Parramatta needs walk in vaccination hubs

By Julie Owens

20 August 2021

Parramatta went into lockdown with one of the lowest COVID vaccination rates in NSW. Thanks to the Morrison Government’s painfully slow rollout we still have some of the lowest vaccination rates in Sydney.

On 16 August, just 20-29% of residents in Parramatta and surrounding suburbs were fully vaccinated. Rates are even lower in Granville, Merrylands and Guildford – suburbs that have seen an exceptionally high number of COVID cases – where just 10-19% are fully vaccinated.

Public health experts have pointed to complex booking systems and the lack of easy access to vaccines in Western Sydney as key factors holding back vaccination rates.

My office is still hearing from people who are struggling to access the vaccine every single day. They tell me mass vaccination hubs offering Pfizer are booked out months in advance. Those opting for AstraZeneca are still struggling to book a local appointment, as not all GPs are offering the vaccine and those that do will only vaccinate existing patients.

For some people, the reason they can’t get vaccinated is simply because the nearest vaccination centre is to too far away.

In countries like the USA and the UK – which ordered Pfizer a full five months before the Australian Government finally inked a deal – you can’t travel far without finding a walk-in vaccination centre. They’ve been set up in shopping centres, libraries, theatres, even train stations.

To get through this pandemic, we urgently need access to more vaccines - but at present, there are no mass or walk-in vaccination centres in Parramatta.

The closest mass vaccination centre taking bookings is at Sydney Olympic Park. The closest walk-in vaccination centres still accepting new patients are in Bankstown and Fairfield.

The Morrison Government’s failure to secure enough vaccine supplies and get them where they’re most needed has put Western Sydney at greatest risk in this outbreak.

If we’re to have any hope of turning this around in Parramatta we need more walk-in vaccination centres that we can actually walk to, in our community centres and places of worship. Local organisations have offered to help, but so far their pleas have been ignored by the government.

That’s why I’m demanding that walk-in vaccination hubs be set up in the Parramatta CBD and surrounding suburbs.

If you think our state and federal governments should stop blaming Western Sydney for this outbreak and start working together to set up walk-in vaccination centres in Parramatta now, sign the petition here.

COVID information not up to standard

By Julie Owens

17 August 2021

Last week the ABC reported that official COVID health information for multicultural communities was almost two months out of date.

On 12 August, translations published on the Federal Government’s Department of Health website still stated that AstraZeneca was the preferred vaccine for Australians over 50 – medical advice that changed back in June.

The Arabic translation didn’t mention the crucial advice that all adults in Greater Sydney should get the vaccine, whether AstraZeneca or Pfizer.

This isn’t the first time multicultural communities have been given confusing or misleading information about coronavirus. Last year the Department of Health was caught using Google Translate for critical public health information, with “nonsensical” results.

The Department of Health updated the translated information within hours of the ABC story being published, which begs the question – why didn’t they just update the translations every time the health advice changed?

Everyone deserves to be safe, and to be provided with timely, accessible and accurate public health information. When the government fails to get this information out in other languages our culturally and linguistically diverse communities get left behind.

The consequences for multicultural places like Western Sydney are obvious. We’re home to most of the ‘local government areas of concern’ and case numbers are still rising.

Most Western Sydney residents weren’t old enough to be eligible to get vaccinated until lockdown started and the rules changed. Now many of us are relying on outdated information to make decisions about whether or not to get vaccinated. Unsurprisingly, Western Sydney has some of the lowest vaccination rates in NSW and most of us are still completely unvaccinated.

The Morrison Government’s repeated failure to communicate coronavirus information to culturally and linguistically diverse communities is part of a pattern.

In the 7th week of lockdown, my office is still taking calls from people trying to work out if they can claim support payments because there have been so many changes. And the Prime Minister’s failure to communicate clear information about vaccines has left many in the community confused and contributed to a concerning rise in vaccine hesitancy.

