Private Members Statement - COVID-19 Rules
The COVID-19 pandemic has had and is continuing to have a significant impact on people and a devastating impact on businesses that have had trade affected both in Barwon and across the State. Livelihoods have been devastated, jobs have been lost and people who have been unable to service debt have faced financial ruin. That has created great mental anguish and uncertainty across communities. It was an incredibly busy time for us as MPs, but we continued to be paid. Interestingly, the people making decisions about what would happen, who could trade, who could open and under what circumstances all continued to receive their regular income throughout stay‑at‑home orders and restrictions. That is not a criticism of Health bureaucrats and their efforts, but the financial pain being experienced by business and employees was not a shared pain with decision‑makers.
Throughout the pandemic we have been told all decisions are based on the "health advice", a nebulous term that was not further described. At 11.00 a.m. on most days we watched the "Gladys and Friends" show. The former Premier would tell us what decisions were made by New South Wales behind closed doors on evidence we were never shown. Calls for greater transparency of the health advice fell on deaf ears. The businesses and people impacted by those decisions showed great patience in complying with constantly changing rules, especially in the absence of the evidence that underpinned decisions. I acknowledge the accessibility and responsiveness of the health Minister and his team. No fewer than 10 times, health orders of the day were modified at my request and that of my team.
In 2020 the rules about caravan parks would have resulted in people who literally had nowhere to go being kicked out on the street. More recently, rules prohibited people from leaving their local government area [LGA]. Those rules work for people who live in an LGA like Sydney, which has everything a person could possibly need within five kilometres of home, but not for those who live in Barwon shire. The rules were based on city‑centric use of local government areas as travel boundaries and a total lack of understanding of regional New South Wales. The Government's decision of to keep the all-important health advice from the public was a mistake and will not be forgotten. The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party will continue to seek access to that information through parliamentary processes in the other place.
No matter what I say about vaccines, a raft of people will jump on me, which leads me to my point. When government creates an information vacuum, people will fill that void with negative misinformation. Vaccines are a perfect example of that. The misinformation, combined with unhelpful messaging by some public health officials and agencies and conflicting messages from politicians, created a perfect storm in undermining the efforts of our frontline health workers. The vaccine rollout and associated communications will be studied for years as a failure of Government procurement at the Federal level, messaging and community engagement.
Educating people, bringing people along, using more carrot and less stick, should have been the priority. People should not be punished for vaccine hesitancy. The creation of positive incentives and the provision of accessible, simple information would enable people to make an informed decision. Vaccine mandates by stealth through societal or employment exclusion have inflamed conspiracy theories and steeled resolve to misinform and oppose government efforts to increase vaccination rates. On the weekend outside this place we saw protests against vaccination. The harder the you go, the more they will resist. It is difficult to believe that no‑one can see how this is playing out. Government needs a different and positive approach to resolve this impasse. The situation could have been very different if State and Federal communication efforts were aligned in a more productive way.
During COVID one of the most frustrating things has been the rules that just do not make sense. On 10 October this year an unvaccinated person could dine in a pub, restaurant or cafe. On 11 October, despite a rising vaccination rate, that same person was and remains excluded from being able to participate in many aspects of society. All the while, we were being told vaccination lead to less risk of infection, transmission and hospitalisation. Yet still we crack these people off being able to do what they could do the day before. How do you brain that? Rules that made no sense could not be defended because the public health advice was not available to the public. It left police and other frontline staff to enforce or abide by confusing and unclear requirements, some of which were impossible to link to safety and stopping the spread of the virus. Some bizarre rules actually created more risks of transmission by forcing people to travel to areas they would not otherwise go to.
I offer the Government a set of goalposts that should not move. By 1 December 2021 it should remove restrictions and any additional powers granted by this Parliament. If they are needed in the future, the Government should table its health advice and argue its case in this place where it is subject to the scrutiny and transparency of the Parliament and the public. It should listen to the voices of regional communities through their elected representatives. If it does that, it will get more balanced decisions, less forgotten cohorts and more trust from the people of New South Wales. I thank all our frontline staff, especially health, police and emergency services staff, many of whom stepped well outside their defined role over the past 20 months. Their efforts are celebrated by their communities and should be acknowledged at every opportunity.