Health Services Amendment (Mandatory Vaccination of Healthcare Workers) Bill 2020 – Second Reading

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I rise today to speak in support of the Health Services Amendment (Mandatory Vaccination of Healthcare Workers) Bill 2020 because I firmly believe that we need strive to provide excellent healthcare that is of the highest quality and that is as safe as possible to all Victorians. This is what Victorians deserve.

Further, I strongly believe that this bill is in the best interests of all Victorians. As a responsible government, we have an obligation and a duty of care to all workers in our public hospitals, denominational hospitals, private hospitals and ambulance services to provide them with a safe workplace, which includes being protected from specific vaccine-preventable diseases. For the Victorian government to deliver quality and safe health care to the communities we serve it is essential that we minimise risk to patient safety, which will result in positive outcomes and better health.

At the heart of this bill is this government’s commitment to the occupational health and safety for Victoria’s frontline healthcare workers. I wish to thank the Minister for Health in the other place for the work she has put into this bill since she announced the policy for the introduction of a mandatory vaccination program for health workers in acute settings on 1 August 2019. I would also like to acknowledge the work of her office and the department in the preparation of this bill.

I welcome the widespread consultation about the bill that has occurred with key stakeholders. I would particularly like to thank the chief health officer, who has considered best practice in other jurisdictions and relied on evidence to inform his decision-making before making the determination that maximising the coverage of health workers is the optimal option. I would also like to thank all of those who contributed to the round table and provided their expert insights and recommendations, including health services, unions, professional bodies, clinical experts and healthcare representatives, to ensure that we get this right.

This is another example of the Andrews Labor government showing its commitment to the people of Victoria by reducing the risk of vaccine-preventable diseases for frontline healthcare workers and mitigating the risk of transmission of vaccine-preventable diseases to patients by amending two of our important acts, the Health Services Act 1988 and the Ambulance Services Act 1986.

I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister for Ambulance Services in the other place, Ambulance Victoria and the Victorian Ambulance Union, ably led by general secretary Danny Hill, on reaching an enterprise bargaining agreement for paramedics which will provide better pay and conditions and additional paramedics to better care for all Victorians. I want to thank all paramedics and show my respect for the work they do day in, day out.

I am proud that this new agreement will not only provide ongoing professional development but will make our paramedics amongst the best paid in the country. I would like to put on record that this was achieved without any industrial action. Compare this outcome to that of the Baillieu-Napthine governments that disrespected our paramedics: the difference could not be starker.

The changes that will be introduced by this amendment bill will allow the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to direct employers of healthcare workers in public health services and ambulance services to be vaccinated against specific vaccine-preventable diseases. All healthcare workers in public and private hospitals and ambulance services with direct patient contact will be required to be vaccinated, including doctors, nurses, paramedics, dentists, orderlies, cleaners and staff working in public sector residential aged-care services. The proposed new laws will mean our healthcare workforce must be fully immunised to protect themselves and patients against not only the flu each year but other diseases such as whooping cough, measles, chickenpox and hepatitis B. This bill will maximise compliance with recommended vaccination policy. It is important that our community is aware that Victoria is one of only a few jurisdictions in Australia that does not have this mandatory vaccination for healthcare workers. This amendment bill will address this.

Let me be very clear: I disagree with members of our community who are anti-vaxxers, those who oppose the science of vaccinations. The evidence is in and the benefits to our society are great. Vaccinations are safe and save lives. That is why the Andrews Labor government already makes the flu shot free for healthcare workers. By mandating vaccinations for healthcare workers, thousands of patients have not had their healthcare and treatment compromised and our hospitals have minimised their absenteeism rates.

Locally, in Ballarat the number of flu cases put pressure on our emergency departments and health services, but our dedicated health workforce rose to the challenge and continued to deliver world-class care for my community. In my electorate we are so fortunate to have two world-class hospitals in Ballarat: the base hospital and St John of God. I care about the health and wellbeing of all of our healthcare workers. Healthcare frontline workers and paramedics across Ballarat do an outstanding job in caring for our community.

Recently my dad has required the services of paramedics and healthcare workers at St John of God, and I would like to thank the dedicated staff who provided exceptional care for him. Ballarat Health Services is the largest employer in the region with over 4500 staff, including thousands of dedicated nurses and health professionals, orderlies, cleaners and catering staff. Ballarat Health Services is the main public referral hospital for Ballarat and the Grampians region, and it has been providing quality care for over 160 years. It is Victoria’s second largest regional health service and provides a comprehensive range of general and specialist care.

I support this bill not only as the member for Wendouree because it is important public health policy but also as the former chair of the Ballarat Health Services quality and safety committee and the Ballarat Health Services consumer advisory committee. From my experience from my three-year term on the board of directors of Ballarat Health Services I know firsthand that this bill will deliver positive outcomes for the workforce, patients and the broader Ballarat community.

Ballarat Health Services has been very busy, with nearly 61 000 emergency department presentations, 47 000 inpatient treatments, 10 000 surgeries, 2265 people treated in the mental health services and over 1400 babies born. I am very pleased that these numbers will continue to grow as my community does. And with the Andrews Labor government’s investment of $461.8 million to redevelop Ballarat Health Services, the future of health in Ballarat is looking very good.

Whether patients are receiving care at the base hospital or at St John of God or from Ambulance Victoria, we need to reduce the risk of exposure. This bill will help them achieve this. If health carers are not immune, they pose increased risks of disease transmission to other staff and patients, particularly those who are vulnerable.

My dad is commencing cancer treatment at the Ballarat Regional Integrated Cancer Centre this week, and I do not want his health and wellbeing threatened by contracting a vaccine-preventable disease. I believe that we have a duty to the workforce, patients and their families, as well as the community, to do what we can to protect people like my dad and other people’s family members and friends from disease transmission when they are attending hospital.

In 2010 our eldest child experienced a severe health episode that resulted in her spending an extended period in intensive care at Monash hospital. It was a terrifying time for Mike and me, living in Ballarat and having our child transferred to Monash, and we were unsure what the outcome would be for our daughter, who was only 18 months old at the time.

While she was in an induced coma our very sick little girl received 24-hour-a-day care in a world-class hospital. She was incredibly vulnerable and immunocompromised as her tiny body fought off the numerous health challenges. I would not wish this experience on anyone. It was the most difficult time in our lives. Fortunately our daughter pulled through and is a very active and happy 11-year-old. For my daughter and every other sick child, and other families who have lived through having a sick child in hospital, I am supporting this amendment.

I am committed to ensuring a safe and healthy working environment for our doctors, nurses, dentists, paramedics and orderlies, which will also reduce the risks for patients, residents, visitors, volunteers, and contractors at all health services and hospitals.

To conclude, I thank the minister, I thank this government, and I am very, very proud to support the Health Services Amendment (Mandatory Vaccination of Healthcare Workers) Bill 2020, because it is another example of the Andrews Labor government living its values and improving the lives of all Victorians. I am confident that by introducing this bill we will enhance the occupational health and safety and working environment of our health services, our hospital employees and our paramedics, whilst very importantly strengthening and embedding patient safety, because it is patient safety that we should all be fighting for every day in our hospitals. I cannot commend this bill to the house more strongly.