difficult for people to comply with the health directives and to understand what is required of them when they are dealing with the virus. They provide no advice on what is considered normal in terms of recovery or what one might expect. I think the Prime Minister's advice has been to contact your GP, but of course we know that is not always possible. It can be very difficult for people to find an appointment with a GP.

That brings me to one of the key points I want to make here around the incompetence of the Morrison government in Canberra. It is an incompetence that has started in Canberra and I fear has moved all the way down here to North Terrace. It started with the Liberal Party's appalling handling of hotel quarantine, the botched rollout of the vaccine, where people under 40 were required to wait months and months and months before they had access to the COVID-19 vaccine and were provided with contradictory and unhelpful public health advice, with no clear directive from the government before they were able to access the vaccine.

I think it is appalling that a country with our resources did not make that the number one priority for the year 2021, yet sadly many Australians, including people in our own state, were waiting for months and months before they were able to get access to a first and second dose of the vaccine. We now know, of course, that as a result there will be delays in people getting access to their booster—simply not good enough for a country with our resources not to be able to meet the needs of its residents in that way. I must say that the leadership of our Prime Minister has been severely lacking. It is hard to think of a more incompetent Prime Minister in the modern age. He has certainly failed to manage this public health emergency.

I also want to focus on the state government's response in South Australia and the decision to open the borders late last year. No-one, I am sure, would argue that we were going to keep borders closed indefinitely here in our state—I think people recognised that borders had to be opened at some point—but there was an expectation and a hope that the planning would be done, that the government had planned for this contingency, that the appropriate resources were going to be made available when we saw a spike in COVID infections, that businesses would get the support that they needed and that public health would get the resources required.

We know, of course, that did not happen. Chaos ensued for our city businesses. Walking through the CBD (I live in town), I have seen the devastation that has been wrought on our business community. Many I have spoken to have told me that they have had their worst Christmas season in decades and decades. Again, there has not been adequate support provided by the Liberal government in South Australia or, indeed, in Canberra—once again, a huge disappointment and a missed opportunity.

My colleague the Hon. Tammy Franks talked about the lack of access to rapid antigen tests—another bizarre failure of leadership from the state government. It is difficult to fathom why rapid antigen tests were not made available for sale in South Australia prior to the Christmas period. Indeed, it is easier to get COVID in South Australia than it is to get a rapid antigen test. That is disgraceful.

It is appalling that South Australians required to meet testing requirements were expected to sit and queue for hours and hours and hours in the lead-up to the Christmas period. It is a disgrace that some of those South Australians were waiting for 11 hours or more in their cars on hot days while feeling unwell in order to access a test. Surely we can do better than that. It is appalling that there is only one facility provided for people who do not have a car.

During the Christmas break, when I needed to access a testing facility, I went to the RAH. I got there at 5.30 in the morning, it opened at 6.30, and at that time there was already an enormous queue. By 7.30am, people waiting were told that the testing facility was not going to be taking any more walk-ins that morning because it was closing at 10.30am—again, poor planning, poor resourcing, simply not good enough.

I think South Australians have a right to be angry about what has unfolded in our state and our nation over the last 12 months—the failure to plan appropriately, the failure to appropriately invest resources and the failure to support vulnerable people during this time of crisis. When I asked questions of the Minister for Health yesterday about the information provided to people with COVID, he directed me to a general information line. That was telling because I do not think the minister is aware of the poor level of support provided to people with COVID-19 in our community. That needs to improve.

If we are seriously going to live with this virus, expecting people to queue for hours and hours and hours in testing stations and expecting people to wait for hours and hours and hours on the phone just to speak to a health professional has to change. That is not living with the virus: that is creating chaos and confusion and putting people at risk of serious ill health. If we want people to test, then they should be able to access rapid tests, they should be able to access a PCR test, and those things need to be resourced appropriately by government.

We also have seen no plan from the Liberals in terms of the implications of long COVID and what that means. We know that COVID-19 is a viral infection that can produce lasting consequences. I am yet to see the Liberals at a state or federal level talk about their plan to deal with that. Once again, we see a lot of bloviating from the Prime Minister over in Canberra, talking up the mildness of the COVID-19 pandemic. We do not see a lot of talk about what his plan is to actually try to get on top of this pandemic. It is not good enough. South Australians deserve so much better.