By Tanya Plibersek

28 April 2020



SUBJECTS: Australia’s response to COVID-19; COVIDSafe; inequality in education; return to school; ANZAC Day.

RICHARD GLOVER, HOST: Tanya Plibersek is the Shadow Minister for Education and Training, Member for Sydney. Lucy Turnbull is the former Chief Commissioner of the Greater Sydney Commission. And Professor Brad Frankum is the former president of the New South Wales AMA and a Clinical Immunologist, with experience that might be pretty interesting, as we debate all the issues around Coronavirus. Welcome to all of you. Welcome Tanya, welcome Lucy, welcome Brad. We are a funny people, we Australians, aren’t we? We seem to be doing better than almost every other country when it comes to controlling the spread of COVID-19. Yet if you say that out loud your fellow Australians, it seems to me, start reaching for explanations. It can’t just be that we’ve done this well, it’s because we don’t even in normal times, they say, have as many visitors as Europe does, which I don’t think is true. Or it’s because we’ve decentralised with lots of space, which might possibly be true. Or it’s because the virus first hit in summer and the sun killed it off, well experts say that that’s not established, really, one way or the other. So here’s my question. In this attempt to explain away why we have been successful, shouldn’t we instead be giving ourselves, and maybe even our leaders, a bit more credit? Brad Frankum.

BRAD FRANKUM, CLINICAL IMMUNOLOGIST: Absolutely yes, Richard. I think we should take a lot of credit. I think Australian people are well educated and well informed, and they care about each other, and they have made good decisions. And the social isolation and the widespread availability of testing has no doubt been important with that. No one should be under any illusion that – without the measures we have taken here – that we wouldn’t have had just as much of a horror show as the USA, and the UK, and continental Europe. And New South Wales yesterday only had two new cases. So, all in all, it’s just a brilliant result. And, I think as a doctor I am very grateful to the Australian people who have responded in this way and kept my colleagues, and nurses, and other healthcare workers safe by limiting the spread of the virus. So, I don’t buy all that stuff about us being an island and sunlight and summer and all of that, I think the reasons are much more scientific than that.

GLOVER: You know, obviously, there are a lot of things that have worked towards getting this result. But, of them all – the amount of testing we have managed to achieve, the amount of testing kits we have, the closure of the borders – there’s a great long list of things. Out of that, what do you think have been proved to be the most – the biggest – reasons for our success?

FRANKUM: I think closing the borders relatively early and stopping travel from China early was really critical. I think having really credible people advising our politicians, people like Brendan Murphy and Kerry Chant here in New South Wales, and our governments, both State and Federal, have listened to those people. They’ve taken their advice and they’ve instituted it. I think our hospitals were a little bit slow to get going – getting prepared. But, once they did and set up separate testing clinics that were outside of Emergency Departments and outside of the hospital proper, that kept people safe. I think, as always, our general practitioners have responded magnificently by adapting their work practices. But, overall, when we asked the Australian people not to come to the Emergency Department if they had infective symptoms or a fever, and to phone their GPs rather than just turning up, they listened, they did it. And that’s made the difference.

GLOVER: Okay. A co-operative population. Maybe that’s pretty significant. Lucy Turnbull, it seems so averse to Australians to pat ourselves on the back. If people say “Look, we’ve done incredibly well alongside the Kiwis, maybe even slightly better than the Kiwis, actually” we almost don’t like it, and we say, “it must be just because of the geography or because of density or because of sunshine”. And yet maybe we have done this well because we have done this well. Maybe we should pat ourselves on the back. What do you think?

LUCY TURNBULL, FORMER CHIEF COMMISSIONER OF THE GREATER SYDNEY COMMISSION: Well, I think we should, and I think this whole pandemic response shows that Australians have the most incredibly deep reservoirs of common sense. So it was interesting, you know, I observed people’s automatic social distancing responses were several weeks, often, ahead of public health instructions. People just are naturally sensible and practical and down to earth when it comes to how to have a sense of responsibility towards each other, towards older people, towards their fellow citizens. And so I think people did naturally respond. But I think it was combined with a really strong health system. I mean, by international standards we do have a pretty good health system across multiple cycles. Our hospitals are fantastic by world standards. And I think comparatively, our health system’s in a much better state than some of the other countries.

