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Call for rapid antigen test availability in regional Victoria

Letter

January 7, 2022

Hon. Martin Foley MP
Minister for Health, Ambulance Services and Equality

Dear Minister,

I write to seek your urgent assurance that the state government will make rapid antigen test (RAT) kits quickly and readily available to already-vulnerable regional and rural communities, businesses and services in Northern Victoria.

Echuca Moama and District Tourism speaks for many border and neighbouring communities when it confirms that local tourism and service operators, after two years of lockdown, restrictions and border closure, don’t have the resilience or opportunity to source and provide RAT kits to staff so they can keep their businesses open.

CEO Kathryn Mackenzie told me when I visited Echuca four weeks ago that many operators have been grappling to fill staff and skill shortages and taken on higher borrowings to carry through the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation is similar in other regional communities.

Yet now, at the peak of the first almost-normal summer visitor season in two years, businesses have little choice but to close their doors or limit service because rising infection numbers and the RAT kit shortage mean that staff who may have become close contacts cannot work. This is having a significant impact on local communities desperate to achieve business recovery. And, from what you have said publicly, the RAT kit shortage is to continue for some weeks.

I understand that limited supplies of RAT kits have been distributed to the four busiest Melbourne testing centres and, while this is understandable, it is critical that regional communities, with very little capacity in these very difficult times, are not left without these resources to help manage an escalating crisis.

At the same time, people in the communities I represent are struggling to access PCR testing, where necessary, and are confused by public health information about isolation requirements. News of health service staff furloughed, supply chain shortages and pressure on ambulance and police response times is only aggravating a keen sense of uncertainty.

Victoria’s coronavirus website provides guidance around PCR and rapid antigen tests, but there is no information about what people who cannot access testing should do to keep themselves and their families and colleagues safe.

Our communities are looking for clear direction and updates during the Omicron surge akin to information regularly broadcast during emergencies such as bushfire. I therefore also ask the government urgently to put in place a public health information campaign that keeps people informed and safe.

I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely,

Tania Maxwell MP
Member for Northern Victoria

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Time for border common sense

Adjournment

August 3, 2021

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (18:31): My adjournment is for the Minister for Health, and the action I seek is for the government to consult and engage with regional communities when considering restrictions before the end of the state of emergency and the pathway out of this pandemic.

Over the past year I have asked the government to consider a traffic-light system for restrictions in Victoria to allow places without cases to operate at a level proportionate to their absence of case numbers, and to provide some measure of flexibility and certainty within regional areas.

Regional Victoria has been subject to restrictions for at least a third of the past year. We are emerging from lockdown number five, and communities are worried about how they will get through lockdowns six, seven and so on. In border communities there is confusion, anger and frustration about the substantially tightened cross-border rules. The (Victorian) border zone is home to 573,000 people, and in recent weeks there have been five active cases, all suppressed. Across the border (in NSW) there are no cases north, west or south of Goulburn. Albury-Wodonga has had over 300 days of zero cases. That is not to say ‘Let it rip’, but contact tracing has enormously improved and vaccination numbers are building, and we should have confidence in that.

Albury-Wodonga media was briefed on the border bubble restrictions, but there was no interaction by the government with border mayors. Wodonga mayor Kevin Poulton told ABC Goulburn-Murray yesterday: ‘We just seem to get forgotten in the whitewash’. The Gannawarra Shire Council recently passed a motion to call on the government to assess any restrictions on a local government area basis with input from the local council. Other regional councillors in conversation with me, or publicly, have shared their support for a response that is much more nuanced.

Regional communities have proved that they will stand up in response to any outbreaks and take local and individual responsibility. Industry groups are frustrated that their proactive proposals for protocols to manage risks are given no feedback. Many local businesses are near broke and in substantial debt. Their psychological resilience is spent, their children’s learning is constantly disrupted, their other health needs are being pushed to the side, and they are beyond frustrated.

There is a need for stronger and collaborative engagement with regional communities, including in the four-phase plan agreed between states and the federal government that maps the pathway out of repeated lockdowns.

Places-without-cases deserve a fair go, and I ask the government to talk with us, listen and use some common sense.