Put simply, the coronavirus information we’re receiving from this government is not up to standard.

Labor has been calling on the Morrison Government to engage community leaders and improve coronavirus information for CALD communities since the beginning of the pandemic.

More than a year later our CALD communities are still being left behind.

Vaccine rollout has left Western Sydney behind

By Julie Owens

10 August 2021

Last week the Federal Government released data on vaccination rates across the country.

The data revealed that Parramatta has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Sydney – just 35.1% of residents over 15 have had their first dose and only 17.7% of us are fully vaccinated.

We came in just behind south west Sydney including Fairfield, where the vaccination rates are 33.1% (first dose) and 14.6% (fully vaccinated) and the inner south west including Canterbury-Bankstown, where the rates are 33.5% and 16.1%.

This is not a coincidence. All the ‘Local Government areas of concern’ facing the harshest lockdown restrictions recorded lower vaccination rates than the rest of Sydney.

The contrast with places like the North Shore, where more than half the residents have had their first dose and 26.9% are fully vaccinated, is stark.

There’s a straightforward explanation for this. People in Western Sydney are younger on average than people in parts of Sydney with higher vaccination rates.

In Parramatta, more than half the population is under 40, meaning most of us weren’t eligible to get a first dose until after the current lockdown started and the health advice on AstraZeneca changed.

Prioritising the most vulnerable members of the community in the vaccine rollout – seniors, people living in aged and disability care and frontline workers – was and is the right thing to do.

The problem is, the Morrison Government has bungled this rollout so badly that we are now several months behind the original vaccination targets and Western Sydney has been left behind.

My office has been inundated with calls from people who are confused about the health advice on AstraZeneca because Scott Morrison failed to communicate it clearly in a stream of panicky late night press conferences.

We’ve also heard from many people who are struggling to navigate the government’s website to book an appointment for Pfizer or AstraZeneca.

It seems that GP clinics are not accepting online bookings for new patients, so people who can’t get the vaccine from their usual GP face an uphill battle.

Walk-in vaccination clinics have started to appear in Western Sydney (not Parramatta) and many local pharmacies are now taking bookings for AstraZeneca.

Sadly, the same shortages that have plagued GPs throughout this rollout are also affecting pharmacies. As of the end of last week, less than half of the pharmacies approved to administer the vaccine are ‘online’ and pharmacies in COVID hotspots are reporting a two week wait to receive vaccine supplies.

Scott Morrison waited until December 2020 to ink a deal with Pfizer when other countries were securing supplies in June. Now, after condemning lockdowns, he’s telling us they will continue until 70%-80% of the eligible population is vaccinated.

This is a tall order when we are still relying on a leaky hotel quarantine system, we’re at the back of the queue for Pfizer, and the government is still failing to get the supplies we do have where they’re most needed.

The NSW Premier has asked us to “keep trying” to get the jab. Thanks to the Morrison Government, that seems to be all we can do.

Parramatta needs JobKeeper

By Julie Owens

03 August 2021

Last week Parramatta joined a list of eight local government areas living under the toughest restrictions seen in NSW since the beginning of the pandemic.

Lockdown was extended, the rules changed twice and the COVID-19 Disaster Payment changed for the third time.

Two weeks after announcing extra support for businesses, the NSW Government finally released eligibility criteria for JobSaver and opened applications. Then they changed the criteria and how much you can claim.

Confused? You’re not alone. My office has been inundated with calls and emails from people who are struggling to make sense of the changes.

We can always help when the question is about masks or where you can go shopping – but there are no easy answers for businesses and workers falling through the cracks in the support package.

One local business owner who has lost all her income contacted me after finding out that she would not be allowed to claim JobSaver or the business support grant.

She’s ineligible because she claimed the COVID-19 Disaster Payment before these business payments were announced. She thinks, quite reasonably, that this is unfair, and fears that it will spell disaster for her business.

Businesses that are eligible for JobSaver face a complicated application process to claim 40% of their payroll up to $100,000 per week – an increase from a previous limit of $10,000.