GLOVER: Ok, what about the politics of this? It seems to me that one of the crucial things – and maybe other countries haven’t quite done this – has been to get both sides of politics involved through this national cabinet. You’ve got people like Daniel Andrews, Labor, Victoria; Gladys Berejiklian, Liberal, New South Wales, sitting around the table with the other Premiers and the Prime Minister. That’s proved – and, at the same time the ACTU, the union movement invited to participate in the process and playing a pretty important role in all of this. That has been part of our success, hasn’t it?

TURNBULL: A big part, yes. So, having the National Cabinet has been a huge benefit. We have the voice of the state government that are running the hospital system. And the federal government working out fiscal and economic policy, and financial responses to the crisis. So it’s been – and the public health oversight’s been - really, really, a strong feature of this. And I really hope that that consensus, and that unified government, actually continues through the recovery period. Because I think the recovery period is going to be pretty tough too.

GLOVER: Has Mr Morrison done a good job?

TURNBULL: I think he’s done a pretty good job. Yeah, absolutely.

GLOVER: Tanya Plibersek, from Labor’s point of view…

TURNBULL: Can I also say, the Premier from New South Wales, I think, Gladys and her cabinet have done – Gladys Berejiklian and her cabinet have done an amazing job communicating in particular.

GLOVER: Yeah, Lucy Turnbull’s here. Tanya Plibersek, of course, is, as well. Tanya Plibersek, I know Labor has been trying to play a particular role in this. Trying to still be in opposition and throw in fresh new ideas and criticise when they think it’s necessary. But, it’s been a quite nuanced attempt to support the government in most things, hasn’t it?

TANYA PLIBERSEK, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION AND TRAINING: Yeah, we’re absolutely on board to support the Government and work cooperatively wherever we possibly can. People don’t want politics at the moment. They want us to be listening to the advice of our experts and working together across every political divide. I think if there are things that we think ought to be done differently or better it’s important that we still say that. But I think there’s been a very positive relationship across the political spectrum with everybody, really, in this together. And I think – I mean your question really is, are we too slow to give ourselves credit? I think we should give ourselves a pat on the back. But, it can’t make us complacent. I think the danger of saying we have done so well is that people say, “ok we can relax now and give up on social distancing and stop following the rules”. And the reason we have done well is because we have listened to expert advice. We have followed the suggestions of those experts, and the result is a good result. And a couple of other things I’d say: thank God for Medicare, I mean, having the best health system in the world. It wouldn’t save you if you have a really unequal health system where a large part of the population can’t access that high quality healthcare. What’s great about our system is that we’ve got the best doctors, and nurses, and hospital staff, and GPs, and no one is any better in the world. But what’s so important about it is that everyone can access that according to their need. And just – I’d also say that, people always used to say to me when I was the Health Minister – why do we have so many public servants in the health department? It’s for times just like this. The planning that goes on for years in case of an outbreak, of a pandemic like this, in case we run out of particular medicines - that work happens every year, right round the year, for years. Years at a time when it’s not necessary so that, when we have an outbreak like this, we can swing into action across the country. That planning, the professionalism of our scientists and our public servants, is fantastic. And we have got a national character still, where we look after each other. That’s been fantastic to see.

GLOVER: Yes that might be the most notable thing of them all in some ways. Tanya, I know Labor has the view that Anthony Albanese should have been invited onto this national cabinet. And there might be a case for that. Nonetheless, it’s been quite a good idea, hasn’t it?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I mean, absolutely. But, this is basically the Council of Australian Governments. They meet, the Prime Minister and the Premiers meet all the time. It would have been very helpful to have the Opposition Leader, to have Anthony, at the table as well, so that we could be more supportive. It’s not so that we could be there to criticise. But, quite often we are being briefed days after a public announcement is made. Wouldn’t it be great if Anthony were at the table able to help make the decision and able to help support and promote the decision once it’s made.

