Interview on ABC Radio National Breakfast

E&OE

FRAN KELLY:
The Morrison Government is taking steps to speed up the COVID vaccine rollout to Australians living with disability, which has been, of course, dangerously slow, as we've reported in the past. From tomorrow, more than 40,000 12 to 15 year olds who are part of the National Disability Insurance Scheme will be offered the Pfizer vaccine. But despite being in the government's highest priority groups vaccination, still just over one quarter of NDIS participants have received both doses of the vaccine, and that lags behind the rate for the general population. The urgency has been underscored by close COVID clusters in disability settings, both in Newcastle and in Canberra during this current Delta outbreak. Linda Reynolds is the Minister for the NDIS. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

LINDA REYNOLDS:
Good morning. It's great to join you, Fran, again.

FRAN KELLY:
Minister, seven months into the rollout, still only 28 per cent of people on the NDIS are fully vaccinated, 46 per cent still to receive their shot. Both numbers below the national vaccination rate. Why is it still taking so long to protect these people, many of whom were meant to be prioritised and in the group immunised by the end of March?

LINDA REYNOLDS:
Well, Fran, when I became minister nearly five months ago, it was very clear to me that there were a number of challenges in rolling out the vaccination program to people with serious and permanent disability, particularly those in shared residential accommodation. You know, 6000 small homes around the nation. And that's for a variety of reasons, everything from consent to making sure that we provide the right environment, the right supports to the individuals. So as an Army logistician myself, I did what every good logistician does. I got an even better logistician to come in and set up- we set up a task force for disability vaccinations. And while we still got a way to go, we have made some really significant progress. So, for example, in the shared residential accommodation, these 6000 homes, over 80 per cent have been contacted. And we've had a tripling in numbers in less than three months of people who've been vaccinated. So 68 per cent have now had one dose and 52 per cent had their second dose. So we've got a way to go, but we've tripled those numbers of the most vulnerable.

Now, as you've said, in relation to all NDIS participants who are eligible, we've also had a 300 per cent increase since I started this new approach in June. So we still got a way to go, but we are picking that up fast. But can I also just finally share with you, disability workers; we've had an extraordinary response. In fact, since you and I last spoke about worker vaccination in June, we've had a 200 per cent increase and 60,000 extra disability workers have voluntarily come forward and been vaccinated. So as I've said, we've still got a way to go, but we are picking up the pace very rapidly.

FRAN KELLY:
And that's all great news that the pace is picking up. But it does shine a spotlight on how slow it was before, with potentially tragic consequences. Just looking at the workforce of about a 165,000 people in disability care, 55 per cent have had one dose, 37 per cent have had both injections. So it's still a long way short of universal coverage. We've seen outbreaks in the disability sector now in a couple of places with this latest Delta outbreak. Why hasn't the federal government mandated vaccines for this workforce as they had for the aged care sector?

LINDA REYNOLDS:
Well, Fran, as you know, public health orders are the responsibility of states and territories. And this has been the subject of discussion at the last several national cabinets ...

FRAN KELLY:
[Interrupts] I know, and I know that the Prime Minister with aged care was urging the premiers over a couple of meetings to do that. Eventually they came to that with aged care. Does the federal government urge the states and territories to make it mandatory for disability care workforce?

LINDA REYNOLDS:
The Prime Minister has raised that with states and territories, and as I've said, the National Cabinet have discussed that. And they've said that it's highly desirable, and in fact, some states are now going forward and mandating it. So New South Wales is the first state to now mandate that, and I think it is a very good thing. But I've got to say, disability workers have been coming forward in record numbers. As I've said in the last few weeks alone, over 60,000 have received their first vaccination. In relation to the outbreaks, I have two key priorities in disability care. The first one is continuity of support, so that where we have had outbreaks in- with disability providers in accommodation, we are quick to ensure that all participants, their families and their carers get the support they need. And the second is in outbreak management itself.

So, Fran, the other part of this is how we deal with outbreaks when they occur, and in fact, the rate of infection for NDIS participants is three times lower than the national average. Now, that has not just happened. That has happened because people at state and federal level have worked closely with providers, with unions, with carers to make sure that where there are outbreaks that we very closely manage and do proper infection control.

FRAN KELLY:
It's also happened because- and I know this because people have been writing in to the program and contacting the program for months now, because some people with disability have been so terrified about getting COVID that they'd just lock themselves inside, basically. And the reason they're terrified is because the statistics tell the story. In the UK, 60 per cent of the more than 50,000 people who died from COVID last year had some form of disability, which underscores the urgency of getting this done. How many NDIS participants have died of COVID-19? Do we know if any have?

