Doorstop – COVID in child care centres, crisis in early learning sector, vaccine rollout and young people

Thursday, 19 August 2021

AMANDA RISHWORTH, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION AND DEVELOPMENT: First I would like to make some comments about reports that suggest 146 centres are now closed as a result of being a transmission site or potentially an exposure site. Now that is very, very concerning. And I’ve also been concerned by reports that the Department of Education has not been willing to answer important questions on this issue. Australian parents need to know what is the nature of transmission in early education and care, and what is the risk in early education and care when it comes to this third wave, Delta outbreak. And so I call on the government to be transparent with the Australian people, and particularly with parents with small children in early education and care. What is the nature of transmission, and what is the risk of transmission in early education and care settings? Not just for parents, but for educators and centres as well.

Now, I’ll move onto the wider crisis in the early education and care sector. We know that services in New South Wales are screaming out for help in this extended lockdown, and it is also emerging in the lockdown in Melbourne services needing extra support. The government very belatedly enabled services to waive their fees for parents, but the evidence emerging from New South Wales is that some surveys suggest the majority are not able to waive those fees for parents. And the reason is because if they waive those fees for parents, their viability is put at risk. So the government has failed when it comes to parents making sure they get fee relief when they’re doing the right thing and keeping their children at home, and that centres are able to stay viable. The government has spoken a lot about early education and care, educators, centre directors as being essential workers, but they are not treating the sector like this. Without implementing a support package to ensure that families get the fee relief they need, and that centres are able to stay open for essential workers and viable.

Now, the government seems to be scratching its head and not sure how to deal with this issue. Well, they do have a blueprint. That blueprint is the package they implemented in Victoria last year package, which ensured that essential workers could get care, that families that were doing the right thing would have their fees waived, and of course centres were able to stay viable. They’ve got the blueprint outlined, now they need to just implement it. Because if we don’t have a sector that is able to be viable through this extended lockdown, we are going to have difficulty getting our economy back on track. So I call on the government, enough mucking around, enough delay, it’s now time to implement this package into the sector. So that they can get on with their job of educating children of essential workers, and hopefully, when this lockdown ends, that people will be able to go back to work with the right support.

Now finally, I’m going to make some comments in my role as Shadow Minister for Youth. And of course we have seen reports of both exposure sites at child care centres and in schools, and in this current outbreak we’ve seen a number of schools getting caught up, and a number of young teenagers being exposed. In fact, the figures in New South Wales suggest that over this most recent outbreak, 30 per cent of cases are under the age of 19. And in Victoria, 45 per cent of active cases are actually children and teenagers. This is very, very concerning for parents right around the country. Because this group of children, 12 to 15 year olds, are virtually not protected at all with the vaccine. Very little have protection, and as a result they are very vulnerable to this current outbreak of Delta.

I’m calling on the government to put a plan in place to vaccinate the 12 to 15 year olds. We know that the TGA has approved the Pfizer vaccine for these young people, and ATAGI is currently looking at the evidence. But the Prime Minister needs to act now. He needs to have a plan in place, he needs to understand that this is a race. 12 to 15 year olds, our young people, they are vulnerable, and they need to see their government ensure that they are protected. Now the Prime Minister has bungled the previous rollout of the vaccine, he needs to learn from those lessons and have a plan in place. And he needs that plan to be transparent. A lot of parents cannot trust the Prime Minister’s word when he says “don’t worry, it’s all going to be okay”. They want to know what the plan is, they want to see that plan from the Prime Minister, not an excuse that “I’m sure the States and Territories will get on with the job”. They want a message from their Prime Minister that children will be protected, that they will be able to access a vaccine, and that it will be done in a fast way. Young people have taken the brunt of this pandemic. It’s been disproportionately young people that have lost their jobs, that have had their education disrupted, that have had their social and other opportunities disrupted as a result of this pandemic. And now their health is at risk. This Prime Minister must outline a plan, he must be clear about how we protect those 12 to 15 year olds, how they get the vaccination. Because at the moment, it is very unclear.

JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister says the ATAGI decision on this issue should be made soon. What more could the government be doing at this point? Don’t they need to wait for the medical advice?