GLOVER: Tanya Plibersek is here. So is Lucy Turnbull, and Professor Brad Frankum. You’re listening to the Monday Political Forum, ABC Radio Sydney. The Government, of course, has launched its COVIDSafe app, with news that it has already been downloaded by 1.9 million Australians. That news has just come in in the last hour or so. Some, of course, still have privacy concerns. Others say it will give people a false sense of confidence. So, will you be downloading it yourself, have you already downloaded it, will you encourage others, and were you surprised by the speedy take up of this? Tanya Plibersek?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I downloaded it, and my whole family’s downloaded it. I’m a big supporter of it. I think anything that helps us get life back to something a bit more like normal is a good thing. Of course we need to watch the privacy elements of this, and we’ll be holding the Government to account on that. But, truly, I think it’s a great thing, and I can’t encourage people strongly enough to download it. We’ve got a national health emergency. If there’s a way that we can look after each other better, why wouldn’t we?

GLOVER: I just heard a voice in the little promo for PM – a young woman, it sounded like a young woman, saying, “Oh I definitely won’t download it – I think it’s wrong to track where people go.” That is a misunderstanding of what it does, isn’t it?

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, it doesn’t track where people go. It’s like a call and response feature so that we know if you’ve been in contact, near someone, for more than 15 minutes. And I think the privacy protections around this so far, as much as we know, seem to be quite strong. There are a lot of people who are usually very careful about sharing their data that have given this the tick. I think it is very important that the information’s only used for what the Government has said that it will be used for, that it’s not used for any other purpose, and that that information is deleted in the way that’s been promised. But, truly, I’m really keen for kids to get back to school, for businesses to be able to reopen their doors, people to be able to get back to work. And each step along the road that takes us closer is something that I think we should be supporting. We need to look after each other at times like this, and if we can by downloading an app, surely that’s one of the easiest ways we can look after each other.

GLOVER: And if you were at a funeral now, that’s already happening. But, maybe in a few week’s time you’re at a clothes shop doing a fitting for 15 minutes, and someone was infected. You’d want to know. And you’d want to know as soon as you can so you could go home and not infect your co-workers or your partner, or whatever. You’d want to know the information.

PLIBERSEK: I don’t remember what I did yesterday, let alone what I did for the last two weeks. If someone contact – if I got the virus and someone said to me, “Who have you been in contact with for the last two weeks?” well, it’d be pretty easy at the moment, because I’m not seeing anyone. But if life gets a little bit closer to back to normal, if we start taking our kids to school, if people start going to the shops and so on, being able to remember where you’ve been is a big ask. This is an insurance so that you can make sure if you get the virus that you’re not passing it onto others, that you are able to warn them. I want to do it for other people. I mean, I’d like to know if I come into contact with someone who’s had the virus. But I want to do it for others.

GLOVER: But, doing it for yourself – if you want to do it selfishly, though, there’s good arguments for that as well, you know?

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, sure.

GLOVER: Tanya Plibersek is here. Lucy Turnbull, are you tracing app positive?

TURNBULL: Absolutely tracing app positive. Our household is. And, I think it’s actually really important to do. But I think we need to bear in mind there are a lot of privacy and data security safeguards built into the product. But it’s also extremely similar to a product that’s been operational in Singapore for the last couple of months, and, in that respect, it’s really important to know that it’s really valuable but it’s not a panacea. Because, in the last week or two, there’s been a significant outbreak of COVID in Singapore, in, I guess, close housing. In migrant worker housing, which has created a huge new resurgence of COVID. So, it’s really important but it’s not a panacea. So we can't take our feet off the breaks and go back to normal, we’ve got to be really sensible. Yeah.

GLOVER: Yes, and one of the interesting things about Singapore is the take up was only 20% as I understand. The Australian Government was hoping for more than that. They’ve got two million already. Do you think they’ll get to the 50%, 60%, 70%, when this will become a more powerful tool?

TURNBULL: Well I hope so. But, I understand Singapore was 30 per cent anyway.


TURNBULL: But I think it is a very powerful tool, and the more people who take it up the better.

GLOVER: Brad Frankum, have you – you were talking before about, as an immunologist being quite delighted with the Australian people and their response to all this, their cooperative nature. This is another example of it, I guess.

