Friday, 14 January 2022
KENNY HEATLEY, HOST: Amanda Rishworth is the Shadow Early Childhood Education Minister and joins me now. Thanks so much for your time today. What sort of feedback are you getting from child care centres since this announcement from National Cabinet around these relaxed rules, with isolation for certain industries, including early childhood?
AMANDA RISHWORTH, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION AND DEVELOPMENT: Well, the feedback I’m getting is a little bit of frustration. Because while the rules on the paper have been relaxed, they do require getting access to rapid antigen tests, and enough for every staff member to test on a regular basis. So many services are telling me they just don’t have access to them, or if they do have access to a couple, it’s just not enough. So the trouble with these isolation rules is that they are on the basis of actually being able to access these tests. And the Prime Minister hasn’t done his job, there isn’t enough of these tests, they are hard to access and expensive when you get them. So this has been a big frustration of many services that I’ve spoken to and heard from, that they just can’t get access to these tests, despite the change in the isolation rule.
HEATLEY: Okay, it is a problem at the moment and there are supply issues. But it might be hopefully short term because we do know that the New South Wales Department of Education is going to be providing centres in New South Wales with rapid antigen testing kits and there’s going to be supply going to child care centres. And Sky News is hearing that there are centres starting to get these rapid antigen testing kits now. But are you saying it’s potentially a longer term problem too?
RISHWORTH: Look, I think it’s a long term problem that we will not have enough tests to ensure that we can ensure workers safely back to work. But in addition, the early learning sector has been complaining of workforce shortages now for over a year. During this pandemic, over the last two years, a lot of services, a lot of organisations have seen a lot of early educators leaving the sector. So the acute workforce shortage has been a problem that has been there for some time. And we’ve seen the Federal Government do nothing, there’s been no plan in place, despite desperate pleas on the sector for some sort of plan around workforce we’ve seen the government not act. So this is now – that long term impact of the workforce has now come to a head with these other issues. And I just am not holding out hope that there will be enough rapid antigen tests on the ground to support centres to stay open. There’s also the confusion around the country as well with different requirements, different state imposed rules, and that is causing a lot of confusion.
HEATLEY: So do you think that the decisions that were made at National Cabinet this week were the wrong decisions to make considering that these centres are trying to stay open?
RISHWORTH: Of course what we need for our economy is centres to stay open as safely as possible. Educators need to be safe, children need to be safe, but those that can open should be able to. So we do need a plan for that. The government has had two years to come up with a plan, they’ve been missing in action, and now they’re making up the rules on the run. Of course, I’m not a medical expert, it must be guided by the public health orders and need to be done the safest way possible. But my criticism is that these new rules can’t even be implemented when services right around the country, we’re not just talking about New South Wales, right around the country cannot get access to these. And there is a question mark of whether they will be able to get enough to continue to abide by these rules on an ongoing basis.
HEATLEY: Okay, so to make sure that a child care worker can keep on working National Cabinet has agreed that anyone who is a close contact of a positive case at home does a test on day one, day three and day six as long as they can get a rapid antigen test. Do you agree that that is the right thing to do? And would that be Labor’s decision? I’m just trying to work out whether you would do anything different at this point in time where we are right now to keep these centres open?
RISHWORTH: Well I haven’t been privy to the medical advice, quite frankly, and this needs to be done on the advice of public health officials. So we need to make sure it’s done safely. I certainly do support keeping as many centres open as safely as possible. We need to have centres open, but we can’t put children and educators at risk, so there needs to be a balance here. I’m not privy to that advice. But what I would say is the government’s had two years to plan for this. This sector was crying out for some certainty and some guidance in September last year, we had the government not take any action when it comes to a plan for the early education sector, the workforce, all those sorts of things. So it’s now time, I think, the government doesn’t just focus on the immediate crisis, but does put in a longer term plan for the early education sector. Issues such as ventilation has been one of the issues that has been brought up last year. And when we asked in estimates, the government said they had not planned to give any attention to it. So we need a long term plan, not just one to get us through the next week. This is an issue, we should have done it previously, and we need to keep our eye on the ball, and the government needs to act now with a long term plan.
HEATLEY: So we’ve got 462 child care centres across the country closed as of today. That’s the latest data that I’m looking at. In your opinion, or Labor’s opinion, should a child care centre close if there’s an outbreak there? And if so, for how long?
RISHWORTH: Well, once again, what we need are rules based on the medical advice. What we need is a national plan for how to deal with that, and clear rules across the country for centres. There’s a lot of centres that have told me, they’ve had to make up sort of their own rules based on different State Government advice. And that’s been very frustrating. So I think what we all need is a clear plan that is based on a sound public health advice, that keeps educators safe, that keeps children safe, but also ensures that our economy can continue to function. Because the government has seemed to not understand that early education and care, and being able to access it, is critical to ensure the economy continues to tick over, that parents can go to work. They have ignored the workforce crisis that has been there and growing over the last two years. So that’s what we need to see the government do is take a long term plan on this, but it needs to be guided by public health advice. And that’s what I want to see the government act on.
HEATLEY: Amanda Rishworth thanks so much for your time today. Appreciate it.