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Dr Monique Ryan Vs Minister Mark Butler – on clean air, children’s safety, schools and high risk settings

Introduction by Croakey: Following Question Time on Monday, Independent MP for Kooyong Dr Monique Ryan issued a statement highlighting her disappointment in the Federal Government’s response to the recommendations of the long COVID and repeated infections inquiry, and especially the lack of action on national indoor air quality standards.

She also criticised Health and Aged Care Minister Mark Butler’s response to her question in Parliament about the Federal Government’s plan for keeping children safe at school from COVID-19.

Butler said in his response – which is published in full below – the discussion on clean air is ongoing and that different actions are being taken by state governments, and that “lively” debate and discussion are continuing on these matters.

Read Ryan’s statement and Butler’s response during Question Time in full below.


Statement by Monique Ryan

The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health, Aged Care and Sport launched an inquiry into Long COVID and Repeated COVID Infections on 1 September 2022.

After receiving more than 500 submissions, and holding four public hearings, the report of that inquiry, Sick and Tired: Casting a Long Shadow (the Inquiry Report) was tabled in the House of Representatives eleven months ago.

The report included nine topline recommendations regarding the need to clarify how we define long COVID, preventing COVID by improving our vaccination and communication strategies, providing antiviral support to those who will benefit most from it, and ensuring that affected people receive support they need – via education for GPs to diagnose long COVID, via mental health supports, extended telehealth services, and funding for partnerships with state health departments to develop long COVID clinics.

The Committee also recommended establishment of an advisory board, including ventilation experts and building code regulators, to better equip buildings with safety measures preventing COVID transmissions, and funding for development of guidelines for GPs for treatment of people affected by Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS).

The Minister replied to the report last week – 10 months after it was tabled. The Government’s response increases the rebate for Medicare-funded rebates for chronic disease plans – but does not provide funding to inform what those plans should include.

It does not provide for funding for establishment of a national COVID database or dedicated long COVID clinics; for guidelines for diagnosis of long COVID; for pharmacists to be allowed to dispense antivirals without sick patients having to consult a GP first; or for better treatment of ME/CFS.

Perhaps most disappointingly, the Government has not adopted the Committee’s recommendation that it establish and fund a multidisciplinary advisory body including ventilation experts, architects, aerosol scientists, industry, building code regulators and public health experts to oversee an assessment of the impact of poor indoor air quality and ventilation on the economy, with particular consideration given to high-risk settings such as hospitals, aged care facilities, childcare and educational settings. We need national indoor air quality standards for use in Australia.

Clean air is essential to prevent repeat COVID-19 infection and resultant long COVID. Other countries are moving to set targets for unfiltered indoor CO2 levels (as a proxy for ventilation) in public spaces, such as schools, restaurants, and workplaces. For example, Belgium has recently passed legislation that requires all public places to monitor their indoor air quality and install a CO2 monitor visible to the public. In New Zealand, all schools have been supplied with CO2 monitors – and air purifiers are used when ventilation is insufficient.

Australia should follow by mandating and championing indoor air quality standards and other clean indoor air technologies. Air monitoring and filtration equipment should be seen as being as necessary as smoke alarms and fire extinguishers in public buildings.

We need to be confident that, when the next outbreak of a severe airborne virus hits us, our kids can safely go to school and that we will be safe to go to work, in residential aged care and other public settings.

On Monday, I asked the Health Minister a question in Question Time about this matter. I asked:

The Health Committee’s report into long COVID concluded that we need national indoor air quality standards to improve the safety of indoor spaces and reduce transmission of COVID19 and other infectious diseases. The Government’s response last week acknowledged but did not adopt that recommendation. How do you propose that we can keep our kids safe at school during the next outbreak of a severe airborne virus?”

His response was disappointing.

The Minister had no answer to the question of how the Government plans to protect school children from airborne viruses. He referred to state standards. It is true that Australia’s states and territories have, during the pandemic, developed guidance on ventilation and air quality to assist with reducing COVID19 transmission.

However, implementing this guidance is voluntary and different jurisdictions have taken different approaches, resulting in inconsistencies across Australia. The Minister also referred to a symposium being held by interested medical professionals in this House in three weeks.

Those same professionals told our Committee last year that we need these clear air standards. We already we know what they’ll say in three weeks. The Government needs to listen to expert medical advice and act on it to protect our kids and help keep them safe at school.

Health and Aged Care Minister Mark Butler’s response

Mr BUTLER (Hindmarsh—Minister for Health and Aged Care and Deputy Leader of the House): I thank the Member for Kooyong for her question, her deep interest before entering this place in public health, obviously, and her advocacy in the different debates that have happened in this building about how we respond to that once-in-a-century pandemic to ensure that we are better prepared next time.

As the Member has indicated, we have delivered our response to the report made by the health committee, led by the member for Macarthur, through the inquiry into long COVID. A number of recommendations were accepted. Others were noted by the Government.

I don’t have the full response in front of me. There are, obviously, a number of different measures there, and I’ll come to the question of clean air very quickly. There are a number of different measures there that are important considerations for Australians who are dealing with long COVID, as it’s broadly termed, particularly the longer version of long COVID, if you like, which involves quite complex symptomology for a considerable period of time.

We take the view that there are significant opportunities within our existing Medicare system for people to receive care from their general practitioner and from allied health professionals, as there are for other chronic diseases, and we want to see those rolled out along with better education for GPs and allied health professionals about that.

The Member’s specific question, though, is in relation to clean air. As we enter the back end of the emergency phase of the pandemic it did become clearer that this was an aerosol based coronavirus and that clean air was an important protection against infection.

This is an area that involves significant regulation by states – particularly, for example, the regulation of air in schools and public hospital systems. Different actions are being taken by state governments, as the Member would be aware. A lively debate or a lively discussion is continuing.

I know in a couple of weeks there will be a workshop here in the Parliament led by the Australian Academy of Science, the CSIRO and the Burnet Institute to continue the discussion about how we can provide better clean air.

I will say this to the member for Kooyong and others, the Labor Party took to the last election a commitment to deliver a Centre for Disease Control so we can have one place where these debates can be better coordinated, particularly in a federal system where there’s very much a split responsibility between the Commonwealth and state governments. I know the member for Kooyong will want to continue to be a part of that discussion.

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