Interview with Tom Connell on AM Agenda Sky News

E&OE

TOM CONNELL:
The Federal Government meanwhile has announced a raft of changes to the NDIS, in a move it says will boost the number of people signing up to the scheme. An independent review of the NDIS last year made 29 recommendations which the Federal Government says it will adopt either in principle or in full. To discuss those changes, I'm joined live by the Government Services Minister Stuart Robert. Thanks for your time. 

I might just get your reaction first of all to Schoolies being cancelled. It seems a pretty cautious approach again, but when you see some of the pictures of schoolies, it's hard to see it being [audio skip].

STUART ROBERT:
I can understand where the Premier's going. The challenge will be Schoolies is never an event; it's just an aberration, an activity. Young people descend upon it. And whilst the government and the council have done some really good work to try and create some order. It will be interesting to see if Queensland's young people actually follow that advice. I hope they do. 

TOM CONNELL:    So you're- I mean what you're pointing out is I guess there'll be fewer people regardless, given that people aren't allowed from New South Wales and Victoria at the moment. But for people in Queensland, you can't ban someone who's 18 and ready for some revelry from flying somewhere and celebrating. Right?

STUART ROBERT:
Correct. I went to Schoolies in the Gold Coast when I finished school in the late 80s and there was no events planned. It was just what young people did. So that will be the challenge for government and council. The trick will be for young people to do the right thing if they do come post-school.

TOM CONNELL:
It must've be an interesting time. A few stories out of that particular trip were there?

STUART ROBERT:
 [Audio skip] great year. 

TOM CONNELL:    
You want to leave it at that?

STUART ROBERT:    
I will move on. 

TOM CONNELL:  
 Let's talk about your responsibilities now. So more changes in the NDIS. What are the key changes for those in the program?

STUART ROBERT:    
The big change we announced in November last year. So we started the conversation almost 12 months ago, but moving towards the original scheme design of independent assessments for access and then full flexibility within a plan, putting aside some home modifications or specialist disability accommodation. So what that means, if an Australian is seeking access, rather than having to get therapy reports and negotiate with planners, which can be quite stressful at times, here, independent assessments by world-leading professionals that will look at the functional assessment, what function you've got, and that of course will give you access and then full flexibility in your plan. 

TOM CONNELL:    
Autonomy basically, making decisions, and this is how, you mentioned, the scheme was always supposed to be.

STUART ROBERT:    
Correct.

TOM CONNELL:    
Why so long until it was able to be enacted in this way?

STUART ROBERT:    
[Audio skip] recommended the functional assessment should be the basis for access. That wasn't taken up when the legislation was put through and the previous government started it.

TOM CONNELL:    
That's a lot of years ago though.

STUART ROBERT:    
It is a lot of years. So the focus was on getting participants through. 400,000 participants now. So a real focus transitioning from the states to the Commonwealth. So I asked Mr Tune to do a review; 29 very good recommendations. So now the opportunity is to finalise the original design of the scheme.

TOM CONNELL:    
The wait times are down but still- so it's 67 days on average to achieve a plan. Is that low enough yet?

STUART ROBERT:    
I'd like to get it a lot lower. We're putting through a participant service guarantee, and that guarantee will say that it has to be somewhere down about eight weeks. So seven, eight - 56 days in that respect. And now to actually get access, we've dropped it down from 40 days to 10, which I'm very pleased, and even lower for children. The next step is from the access to the plan, and again, independent assessments will be the vehicle to drop that substantially lower [audio skip].

TOM CONNELL:    
[Audio skip] of the COVIDSafe app when it was introduced, it was going to ping, if you like, or register when two people were within 1.5 metres of each other for 15 minutes. 

STUART ROBERT:    
Yep.

TOM CONNELL:    
Has that changed at all through…?

STUART ROBERT:    
No. The intent hasn't changed. The structure hasn't changed. And of course, we've published the source code so everyone can see exactly how the app runs.

TOM CONNELL:    
Because given 1.5 metres is social distancing at the moment, it would be pretty rare, you'd think, for someone to be that close to someone for that long who they don't know already; who you don't know well and you can tell people who you're with. I mean, would it make more sense for the app to go off if you're 1.5 metres away for a minute, two minutes?

STUART ROBERT:    
It may. But that's up to the public health advice. So the app was built based on the advice from the AHPPC, and if that advice changes, then of course, the app distance or time can change. 

TOM CONNELL:    
But can you go to the AHPCC [sic] and say: well, we're not getting registering perhaps as many as we thought we might [audio skip]. What would two minutes do? What would one minute do? Because one sneeze, one handshake can pass on this virus. 

STUART ROBERT:    
I'm not saying you're wrong, Tom, but again, that's up to the medical advice. But technically, Government stands ready to make any amendments it needs to based on the health advice to the app.

