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30 September 2021

SUBJECT: Senate questioning reveals people with disabilities were deprioritised for COVID-19 vaccines.
My next guest is former Labor leader Bill Shorten. He drew the public eye to a major shortfall in the vaccine rollout, which saw people with disabilities deprioritised. Now I find that extraordinary because surely those with the biggest challenges are up the queue, and that's always been something that we've reasonably accepted as a basic human rights tenet. But not in this case. So, let's talk to the Shadow NDIS Minister, Bill Shorten. Bill, who made that call?

BILL SHORTEN, MEMBER FOR MARIBYRNONG: We found out through questioning in the Senate, there's a committee to monitor how the Government is doing its COVID-19 rollout, the Federal Government. the Department of Health Secretary, he's the one who said there was a shift in focus, but I don't think it's clear who made the actual decision. But one thing is for sure. I was shocked. I couldn't believe it. I mean, people with disabilities in this country in many cases have reduced immunities. So, they are actually the biggest risk group for COVID 19, for hospitalisation and worse. And somewhere along the line, the Government's just had a shift in focus and not told anyone. That is just outrageous.

BYNER: And when you expressed your disdain, which 99.9 per cent of the public would agree with, what did you get back?

SHORTEN: Oh, the Government is tricky, and I got a tricky answer. What the Government said is, oh well, the number of people in residential accommodation with disabilities, they have a higher average vaccination rate than the general population. But if I can briefly deconstruct the weasel words, there's about 27,000 people with disabilities who live in group accommodation. But there's 470,000 profoundly and severely impaired people who receive NDIS support. You don't get that support unless you're already profoundly and severely impaired. So, what they're doing is they're picking a very small cohort and saying, we're above average. Frankly, for that small cohort. It should be 100 per cent because there's only 27,000 of them and we all know where they are. And also, for the 470,000 profoundly and severely impaired, it is a scandal that they haven't got vaccination and that they're not at the front of the queue. I mean, this is what we're all going through the hardship for to keep the vulnerable safe.

BYNER: Absolutely.

SHORTEN: And the Government, I mean, it's had 18 months. It’s had 18 months.

BYNER: Look, the Royal Commission report into stuff like this, which described the rollout as seriously deficient made a whole lot of recommendations. I understand there were about 17. Have they been taken up?

SHORTEN: Oh listen, I don't know. And this is where the Government is addicted to secrecy. 

BYNER: Yeah. 

SHORTEN: Like, if you've made a mistake, own the mistake. But this Government's always tricky, you know, it's a bit like that game they've played when they say, oh, we were above average for people in residential accommodation. But as I've just demonstrated to you, that's a much smaller portion than the group of vulnerable people. So, I think the Government could do several things from the royal commission immediately, and it should have a plan with a time frame. I mean, it's been promising that since January of this year. They should make it easier to find out what's happening by publishing up to date data on the number of people with disability who've been affected by COVID and the vaccination rates. I mean, if you've got a chart every day telling you how you're going, well, that tends to make you step up and perform more. You can't fix what you don't measure, and I don’t know why they do it as a secret thing. I also think that what we've got to do is do more outreach to people with disability. Like, not every person with a disability can just stretch on down to the local showground or easily get to a GP clinic. In fact, a lot of people with disability are scared. They're scared of leaving their house. So, we should reach out to them. We know where they live because we pay them money. So, I just think someone in the Government should be specifically responsible. You know, you should say my name is Johnny or Jenny Bloggs, and it's on me every day to see how we're going, and I will answer the questions. We can't find anyone.

BYNER: Well, we know there are people with disabilities, for example, a few examples - one where a person was born without a right foot and they have a prosthesis, and they haven't been attended to. We've got to do better than this, surely. Surely.

SHORTEN: And that's - what you're saying is there's a real story behind these numbers and the political sort of carry on. We have family members, we have people in our communities, we have people in our streets who are scared, and they're scared legitimately. I mean, all too often in the discussion on COVID-19 and reopening, we listen to the impatient people, the people who want to get back to normal, which is legitimate. That's a legitimate point of view. But there's another group of Australians who aren't on the phones or complaining. These are people who are scared to their wits end about getting COVID-19, and vaccines are a key way out of that fear. And I think that the Government needs to listen to the silent people. It needs to respect those who are not complaining, but who are terrified of getting COVID-19 and just give them their vaccinations.

BYNER: Stay on the case Bill and keep in touch with us as Shadow NDIS Minister because we're really interested in this. Of course, as we've said before, society and community are judged by how they treat their most vulnerable. Not a good score card here, hey? But we'll stay on the case. It's unfortunate, but it's true that unless some of these issues get attention in the media and pretty reasonable attention, we just seem to have so many good people fall between the cracks, and that's not fair.