ABC Western Plains with Nic Healy


Minister, good morning.


Morning Nic, how are you?


I’m well thank you.

We are having a couple of technical difficulties there but I'm glad I've got you on the line. Look, we have heard just late last night from the Prime Minister about some more closures that we can expect to see, some more businesses that will not be remaining open at the moment.

Unemployment obviously one of the big, big issues facing - I think not just our region - but the country. But are there any hotspots in particular that you are concerned about within the Parkes electorate?


Is relation to positive COVID-19 tests or for unemployment?


Well, I’m talking about unemployment on the basis of these changes we’re seeing.


Yeah, obviously the hotspots are the entertainment industry or the clubs, the pubs, and you know, obviously the businesses that the Prime Minister announced last night.

It is hopeful that the other major employers in our area, an economy based on agriculture and mining, are that- a lot of those can continue on in the associated industries.

But Nic, that's why it's so important that these other very tough restrictions are in – so that we can keep most of our people employed and our economy turning. But it is a balancing act between restricting movement and association between people and keeping the economy going.

That's why these changes are being made day-by-day as the risk is assessed each time. I think largely the people in the entertainment industry or the service industry are probably feeling it the most.


You say hopefully, and I think many people feel that way, because I'm not sure there's been a great deal of clarity about what currently counts as essential services and what will, going forward. And I do know that information is changing regularly but I think for a lot of people there's just no real sense of stability.


Yeah look, I think there was some comments made on Sunday that I think did cause some confusion.

The Prime Minister cleared that up last night, he said anyone that has a job, that needs a job, that can do that job, while being relatively safe and practicing the social isolation or the social distancing, I should say, should keep going with that job.

That's the important thing. And that's why there's a lot of commentary about why aren’t we just shutting down? But it's not-  this is something that can't be shut down for a week or a fortnight because if we do that when we start up we're in- we are in a- you know, the virus will start to escalate again.

At the moment, our rate of infections in Australia are far higher than we would have liked, and that's why we've had to take those further tough decisions that the Prime Minister announced late last night.


Minister, one of the big concerns: Centrelink. It's obviously been in really high demand and I think for people in regional areas who don't have an office near them who are trying to limit non-essential travel, as we've been asked to, they're struggling to get online and information. What can they be doing?


Look, Hank Jongen, who is the head of Centrelink, has been on the media early this morning saying look, don't line up, don't go to Centrelink.

It might take some time but there's a number, I don't have it in front of me, but I’ll make sure that’s on my website.

Go to that number and register that way.

But the best way to do this is online or on the phone, even for first time Centrelink users. And so, there has been a bit of misinformation around about that, but I know the natural instinct, people are very frightened and concerned and are lining up, but really the best thing to do is to try and do it on the phone or online.


Look, we do know we've had, I believe, 12 confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the Western Health District.

It's always been a case of when it would arrive here, not if. But for people who live in those regional areas, particularly for people who've been living in areas where they haven't had a great deal of access to healthcare, what's being done to make sure that they get the support they need as this infection arrives?


Across all of regional Australia there's been a lot of preparation done. We have had the opportunity because it has taken a bit longer to get to regional Australia, it is with us here now in the central west and the north west across my electorate, largely in the bigger towns.

I was speaking last night with Scott McLachlan from Western Health. They’ve been operating a fever clinic at Dubbo now for some days.

There's the respiratory clinic, which is in conjunction with the Australian Government and a local GP clinic, will be set up in Dubbo and in other towns where people will be able to receive assessment and treatment away from the main health centre.

Most people we’re looking at have mild symptoms. So, they will mostly be treated at home.

We’ve changed the access to telehealth considerably so people are asked to actually, in the first instance, ring their GP for a consultation over the phone.

The best thing we can do is to limit our movements, treat ourselves and everyone else as if they are potentially infected with COVID-19, and then we can keep the health facilities just available for the people who do become much sicker with this.

Those people, the vulnerable people, generally older, the people with chronic health conditions are the ones we really do have to be careful with and we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got those facilities free for those, because they will need that extra help.\


Social distancing, and of course when it comes down to it self-isolation, is by the nature of it going to put a huge bit of pressure on our communications network. And for people who have already been living in areas with poor capacity, even with black spots, what’s being done for them?


Well look, the NBN is announcing that there will be an increase in data for those that are on the Sky Muster satellite, and on Sky Muster Plus there’s extra isolation of essential usage so that it doesn’t go to your monthly limit.

Nic, I’ve been running not only my electorate office, but as Regional Health and Communications Minister, all on a Sky Muster connection now for a week.

I’m actually speaking to you through WIFI, calling on my satellite, not on the phone network.

So, it is possible. And those data limits have increased so that people that have got kids at home from school or working from home, or are intending to do, you know, telehealth from home, those data limits have been increased.


Minister, we do know that there’s another press conference coming from the State Premier of New South Wales again today.

She’s been holding regular ones at 8 o’clock, we’re seeing a lot of press conferences from the Prime Minister usually late at night at the moment. Can you just reassure us that the states and the Federal Government are working together on this? It has felt at times like they’re at odds.


Yeah look, there probably has been, I think, some miscommunications.

But I’ve got to say, I think they’re working very tightly at the moment and this is crossing all political bounds.

The state leaders, Premiers and Ministers, on the National Cabinet; they’re meeting pretty well every night now, obviously via a video link, they are in communication.

Obviously, states have individual approaches for doing things, but they are working very closely in collaboration.

Obviously, you know, the Commonwealth can’t direct states to do things, but they are working wherever possible in a collaborate way. The Prime Minister’s press conference late last night indicated that the states were behind the decisions that were announced last night.


Minister, a final question for you: as someone who definitely has a job that falls in the essential category, but who is in an at-risk demographic when it comes to COVID-19, how’ve you been balancing the two?


Look, I haven’t left my house now for a week; and it’s been incredibly frustrating to do that, but I actually didn’t leave my lounge room table for 10 hours yesterday.

I hosted a teleconference for all the rural health providers and representatives – 40 people on a teleconference – and I thought, oh, this is going to be pretty difficult, but it’s surprising if you have to, what you can do on the phone.

I can do largely a lot of my work from home, but some people can’t, Nic, and that’s the important thing we’ve got to remember. 

A lot of people who have been calling for a complete shutdown, their jobs aren’t at risk. They can work from home. But it’s important that we keep the country going.

You know, people that are working in agriculture, mining, retail, health, education and all those things. They can’t do that from home, and so that’s why we’ve got to be respectful of those that can’t, and make sure that they can be kept as safe as possible.


Mark Coulton, thank you so much for taking the time this morning.


Yeah, no, thanks Nic. Any time.

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