When I talk to business owners they tell me what they really need is JobKeeper. They’re joined by Labor, unions and the NSW Treasurer, who are all calling on the Morrison Government to reinstate the payment.

So far Scott Morrison has refused to bring back JobKeeper, saying it wouldn’t be right because it was the solution to “last year’s problem.”

I think most of us living in the middle of Sydney’s toughest lockdown would agree that “last year’s problem” never really went away. Thanks to our leaky hotel quarantine system and the slowest vaccine rollout in the developed world, it’s worse than ever.

The path out of lockdown is clear - we need the Morrison Government to start treating the vaccine rollout like a race and quarantine as a national responsibility. In the meantime they need to bring back JobKeeper so businesses and workers can make it to the other side, and there’s a way to do it that won’t cost the Budget a cent.

Last year the government paid $4.6 billion in JobKeeper to businesses that actually increased their turnover in 2020. If they finally took action to claim it back, they could pay for three months of properly run JobKeeper for the whole of NSW. I think that’s a pretty good deal.

Vaccine rollout missing the majority of seniors receiving aged care

By Julie Owens

27 July 2021

Last week Prime Minister Scott Morrison said ‘sorry’ for Australia’s botched vaccine rollout.

With more than half the country in lockdown, it seems he had no choice but to accept some responsibility for what is arguably his most important job.

In Parramatta, the consequences of the slowest vaccine rollout in the OECD are obvious. Businesses are closed, streets are deserted and many people are out of work and struggling.

But these are not the only consequences. This week I want to talk about how the Morrison Government’s vaccine failures have put some of the most vulnerable members of our community at risk.

You may have heard that despite promising to vaccinate all aged care workers and residents by Easter, some residents and a staggering 57% of workers remain unvaccinated.

You probably haven’t heard anything about vaccinations for the almost 1 million older Australians who are receiving care at home.

This kind of care involves multiple aged care workers and volunteers, such as cleaners, specialist carers and Meals on Wheels visiting the homes of frail older people, sometimes daily.

I’ve heard from many seniors in this group who have struggled to book a vaccine appointment and others who don’t know how they’ll be able to get to their appointment, if they manage to book one.

I’ve also heard from seniors who are wondering whether the workers and volunteers who come into their homes are vaccinated.

83.5% of all older Australians receiving aged care do so in their own homes, not a residential aged care facility, and over a third of the aged care workforce provides care at home. Yet it seems the Morrison Government has no idea how many of these older Australians and workers have been vaccinated.

I said “you probably haven’t heard” about the vaccine rollout in home care because the Morrison Government isn’t talking about it. In press conferences and media interviews they seem to be pretending that the aged care system only exists in residential aged care.

They’ve either forgotten about the majority of Australians in the aged care system, or they’re trying to cover up a lack of oversight of the majority of the aged care vaccine rollout.

Older Australians who’ve spent a lifetime contributing to this country deserve better than this. First and foremost, they deserve a plan.

This means the Morrison Government needs to work out and tell us how many older Australians receiving home care have managed to get vaccinated without any government support. Likewise the workers and volunteers who support them. Then they need to set a target for when the rest of them will be vaccinated and tell us how they’re going to make it happen, safely and effectively.

Scott Morrison has said the vaccine rollout isn’t a race. But it undoubtedly is, especially for the most vulnerable members of our community, and we need to start running.

More help is available

By Julie Owens

20 July 2021

Our community is in lockdown until at least 30 July.

I’ve heard from a lot of people and businesses who are already struggling and wondering how they will cope with the extension until the end of the month.

There has been a constant stream of announcements this past week. Fortunately, some of them have been about new support payments for people who’ve lost work and businesses forced to close because of the restrictions. A lot of the information out there is confusing, so I want to dedicate this space to explaining some of the support that’s available for people in Parramatta, and how you can get it.

