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'Biggest public policy failure in living memory': Labor unveils COVID plan, but won't commit to measures

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UPDATED | Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas is demanding regular public health briefings in the lead-up to the March state election as he today unveiled a suite of COVID measures he says the Marshall Government should immediately adopt – even though he won’t commit to do so himself should he be elected.

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On his first day out of isolation since testing positive for the virus, Malinauskas demanded the Government immediately implement his “action plan”, detailed in a glossy 16-page document and covering eight separate policy areas – but he conceded he didn’t know what it would cost to do so.

These include measures to enhance COVID capacity in schools, provision of free rapid antigen test kits to essential workers and low-income and vulnerable people and support for pandemic-hit businesses.

It comes as the Government prepares to clarify its intentions for the resumption of schooling in SA, with details expected possibly as early as this afternoon, and by tomorrow at the latest.

Malinauskas was strongly critical of the Government’s decision to override initial advice from chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier to close state borders just days after their November 23 reopening, to assess the likely impact of the emerging Omicron variant – a decision he called “the single biggest public policy failing in our living memory”.

“The decision by the State Government to not follow the recommendation of Nicola Spurrier to close our borders to the Omicron variant has been a catastrophic failure,” he said.

“The lack of preparedness from the Marshall Government before opening the borders has left the government playing ‘catch-up footy’ during a time of emergency… the failure to plan has really resulted in a plan to fail.”

But while he criticised the Government’s failure to follow public health advice, the plan contains several measures recently dismissed by Spurrier herself.

Labor’s ‘plan’ includes a call to “secure a stockpile for our schools to provide free rapid antigen testing for teachers and students”, with dedicated sites for 5-11 year olds to get vaccinated, including mobile vaccination sites at schools.

There is a strong focus on classroom ventilation measures, including fast-tracking “the installation of air purifiers in classrooms” – a measure currently being rolled out in Victoria.

But Spurrier told a parliamentary committee on Monday that it was not “best practice” to establish vaccination clinics at schools, saying multiple administration sites made it more difficult to maintain the vaccines at the appropriate temperature.

“Also, you need a safe clinical place to be giving vaccinations and that’s in case there’s an anaphylactic reaction to a vaccine,” she said.

“It is less efficient if you have staff going out to every single school in South Australia than it would be to have children going into either a GP or pharmacy where there are good clinical protocols or also one of our vaccination clinics.

“So it does seem on the face of it a great idea to have vaccinations in schools but from a practical and clinical point of view there are better alternatives.”

She also argued there was “very little evidence” that air purifiers would help stop the spread in schools, saying: “I know some states are using that more than we are here [but] to do a comprehensive assessment of every single part of the school is basically impossible.”

“What is better is to have as many windows and doors open as possible and have fresh air coming into the classrooms,” she said.

Malinauskas said he received a half-hour briefing from Spurrier and Health CEO Chris McGowan yesterday, dismissing the chief public health officer’s preemptive rejection of his air purifier suggestion.

“She made it clear to me there’s no downside of the air purifier system in terms of presenting danger [and] there’s a range of public health advice on the public record [that] there’s an upside,” he said.

The Labor leader says he wants such briefings to become a regular occurrence once the government goes into caretaker mode – possibly within as few as four weeks – to ensure that public health information is not politicised through the campaign.

“That’s certainly my hope and I expressed that yesterday in our meeting with [Spurrier] and the CEO of Health,” he said.

“Their response was that they answer to the government of the day – they understand the request and will work through it in due course.

“That’s a reasonable position for them to take [but] I do think there’s a profound responsibility upon the current government but also the alternate government to be briefed as thoroughly as they possibly can be so that in the event that there is a transition of government, we’re well equipped to handle that smoothly.”

However, he suggested it was up to Premier Steven Marshall to accommodate, saying: “If Steven Marshall informs the CEO of Health to provide me with the same daily briefings he receives, then I’ll receive them – and I hope that’s the case.”

Malinauskas also wants parliament recalled before the campaign begins to debate legislative responses to the COVID crisis.

The power to recall parliament briefly fell to the Speaker after Labor and the crossbench hijacked the Government with a range of changes, however the new regime was shortlived.

“I am out there proactively advocating to Steven Marshall to allow the parliament to do its job,” Malinauskas said.

“South Australians live in a democracy [and] right now in our state we have a declared emergency which bestows on the government an extraordinary level of power and authority – that deserves scrutiny.

“But we don’t have that scrutiny…because Steven Marshall has shut down our parliament for months on end… that’s unfortunate, but it can be fixed by a stroke of a pen.”

Other measures in Labor’s paper include cash payments to eligible businesses of between $100 and $500 per day where density restrictions of greater than 50 per cent capacity remain in place, a moratorium on retail and commercial tenant evictions and payroll tax deferrals, with no-interest repayment plans.

The Opposition also want accommodation support payments where bed nights have been cancelled and a cancellation fund for arts and major events, with grants of up to $250,000 to assist with financial losses when plans are scrapped or attendances limited.

However, while he says these measures should be implemented now, he did not commit to doing so himself if he wins the March election – even if they’re still required.

“No, what I’m saying to you is we will go to the next state election… with a suite of actions that we’ll introduce in the event we form government to help address the COVID situation at the time,” he said.

“What I’m saying is should [these measures] be necessary in March, people will be able to judge the actions that we will take post the election when and if we form government, on the basis of the policy that we present…

“There are things in this document that are necessary right now, that we shouldn’t have to wait for an election to introduce, because South Australians need these things now. But certainly we believe if the current government fails to act in a way that’s reasonable and necessary it will be our responsibility to do so and announce those actions before the election.”

With the Government claiming the Omicron outbreak will peak later this month, Malinauskas said he’d welcome the opportunity to debate other matters in the lead-up to polling day.

“COVID is topical – COVID matters to South Australians’ lives at the moment,” he said.

“So many SA lives have been turned upside down as a result of the decision to let the virus in without the adequate planning in place [but] as case numbers come down, I genuinely do hope that allows the opportunity for the state to have a thorough conversation around what their hope and ambition is for the future.”

He said the pandemic had exposed a “dark underbelly” of inequality “that has been exacerbated in an economic context”.

“For a person who doesn’t own an asset in the form of a home or massive investments in the equity market, they now find it much harder to afford a home,” he said.

“I want a serious public policy debate between now and the election about these important issues [but] to the extent that COVID is an issue, we will got to the election with a COVID policy.”

Marshall’s office was contacted for comment, which eventually came via Treasurer Rob Lucas.

“In times of crisis, the last thing in the world the state needs as some bloke releasing uncosted thought-bubbles,” he said.

“At some stage someone has to seriously put to people two months from an election: what’s the actual cost of it?”

He said the provision of universal provision of free RATs would cost the state $100 million every 10 weeks, and even the more modest rollout called for today would be a significant financial impost.

On public health briefings during caretaker government, Lucas said the Government would receive a briefing from the Premier’s Department and act on that advice.

“Whatever caretaker conventions were observed in the past should be observed in this particular caretaker period,” he said.

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