TOM CONNELL:    
Right. But do you go back and forth? I mean, I understand they are the health advice but you can be curious as a human wondering how this thing works. Can you put that- can you put anything to them about whether a change like that would make sense?

STUART ROBERT:    
Absolutely, the Prime Minister, Health Minister and I often have conversations about this and where it sits and what more we can do.

TOM CONNELL:    
So they're still- what's their response then, have you put something like that to-?

STUART ROBERT:    
[Talks over] Well, their response remains that 15 minutes is the advice, health advice, and until such time as the health advice changes, we'll keep the app as it is. It's just really important I think that we get- we're health led on this and our response to the coronavirus isn't led by politics, isn't led by premiers or borders, it's led by health advice.

TOM CONNELL:    
So, the- and in recent [audio skip] this goes to the sort of functionality debate of it that two locked iPhone's - which is a sort of natural state for an iPhone, right, once the screen goes black - would log a connection as little as 20 per cent of the time under testing. That implies a pretty high failure rate.

STUART ROBERT:    
So, locked iPhones, depending upon whether the app's in the foreground or the background, depends on the version of the app and the operating systems, it's between 25 and 50 per cent effectiveness, now, that's got nothing to do with the app, and everything to do with how Bluetooth works on an Apple device.

TOM CONNELL:    
Mmm, but that also implies that a failure rate of between 50 and 75 per cent - that's quite high, isn't it?

STUART ROBERT:    
It is, but again, we're using a ubiquitous technology called an iPhone which the Government doesn't run the operating system or the handset, so it's- at present, it's operating to the highest degree we can get it, short of Apple and Google actually changing the way Bluetooth operates on their handset.

TOM CONNELL:    
So, the other push and what some [audio skip] technology that Apple and Google have, you can have things such as opt-out, so that if you get a version, for example, [indistinct] you know, the latest version on your phone, you're automatically getting this type of tracing software.

STUART ROBERT:    
It's called the Exposure Notification Framework - which is Apple and Google's way of doing it - but what it does, it doesn't poll as quickly, we poll every one minute, it polls every five minutes. They'll determine when the pandemic ends as opposed to sovereign governments, and of course it records close connections, and if you test positive, it will tell other people that you are connected to, hey, I've tested positive. But it completely excluded public health officials, and the way we've responded in Australia is that everything involves public health officials.

TOM CONNELL:    
Yeah. This goes with privacy concerns, basically? [Indistinct].

STUART ROBERT:    
[Talks over] Not just privacy concerns, but if you follow the Apple and Google way, public health would not be involved in this at all, which means we wouldn't have picked up the plus 500 cluster in New South Wales if we were using Apple and Google.

TOM CONNELL:    
You might not have, but the individual users would have known they were exposed under that system, right?

STUART ROBERT:    
They would have received an alert on their phone from the other phone they were close to, and then it's up to them whether they do something about it, as opposed to public health contacting you and saying, hey Tom, we need you to come and get tested because of X, Y and Z.

TOM CONNELL:    
So you think it wouldn't- I mean, you could theoretically have both I guess, and if people get that alert, I mean, you'd still imagine most Australians, if they know they've been exposed, would do something about it?

STUART ROBERT:    
The app was always designed to augment manual tracing as a core part of our response, and that's why involving public health officials in this notification process was so important to us.

TOM CONNELL:    
Is there any ongoing discussion with Google and Apple that…?

STUART ROBERT:    
Substantial.

TOM CONNELL:    
This is - what are we - six months into this pandemic, are you going to get a breakthrough in terms of being able to utilise their technology better?

STUART ROBERT:    
I hope so, I'd hope Apple and Google would understand that sovereign nations, and in fact, the first ten nations had created apps [audio skip] that they were the ones that wanted to do things with their public health officials. And I would hope Apple and Google would realise that sovereign nations that want to use public health as a core part of the response, as opposed to just the individual citizen, but that should be respected and Apple and Google should respond.

TOM CONNELL:    
So, you'd hope? But it feels as though there's an impasse, if we're- I know you've mentioned, you know, spoken about discussions before. Is there any concrete progress?

STUART ROBERT:    
Yeah, we're progressing.

TOM CONNELL:    
Does that mean- can you put a timeline on when you think [indistinct]…?

STUART ROBERT:    
[Talks over] I wish I could, but I can't. But we're progressing.

TOM CONNELL:    
Are you frustrated by their approach?

STUART ROBERT:
 I'm frustrated that they haven't realised that sovereign nations have a right to exercise their own way of doing contact tracing and using public health officials, and they haven't actually then upgraded their Bluetooth capability to assist those nations. That is frustrating, but that's fine. We're using ubiquitous tech, we're using someone else's handset, so we'll be patient. [Audio skip].

TOM CONNELL:
Stuart Robert, appreciate your time. Thank you.

STUART ROBERT:
Great. Always good to talk.