Individuals

If you've lost work and income because of the lockdown, you can claim the COVID-19 Disaster Payment every 7 days during lockdown, starting on 4 July. You have to lodge a new claim each week with Centrelink through MyGov and the payment will depend on how many hours you've lost in that 7 day period.

As of 15 July, the payment has increased from $500 to $600 per week for more than 20 hours lost work, and from $325 to $375 for less than 20 hours. The original requirement to have less than $10,000 in liquid assets no longer applies.

Extended telehealth consultations (20 minutes+) are once again available on Medicare.

As of yesterday, child care gap fees will be waived for parents who keep their kids at home during lockdown.

There is also a 60 day freeze on evictions for residential tenants who have lost 25% or more of their income and can't afford to pay their rent because of COVID-19.

Businesses

Businesses and not-for-profits with annual turnover between $75,000 and $50 million that have experienced a 30% decline in turnover (or greater) can apply for a weekly business support payment of between $1,500 and $10,000 per week, depending on their payroll. Non-employing businesses such as sole traders can apply for $1,000 per week.

The NSW Government business support grants announced in late June have been expanded. Businesses, sole traders and not-for-profit organisations that have experienced a decline in turnover of 30% or more can now apply for a COVID-19 business grant of up to $15,000.

Micro businesses that have been affected by lockdown but left out of these measures may be able to apply for micro business grants of $1500 per fortnight from late July.

The NSW Government is also offering payroll tax deferrals and waivers for affected businesses and land tax relief for landlords who offer rent reductions (residential landlords who don’t pay land tax can apply for a grant of up to $1,500).

Click here for links to more information about these measures including eligibility rules and how to apply. If you're having trouble getting help, please get in touch with my office.

Cuts to Medicare under the cover of COVID

13 July 2021

On July 1, when all eyes were on COVID case numbers and 12 million Australians were in lockdown, Scott Morrison snuck through almost 1,000 cuts and changes to the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS). 

This is the biggest change to the MBS, which lists all the Medicare services subsidised by the Australian Government, in its history. 

One in six Medicare rebates have been affected, radically altering the cost of hundreds of orthopaedic, cardiac and general surgeries. 

Despite the scale and impact of these changes, doctors and healthcare providers only learned the details around three weeks before they came into effect. 

That means people who planned surgeries before their doctor was notified about the changes now face out of pocket costs of up to $10,000. 

The Australian Medical Association, the Grattan Institute, health funds, the Consumers Health Forum, and the Australian Orthopaedic Association have all warned the cuts and changes will lead to an increase in out of pocket costs for patients. 

The Minister for Health has said savings from these cuts will be reinvested in Medicare – but he hasn’t been able to explain how patients will benefit. 

This follows a pattern of rising out of pocket costs under the current Liberal Government, which has seen gap fees go up by around $10 for GP visits and a whopping $30 for specialists. It now costs 43% more to see a doctor in Parramatta than it did in 2013. 

Over the past eight years, this Government has also pursued Medicare privatisation, proposed a $7 GP tax, cut bulk billing services and cut billions from Medicare. 

It’s important to note that the latest cuts and changes came out of a five year review that was supported by the AMA and other medical groups. 

The aim of this review was to bring the MBS in line with modern surgical practice. But the outcome has blindsided the medical profession, and the Morrison Government is yet to explain to doctors or patients how the almost 1,000 changes will work. 

Doctors are already reporting cases of patients putting off surgery because they don’t know if they’ll be able to afford it.  

In Australia, in 2021, patients should not be forced to choose between cancelling life-changing surgeries or being hit with huge bills they were never told about. 

I’ve added a petition to my website so people in our community can tell the Morrison Government to abandon these cuts and changes. If this matters to you, please add your name here.

If these cuts and changes have affected you or someone you care about, please get in touch with my office. 

Looking out for each other in lockdown

By Julie Owens

06 July 2021

Greater Sydney is in lockdown until at least the end of this week – a situation which may change for better or worse in the time it takes this paper to reach you.