LINDA REYNOLDS:
The numbers I have is that in all, 10, and eight of those were last year and two this year. So- and we have five at the moment in hospital. So we watch those numbers very carefully and as I've said, it's about vaccination and we are increasing at a very rapid rate now, vaccination across the disability, the NDIS population and workers. But it's also equally important to make sure that where there is an outbreak in a community and in a disability centre, that we control that and isolate that outbreak. And that is what working together we have done very successfully. There is no room for complacency. But again, I'm seeing that here in the ACT with the outbreak that they've had that was announced here this weekend. We act very quickly to protect participants and to make sure we control the infection.

FRAN KELLY:
Well, you talk about acting very quickly. The fact is we haven't acted quickly up until now and yes, you may have got the vaccination rollout on track, which highlights how off-track it was before. A number of stakeholders have been critical of the government, saying there's never been a dedicated plan for dealing with the sector and COVID, particularly children and young people. And the royal commission said this lack of a dedicated plan has been at a- has been neglectful.

LINDA REYNOLDS:
[Interrupts] Fran, Fran, can I just say, that is simply and demonstrably untrue.

FRAN KELLY:
[Interrupts] Well, I'm quoting the royal commission. That was their finding.

LINDA REYNOLDS:
Since- but that is the past, Fran. I've been the Minister now for nearly five months. I very quickly developed a disability taskforce and a disability rollout plan. And as I've gone through the statistics, we've tripled, tripled the numbers of people who've been vaccinated.

FRAN KELLY:
[Interrupts] I accept that. I accept-

LINDA REYNOLDS:
We are also making sure we-

FRAN KELLY:
I accept that vaccination is occurring now and I wanted to talk about the plan because the sector is still calling for a plan with transparent timeframes. You are rolling out the Pfizer vaccine for 12 to 15 year olds now, who are on the NDIS. Can you tell us how quickly that will be done by? And how are these kids going to- how do they- where and how do they get their Pfizer vaccines?

LINDA REYNOLDS:
Well Fran, it is now very, very clear for all NDIS participants and for their families and for their carers and for providers. Every NDIS participant from tomorrow, who is 12 and older, up through to 60, is eligible for the Pfizer vaccine from tomorrow. We've now got thousands of ways that people around the country can get vaccinated. We've got disability specific hubs in most states and territories. We've got state and territories who are providing disability specific hubs as well. People can go today, families can go and book their local pharmacy, their GP, or seek advice on if they have got particular needs on how we can help them do that. So I would say as soon as humanly possible, because the best way to protect your children, particularly those under 12, is to get yourself, today, go out and book your own vaccination and the vaccination for your family, because that is the best protection for people with disability and also for our children.

FRAN KELLY:
And as we've been talking, people have written in, let me just read you this. My 14-year-old is already eligible for a COVID vaccine, both because of health conditions and disabilities, NDIS. She lives at home, impossible to get an appointment in Sydney and the eligibility website lagging way behind. Are you aware of people having these kind of problems? And what are you doing about that?

LINDA REYNOLDS:
Well, Fran, we have provided thousands of places now. So people can- you can go to your local pharmacy, you can go to your GP, you can go to the one in your own suburb, in the one in the suburbs over. You can book online. Now, I [indistinct]…

FRAN KELLY:
[Interrupts] If they're having troubles, she's obviously having trouble trying to book.

LINDA REYNOLDS:
Yeah well- so, as I was about to say, Fran, is that if you're in New South Wales, there are state government hubs, and I have talked to states and territories about with their- with their vaccination hubs to ensure that they have a disability priority. So that priority booking lines and also priority access and accessible, you know, in accessible locations. So I continue to discuss that with states and territories. Now in relation to the Commonwealth's responsibilities, in terms of our vaccination hubs with providers, people can go to these provider hubs, and they do have people there who know exactly how to deal with the requirements of people with disability.

FRAN KELLY:
Okay. The Prime Minister is determined to start easing restrictions when, according to the national roadmap, when vaccination rates for the general adult population hits 70 and then 80 per cent. Will all- can you guarantee that we'll- that all people with disabilities will be vaccinated by then? If not, how dangerous could this be?

LINDA REYNOLDS:
Well, Fran, vaccination ultimately is not mandatory for NDIS participants. People are responding and coming out and getting vaccinated and people who have challenge leaving their homes, we've now been into over- offered vaccinations into over 5000 homes. So we are doing everything we can to make it as accessible in and out of the home for people with disability. So I would encourage as many people as possible to make appointments and get yourself and get your family members vaccinated.

FRAN KELLY:
Okay. Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

LINDA REYNOLDS:
Thank you very much, Fran.

FRAN KELLY:
Linda Reynolds is the Minister for the NDIS and Government Services.