Second Reading: Health Services Amendment (Mandatory Vaccination of Healthcare Workers) Bill 2020.

I rise today to speak on the Health Services Amendment (Mandatory Vaccination of Healthcare Workers) Bill 2020. This is an interesting bill, because when you think about the duty of care that a health worker has you would instantly imagine that people would actually understand the importance of being immunised.

As a nurse for many, many years I would never have dreamt of not being vaccinated if I was looking after neonates or infants. On a children’s ward of course you would make sure you had your pertussis up to date or every year the flu vaccinations. That was just part and parcel of the role.

I am pleased to see this bill, but I do have some concerns about how the bill will play out. I see that this was introduced in other parliaments—some four years ago I think is the time line on that—and I am disappointed to see that there is a lack of detail in this bill of how it will actually be implemented. Some of the questions I have got are: what vaccines are going to be included as mandatory?

There are a number of vaccines—I think 192 vaccines are actually available—so what vaccines does this cover? You would hope it would be measles, mumps and rubella, your standard ones—but there is probably no need for some of the more exotic ones, and that is not explained in detail.

How will this be audited? It is often hard to get enough vaccines. In particular, out in the country we find it quite difficult to have the vaccines available when the season starts, and there is really no point if you are just ticking a box and you cannot get vaccinated until, say, August because the vaccine was not available for the amount of people requiring it—and that we have seen happen many times.

What happens in this situation where the health professionals and the support staff are actually not vaccinated? Are they stood down until that vaccination takes place? Of course with the coronavirus in play at the moment and everyone most concerned about this disease, what will we see happen when that comes out? Will we have people that are vulnerable being prioritised, as you would hope to see, or would we be prioritising the health professionals?

There is no doubt that we need to have an improved herd immunity to actually get the results we are after. It is quite disappointing to see that we are only at 84 per cent of health professionals vaccinated. I think it will be a good thing, because we know that vaccinations work. In fact I am quite horrified to be receiving some emails from health professionals who are saying the science is not there to say that vaccinations work. It is absolutely ridiculous to say that when we see diseases like polio, which has been almost eradicated from the planet because of the great work that the Rotary clubs do—and a big shout-out to my Rotary clubs in Warrnambool, Portland and Port Fairy.

They do a lot of work, and I recently attended the breakfast they had for raising money for polio around the world. We are so close to being able to get there like we have done with smallpox, so there is absolutely no reason why as a community we cannot do better. As someone who was a nurse, I am actually horrified that we would have health professionals that do not have that sense of duty of care that I think should be mandatory.

I want to take the time also to talk about the hardworking health workers around my electorate. We have got the hospital at Portland which is doing an extraordinary job for a hospital that is very isolated in terms of closeness to capital cities. It has a large amount of people coming through its doors and has to provide services when it is so far away from the Melbourne hospitals.

There needs to be an understanding of those challenges. There is the Heywood hospital, which is doing a fantastic job and which I love to visit. It is always great to visit—I like the old folks section of the hospitals because you can talk about who is related to whom, and we like to know who is who in the country. I love to go and have lunch with the community at Heywood and must do that again soon. The Port Fairy hospital has currently got its issues with the urgent care centre and trying to meet the demands of the community, and of course there is Macarthur with its small health facility there, but no less very important to the community of Macarthur. And that leads me of course to the Warrnambool base hospital, which is the hospital that services the region and has an enormous need for an upgrade at the moment.

I am desperately hoping that the government understand the many, many times I have put to them the importance of funding this hospital. As I keep saying, it is not a want, it is an absolute need. The accident and emergency and theatre areas particularly are desperate for an upgrade. There is no way I would believe that we will not get funding in this budget in May.

I would just be horrified if that is not the case. But these people are all going to work every day worried about their own health, obviously, and looking after others before themselves. So a big shout-out to all the health workers—the doctors and nurses—particularly in places like Warrnambool, where they are under enormous pressure in the accident and emergency department and theatres.

The concern I have got is: how will this be run out? When you talk about the smaller health services, like Heywood and Port Fairy, how will this be funded? There also needs to be funding for this.

If the government keep saying to hospitals, ‘You’ve just got to fund it out of your global budget’, then the pressure at some point will be unbearable. Their electricity costs have gone up enormously, and they are just being told they have to cater for that out of the budget. The reality is that something else has to go. We have seen the elective surgery wait blow out by 46 per cent at the Warrnambool Base Hospital. Extra pressures that are not having the extra funding allocated to deal with them are much harder in small hospitals.

When you have got a larger facility you actually have people who are delegated to certain administrative roles that can deal with that. In small hospitals you do not. It is often the administration staff and the CEO and the director of nursing who are the front line trying to do the extra administrative roles that will accommodate the new changes. So we hope that we actually see some funding around this as well.

It is really just a matter of saying that this is a bill that will, I think, improve the situation but there are some challenges around conscientious grounds being excluded. I think that is absolutely fair—as I said, there is a lot of science around immunisation and we need herd immunity to make this effective—and I am pleased to see that is actually excluded.

However, some of the more challenging areas are religious grounds. That has been excluded, and I think that is absolutely right as well. But when you have got people who are allergic to eggs, for example—because the vaccines are sometimes carried in an albumin base and that can result in allergies or anaphylaxis—how are we going to deal with those sorts of situations? Will it just be a doctor’s certificate that will certify that somebody does not need to be vaccinated? If a pregnant woman, for example, says, ‘I’m not comfortable with being vaccinated while I’m pregnant’, will she get an exemption, or is this going to be much more clearly itemised somewhere where the doctors can have some guidelines around that? At this point in time I am not sure there is clarification around things like what medical exemptions there are.

I recently had a new granddaughter, born on 27 December, little Fleur.

Mr Pakula interjected.

Ms BRITNELL: This is grandchild number two. Archie is four. We make sure we all get immunised. We do not want to put any risks around our children and our grandchildren. I would be horrified to think that anybody would go onto a ward—as a nurse I certainly would not have—if they did not have their immunisations up to speed.

Let us just remember that we want to make sure that parents, families and patients are protected. I absolutely endorse the fact that there will be a big improvement in healthcare workers to get it up from 84 per cent so we have better herd immunity in our community.