Questions Without Notice: Coronavirus

26 February 2020

Senator Patrick: My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Health, Senator Cash. It refers to the Australian health sector's emergency response plan for COVID-19, which was endorsed by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, on 17 February. Is it not the case that the plan discusses three scenarios for the impact of the virus in Australia, ranging from 'low' to 'moderate' and then 'high clinical severity', with the third scenario being comparable to the 1918 H1N1 Spanish flu? Doesn't the plan further advise that for the moderate and severe impact scenarios, new health emergency legislation may be needed to support outbreak response-specific activities? What new legislation is the government planning to introduce, or encourage states and territories to adopt, to prepare for the possible widespread outbreak of COVID-19?

Senator Cash (Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business): I thank Senator Patrick for the question and for some prior notice. Senator Patrick, I have been able to obtain the following information for you. The Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan for Novel Coronavirus is already being implemented. It brings together the successful actions we've taken to date as a government to contain the virus. The plan is in response to the COVID-19 outbreak and is based on the Australian Health Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza, which has been in place for many years. The plan is the result of coordination, consultation and collaboration with the sector and with our state and territory colleagues. It also outlines clear responses and actions we can escalate, should the risk increase. It ensures we target resources and public health interventions to most effectively protect the health of all Australians.

To date, we have been able to contain the spread of the virus in Australia and we will continue to do all we can to hold this position. But the COVID-19 outbreak could post significant risks to Australia, to people's health and to our economy. The response we have had to date has been one based on the principle of precaution and minimising risk. We have been working closely across all levels of government, implementing strategies to minimise the spread of the disease, through strong border measures and widespread communications activities. The plan we have released goes beyond what we are already doing and looks at what we now know about COVID-19 and how we move forward as this outbreak unfolds. It will be updated as we learn more about the virus, its key risk groups and when potential treatments or vaccines become available.

Australia's plan to manage the COVID-19 outbreak is based on these pillars: monitor and investigate outbreaks as they occur; identify and characterise the nature of the virus and clinical severity of the disease; contribute to the rapid and confident recovery of individuals, communities— (Time expired)

The PRESIDENT: Senator Patrick, a supplementary question?

Senator Patrick: Given that prudent planning requires timely action to prepare for a global pandemic scenario with severe impact in Australia, what new legislation and other measures will be put in place to ensure that, if required, there is effective social distancing, prioritisation of essential medical services, guarantees in respect of national logistic and supply chains functioning effectively, and that vital goods and services remain available?

Senator Cash (Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business): The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee will advise on which activities to undertake and escalate this plan. This will be done in consultation with relevant parties and on advice from expert bodies. As the government has shown to date, we will continue to follow the expert advice. Communication is a priority under the plan in order to ensure the delivery of timely, accurate and comprehensive clinical information to health professionals and to the broader community so that they can effectively manage patients, implement COVID-19 control measures and minimise their own risk of exposure. You can be assured that, consistent with the plan, the Australian government, in collaboration with states and territories, is planning for all scenarios, and we are communicating with the broader community and the private sector.

Senator Patrick: Minister, can you assure the Senate that all necessary and national health emergency legislation will be considered by the government and introduced into the parliament as a matter of priority, bearing in mind that only four sitting weeks for the House of Representatives and only two for the Senate are scheduled over the next three months?

Senator Cash (Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business): As I have stated on a number of occasions now, the Australian government is well prepared, and we will continue to follow the expert medical advice. You'd be aware that on 21 January 2020 the human coronavirus with pandemic potential was listed as a listed human disease under the relevant legislation, the Biosecurity Act 2015. That enabled the enhanced border measures. All states and territories themselves have powers to issue orders under public health legislation that include provision for detaining persons and enforcement of those orders in relation to notifiable conditions. Authorised public health officers may issue directions to an individual, but generally chief health officers or their equivalent must authorise orders for detention. I do have further information which I will provide to you.

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