Last week, stay at home orders were announced in Brisbane, Perth, Darwin, Townsville and the Gold Coast, plunging 12 million Australians into lockdown to stop the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant.

The public debate has, quite rightly, been focused on the reasons why almost half the population is in lockdown more than a year after the pandemic began.

Without losing sight of that, I wanted to spend some time talking about the people in our community who are hurting because of this lockdown, and how they can find help.

Many are hurting because they’ve lost work. Casuals accounted for two thirds of job losses during the first COVID lockdown and will bear the brunt of this one. 

It’s hard to say how many have been affected, but a shift scheduling app used by two million Australian workers has reported an almost 70% cut in hospitality shifts, and a decline of around 60% in retail and service roles. Parramatta is home to around 10% of Sydney’s casual workforce – 54,600 people.

If you’ve lost work and income because of the lockdown, you may be eligible to claim a one-off COVID-19 Disaster Payment from the Federal Government. It only kicks in when the lockdown lasts for more than 7 days, meaning you can only claim if for hours you lose from the start of the second week - $500 for 20 hours or more or $325 for less than 20 hours.

Refugees, asylum seekers and other temporary visa holders who’ve lost work will not be eligible for this payment – or any other government support.

Volunteers and local community organisations like Parramatta Mission and Karabi Community Services continue to step up wherever the government is absent, providing emergency relief including meals, food parcels and food vouchers. But the demand is so great that some organisations now have waiting lists for these services.

Of course, people have lost work because businesses have been forced to scale back or close their doors during lockdown. This has been devastating for local small businesses, who have been struggling to trade through changing restrictions and the construction of the Parramatta Light Rail for more than a year.

From late July, small businesses that have seen a decline in turnover can apply for a NSW Government COVID-19 support grant - $5,000 for a 30% decline in turnover, $7,000 for a 50% decline and $10,000 for a 70% decline. While this support is welcome, I’ve already heard from business owners that have been forced to close, but won’t be eligible for these grants.

The QR code at bottom left links to a page on my website with information about the business support grants, the COVID-19 Disaster Payment and other local services that can help if you’re struggling.  And my office is always available to help by phone or email.

Some of you who are doing OK might like to consider volunteering or making a donation to one of our fantastic local relief organisations. But we can all do our bit to help by looking out for each other. That’s how we’ll get through this together.

Parramatta’s environment and heritage under threat

By Julie Owens

29 June 2021

The NSW Government continues to wage a war on heritage and green space in Parramatta.

Let’s start with Willow Grove. I’ve previously written about the long battle to save this heritage building from demolition to build – paradoxically – a heritage museum.

Despite overwhelming community opposition and a Green Ban stopping work, the NSW Government is pushing ahead with its new plan to dismantle and ‘move’ Willow Grove to an unspecified site.

Community activists from the North Parramatta Residents Action Group have taken the fight to the NSW Land & Environment Court, arguing that the NSW Government failed to properly consider alternatives that would have allowed Willow Grove to remain on Phillip St, where it’s stood for almost 150 years.

Two weeks ago the Court found in favour of the NSW Government and last Monday, workers began demolishing the one-of-a-kind Italianate villa.

But I’m pleased to say the fight is not over. Activists gathered before dawn last Tuesday to surround Willow Grove and NPRAG won an injunction that will stop the destruction of the building until the Court’s decision can be appealed. Unfortunately, workers are still tearing down outbuildings and cutting down trees at the site.

While the future of Willow Grove hangs in the balance, Greater Sydney Parklands is planning to remove 60 mature trees from Parramatta Park to make way for 130 new parking spaces.

This is being done as part of the ‘People’s Loop’ project, which – again paradoxically – is all about removing cars from the park to make it more pedestrian-friendly.

Locals say they’ve been blindsided by the decision as there was no mention of removing trees and building new car parks when the People’s Loop consultation was held 6 years ago.