FRANKUM: Yeah, I think so. I downloaded the app last night, and it doesn’t surprise me that people want to get on top of this thing and get back to some semblance of normality when we can. And, as the pandemic continues, until we have an effective vaccine or medication, then there will inevitably be outbreaks of COVID-19. What we need to be able to do is locate those outbreaks quickly and isolate people quickly. And, if we don’t, we’re going to be yo-yoing back and forward with larger-scale restrictions, and it’s just going to become incredibly frustrating for people. So, as Lucy said, this is not the full answer, but it’s going to allow what we’ve been doing quite successfully with contact tracing to occur more easily and more rapidly. And I believe the public understands that and understands that this app is one important tool in that fight.

GLOVER: Yeah, well, as we return back to some semblance of normality, as Tanya says, one of the elements of this disease, it seems to me, is you can have these quite major outbreaks. You have one medical conference, 50 doctors go; one person is infected. And, if you don’t get on to it really rapidly, you end up with five, 10, 15 infections. We’ve talked of course about that church in Korea, which led to hundreds of infections. So this is where the app is so powerful. If you – if we do go back to a situation where you’ve got 10, 20 people in a room and someone tests positive, you can contact all of those people in the next hour.

FRANKUM: Yeah, that’s really important. And, we know that people can be infectious when they’re asymptomatic. So, with this virus, it’s highly contagious and there’s a fairly long latency before people get sick. So as soon as somebody does get diagnosed, it’s really important to contact trace everybody they’ve been with. And, Tanya said she hasn’t been in contact with people very much. But, somebody like me, I’m still going to work as a doctor, I’m seeing lots of people every day. So, you can imagine how important it is if a doctor is diagnosed with a condition, to track down their patients, particularly the elderly and those who are immunosuppressed or have chronic disease.

GLOVER: Yeah, Brad Frankum is here. He’s the former president of the New South Wales AMA, he’s a clinical immunologist. Lucy Turnbull and Tanya Plibersek are also here. Nine minutes to six is the time. Richard Glover with you on Drive. Now, the new school term starts on Wednesday with plans in place for schools to gradually return to normal. Students asked to attend one day a week in about a fortnight’s time and then build on that. Some teachers remain worried about being put at risk. But there are also equity issues if private schools return quicker than public schools. Added to those equity issues, if children in chaotic families, or families without the internet, are required to learn from home for too long, different states are making different decisions on this. So, who is getting it right? Brad Frankum.

FRANKUM: Well, this is a difficult one, Richard. I think we have done pretty well with the school issue so far. I know it’s causing a lot of anxiety amongst teachers, particularly. I have a number of patients who have contacted me and are very distressed about the possibility of being in contact with kids who are positive to the disease. And we’ve got to remember some of our teachers are older and have chronic illnesses, and so are in a higher risk group. And, unlike healthcare workers, the teachers aren’t wearing personal protective equipment. So, I understand the anxiety and the hard work that they’re putting in. But again, we have to rely on the experts, we have to listen to the best evidence and advice we have. There’s the report from Professor Christine McCartney that’s been quoted. And I think probably this is the right approach – to start gradually moving kids back into school. I really share your concerns about the equity issues. I think the private schools are going to probably go back sooner. And I think that the whole inequity in our system has been in the “too hard basket” for too long, and crises like this really show it up. But, yeah, we’ve just got to surveil very carefully when school starts going back and act quickly if there are any outbreaks.

GLOVER: Okay, open but then watch. Lucy Turnbull, do you go along with that?

TURNBULL: Yes. And I really hope that all the teachers, especially the vulnerable ones, have the COVID app. Because I think it's really important that they can track and trace if they are exposed to the disease really, really quickly. And, of course, everybody’s worried about the welfare of teachers. But I, like our other panellists I’m sure, share the great concern that there is an inequity with this dependency of parents – large dependency of parents – on homeschooling, because there’s no doubt that some people have a greater aptitude to teach their kids than others. So, the ones that don’t have the super talented natural teacher parents the kids are at a disadvantage compared to the other ones.

GLOVER: Yeah, or the internet.

TURNBULL: Yep or the internet, or just having parents that are highly educated, who have English as a first language, or, highly proficient English. There are massive inequities in dependency on homeschooling, which actually don’t sit very comfortably with me.

GLOVER: Okay, but the problem on the other side – I think they are great arguments - but, of course, the problem on the other side some teachers point out is it’s very hard to socially distance in a staff room, you’re creating a problem at the school gates with parents dropping off children. And, I guess, the other point that’s been made by some people is the message to children becomes more complex, because you’re saying to the 17-year-old girl ‘you can sit next to your best friend all day, you can play netball with her at school, but you can’t go down to the park at night, in the afternoon and play netball with her.’