RISHWORTH: Well, of course, we wouldn’t want to see the vaccine rolled out before the medical advice. But that doesn’t mean that the Prime Minister can’t put a plan together, so that when the medical advice comes through, he’s ready to go. And that’s what we’ve seen lacking from this Prime Minister. He’s dragged his feet, he’s been slow to act, and he’s taken a “she’ll be right” kind of attitude. That’s just not good enough. Parents around Australia are rightly nervous with the outbreaks that are happening in schools, and they’re rightly concerned about their children. So get the plan in place, be ready to go, day one of ATAGI’s advice, start the rollout, be ready to actually get jabs in arms. That’s what the Prime Minister needs to do. He can’t abdicate his responsibility when it comes to this, he can’t just put it onto the States and Territories. He needs to be leading the charge, he needs to learn the lessons from the botched rollout in the past. So there’s plenty he could be doing to reassure Australian families that he is in control.

JOURNALIST: If Labor is elected, will you commit to implementing the government’s boosted child care subsidy for second children in care as scheduled? Or will it be scrapped?

RISHWORTH: What Labor will do, we’ll replace it with a better system. Labour’s proposal for improved child care subsidies helps many, many more families than the Liberal Party’s plan. In fact, our plan is better for 86 per cent of families compared with the Liberal Party’s plan, that’s coming in on the same date. So the Liberal Party has chosen not to start their plan until 1 July 2022. There is likely to be an election before that. Labor has proposed a plan that will help 97 per cent of families. It will provide a boost for every child in child care, whether you have one, two or three, you will get extra subsidy for every child in child care. As I said, 86 per cent of families are better off under Labor’s proposal. So we will implement our proposal instead of the Liberal Party’s half-baked proposal, that only helps families that have two children or three children in child care at any one time.

JOURNALIST: Do you think staff at early learning centres should be given priority for COVID vaccines?

RISHWORTH: I think there’s certainly an emerging case that COVID-19 is being spread in early learning centres. Because of the government’s lack of transparency, we don’t know how that transmission is happening, or what is the risk. But I think the government needs to seriously look at how we get the COVID vaccine out effectively and efficiently to all our essential workers, including our early educators. It’s incumbent to understand the risk, at the moment educators don’t understand the risk, because the government hasn’t been transparent about what has happened in the 146 centres that have closed. So look, I think early educators are essential workers, and we need to clearly look at how we get the vaccine to those most in need as quickly as possible. And I think it’s incumbent on the government to outline that plan.

JOURNALIST: New South Wales reported 681 new cases of coronavirus today, which is the highest number it’s seen in one day. Is it a concern?

RISHWORTH: I’m deeply concerned. And I would like to also recognise that a life was lost overnight, and pay my condolences to the family of that person. But I’m deeply concerned that these numbers are going up, not down, they are going in the wrong direction. They are going through schools and early learning centres, as well as other communities, and it is deeply concerning. And I really hope that the health measures put in place ensure that there’s a curb. But really, the Prime Minister decided that it wasn’t a race to get people vaccinated. The Prime Minister decided that it wasn’t a priority to have purpose built quarantine facilities. That is the reason we are in this position today. And so we need to get on with the job, we need to acknowledge that, realise that it’s been a huge mistake, encourage people to take the opportunity when it’s available to get that jab, to get as much supply as possible, and work as hard as we can to make distribution and access as easy as possible.

JOURNALIST: The unemployment rate dropped in July from 4.9 per cent to 4.6 per cent. The ABS says it’s because many people gave up looking for work during the lockdowns. What’s your reaction?

RISHWORTH: At this point, many people are really concerned and really stressed about their employment. They’re stressed about their future, they’re stressed about their small business. So I’m not able to read too much into those figures. Of course, we want as low unemployment figures as possible. But we don’t want a situation where people have lost connection with their work, and actually given up. I think that’s a really, really concerning thing. And I think that’s why so many of us called for a JobKeeper type of arrangement in these recent lockdowns, because one of the features of the JobKeeper program was to keep the connection between the employer and the employee. Now you can call it something different, and of course, we’d like to see the rorts that were in the JobKeeper scheme eliminated. But that essential principle of keeping the connection with work was so important. And I think that over time in this third wave, we’re going to see a lot of people having been stood down, a lot of people giving up looking for work, and that’s deeply concerning, because it makes our recovery a lot harder.


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