They’re fighting hard to save the trees, with a petition asking Parramatta Council to intervene gaining more than 1,000 signatures. Thanks to their efforts, work on the project will stop for at least five weeks to allow for further community consultation.

Parramatta Park is a significant heritage site, with thousands of years of Aboriginal Heritage and the World Heritage listed Old Government House within its boundary, and it deserves to be protected.

The removal of trees anywhere in Parramatta is a cause for concern. Poor planning decisions and the explosion of heat intensifying infrastructure such as carparks are compounding the consequences of climate change and in 2019, Parramatta sweltered through 47 days over 35C.

If we want to reduce this ‘urban heat island’ effect, we need to protect the tree cover and green spaces we have and create more.

Sadly, the Morrison Government is trying to push through changes that will undermine federal protections for environment and heritage, devolving decision-making powers in NSW to a state government that seems hell bent on replacing trees and heritage buildings with concrete and glass.

I want to thank the locals who are fighting to protect Parramatta’s heritage and save these trees, including North Parramatta Residents Action Group, Save Willow Grove and the unions backing the Green Ban on Willow Grove.

They are fighting to make Parramatta a better place to live and when it comes to saving trees, doing all they can to ensure Parramatta remains liveable. 

Bring the Muruguppans home to Biloela

By Julie Owens

22 June 2021

Two weeks ago, a photo brought Australians face-to-face with the cruelty visited on the Muruguppan family by the Morrison Government.

The photo showed then 3 year old Tharunicaa Muruguppan crying in a hospital bed, suffering from a blood infection caused by untreated pneumonia.

We now know that Tharunicaa was very sick for 10 days before she finally got proper medical treatment. Until then, despite her parents’ desperate pleas, she was only offered over-the-counter painkillers by medical staff on Christmas Island and her condition became so serious that she had to be medically evacuated to Perth.

The treatment of the youngest member of the ‘Biloela family’ – named for the Queensland town where they became much loved members of the community – is the latest instalment in a long and terrible story.

Priya and Nades Muruguppan are Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers who met in Australia and settled in Biloela in 2014. Their two daughters Kopika, 6 and Tharunicaa, now 4 were born there. Nades worked in the local abattoir and volunteered in the community.

In March 2018, soon after Priya and Nades’ visas expired, the family was taken into custody in a dawn raid by Border Force officers and police. The raid shocked the Biloela community, which started to campaign for their return almost immediately.

In August 2019, after more than a year in immigration detention in Melbourne, the family was forced on a plane bound for Sri Lanka. A Federal Court injunction forced the plane to land in Darwin and the family was moved to Christmas Island, where despite being the only detainees on the island, they were confined to two rooms and rarely allowed to leave the centre.

While the family has been in immigration detention the ‘Home to Bilo’ campaign has brought the family’s plight to national – and international – attention. A petition asking the Morrison Government to bring the family home to Biloela has over 550,000 signatures (and counting).

Under intense pressure, the Minister for Immigration, Alex Hawke, has released the family into community detention in Perth, allowing Nades and Kopika to be reunited with Priya and Tharunicaa, who will need 8 weeks’ treatment to fully recover.

This is a reprieve, but it doesn’t bring the family any closer to going ‘home to Bilo’, and there is still no certainty of an outcome.

Minister for Home Affairs, Karen Andrews seemed to downplay the seriousness of the situation when she said last week that reporting of Tharunicaa’s illness was “inaccurate” and that she had been “well and truly treated.”

The Morrison Government has defended its treatment of the Muruguppans by saying that letting them stay would weaken Australia’s borders. But it is possible to be strong on borders without losing our humanity.

The Migration Act ensures this by giving the Ministers for Home Affairs and Immigration the power to exercise discretion – something they do thousands of times each year.

After spending an estimated $50 million to detain and try to deport the family and causing untold pain and suffering, it’s hard to see what the Government hopes to achieve by keeping the Biloela family in detention.