TURNBULL: Yep, it’s really complicated. And a lot of grandparents are teachers. They’re allowed to teach children but they’re not allowed to hang out with their grandchildren. It’s a very, very complicated situation, but it seems to be a sensible way of limiting the spread of the pandemic. And it’s very hard, and it’s very onerous on a lot of families, there’s no doubt about that. But I think, you know, kids also love going to school and seeing their friends. Now, they’re not going to be able to see their friends in the normal way that they have been traditionally, I don’t think. But at least they’ll be able to hang out with them, because that's what kids like doing.

GLOVER: Lucy Turnbull’s here; so is Tanya Plibersek. She’s the Shadow Minister for Education, of course. And Tanya, so we come to you. Where do we – how do we – get the kids back to schools without endangering the teachers?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I think everybody wants kids back at school as soon as it’s safe for students and school staff. And, there are some staff who will be particularly vulnerable here. Older, pregnant, immunocompromised, or, if they’ve got someone who’s in one of those categories at home. I think we absolutely need to make special arrangements for those people. But, I tell you, education’s so important, and I do worry about the kids who are missing it for days or weeks at a time. Lucy’s right, that there are educational inequalities between families and between communities. And truly, School – we don’t like it when kids take a couple of days off to because they’re bunking off school or have some other excuse because they don’t want to go to school - we know that that’s harmful if they’re missing a couple of days. Even with the very best work that teachers are doing to support learning at home, I don’t think it substitutes for that enormous talent they have face to face of getting the best out of every child and getting the best out of the group as a whole. So, I think as soon as it’s safe for students and staff to be back at school they should be. But that has to be guided by expert health advice. We don’t want conflicting messages from the Prime Minister and Premiers. Premiers and states run schools, so we should be following their advice. We certainly don’t need people like Peter Dutton having a go at teachers and saying this is all about the crazy teachers’ unions being too powerful. We need to…

GLOVER: …One part of the problem was that this was presented in the first place by the Prime Minister as really necessary to get – to allow frontline workers such as nurses and doctors to go to work, rather than presenting it as the centrality of education to our society.

PLIBERSEK: School is not babysitting for working parents. School is for children, it’s for children to learn all the basics. You know, reading, writing, maths, science, all that stuff. But also, it’s where they learn how to make friends, how to keep friendships, they learn social and emotional skills. They learn self-control, they learn patience; they learn sharing. Kids look up to their teachers, they are missing their teachers, they are missing their friends. And, I’ve got to say, I’m in awe of the work that teachers have just so quickly provided to families at home to support their kids. But it’s not the same.

GLOVER: Yeah, I know. We have had a lot of positive feedback from listeners absolutely amazed and gratified by the work that teachers have managed to do to provide that online learning. Tanya Plibersek is here, so is Lucy Turnbull and Professor Brad Frankum. Just quickly, finally, ANZAC Day was stripped of all its usual formal events due to the Coronavirus, but it seemed to take on its own special character. How did you reflect on that unusual ANZAC Day? Tanya Plibersek?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I was out of the front on my street, and a lot of the neighbours were out the front with candles and torches and so on, that was really nice. And then I watched the ceremony from Canberra, which was quite different. Normally I’m at the dawn service at the Cenotaph in Martin Place, I’ve been going there for many, many years. So actually, not leaving together at a quarter past four to get there on time was quite unusual. And I also did a Zoom meeting with – we have the Coloured Digger ceremony in Redfern every year to commemorate the service of the Indigenous veterans, and so we did that online this year. That was a new experience, but it was a very, very moving experience.

GLOVER: Yes, well, sometimes if the heart is in the right place it doesn’t matter where the feet are. Hey, we are out of time. But, thank you very much Tanya Plibersek, she’s Shadow Minister for Education and Training and member for Sydney. Lucy Turnbull is the former Chief Commissioner of the Greater Sydney Commission, and Professor Brad Frankum is the former president of the New South Wales AMA. He’s a working clinical immunologist, so you’ll know why we invited him this week.