COVID-19: Vaccination, 9 March, 2023

Senator BABET (Victoria—United Australia Party Whip) (14:39): My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Health and Aged Care, Minister Gallagher. We meet again, Minister Gallagher. Last time we conversed in this chamber, you said, in relation to COVID-19 vaccines: It’s not just an individual decision. This is the thing. It’s not just about an individual’s decision and keeping yourself safe; it’s keeping other people safe from this virus—people who aren’t able to be as protected as some of us. It’s actually a community responsibility to be vaccinated. You also repeated this during Senate estimates. Minister, can you please advise what evidence you have relied upon to justify your statements regarding mRNA vaccinations and their effectiveness against transmission of the currently circulating COVID strain?

Senator GALLAGHER (Australian Capital Territory—Minister for the Public Service, Minister for Finance, Minister for Women, Manager of Government Business in the Senate and Vice-President of the Executive Council) (14:40): I thank the senator for the question and also for the earlier advice that he was going to ask a question about COVID-19. By getting vaccinated and staying up to date with booster doses, people are helping to protect their communities. They do this by reducing their own risk of serious and severe disease and they are reducing the potential burden on their local health service and maintaining their ability to work and provide care for others.

At the initial stage of the pandemic there was also the push, through the vaccination program, to ensure, essentially, a herd immunity to the virus, which is similar to the approach that we take with the other vaccination programs, and my comments relate to that. Anyone who undertakes a vaccination for a particular illness or disease is doing it as a member of a community because quite often those diseases won’t necessarily give us severe illness but those who are vulnerable, those who are immunocompromised, could be affected. So I do see vaccination as a community responsibility, and there is no doubt that having the vaccines is preventing serious disease from occurring to people and is preventing deaths and has been instrumental in allowing society to open both socially and economically.

Honourable senators interjecting—

The PRESIDENT: I’ll remind senators once again that conversations across the chamber are disorderly. This is Senator Babet’s opportunity to ask questions and for the minister to respond. Senator Babet, a first supplementary question?

Senator BABET (14:41): So we’ve now had over 11 million COVID cases being reported in Australia, and most Australians by now have some level of natural immunity or they’ve been vaccinated. Even New South Wales Premier Mr Dominic Perrottet recently said there’s no evidence that vaccines impact transmission. Potentially, I think you may have misled the Senate. Now, let’s go back to the very start, specifically to Pfizer. Did Pfizer test whether the COVID-19 vaccine prevented transmission before rolling it out?

Senator Ayres interjecting—

The PRESIDENT: Senator Ayres, I’ve called you to order a number of times during question time. I’m asking you to respect when I call you to order and not continue to call out.

Senator GALLAGHER (14:42): On the issue of Pfizer and whether the vaccine was tested on its ability to prevent community transmission, I will have to take that on notice. I’m happy to come back to you. But I think we do have to understand that the approval processes for these vaccines were done very quickly, in the eye of a pandemic. They followed the safety procedures as required and the TGA had a rigorous assessment process for approval of those vaccines, and there is no doubt that the vaccines have helped prevent serious illness and death in thousands and thousands of Australians. I think you’re very fortunate if you’ve had COVID and you haven’t had serious disease and it hasn’t required hospitalisation or caused your death. But failing to vaccinate people would have resulted in a lot more deaths. It would have. (Time expired)

The PRESIDENT: Senator Babet, a second supplementary question?

Senator BABET (14:54): Thank you, Minister. Obviously, you failed to answer my question there, but I believe that your government continues to fail many Australians by not outlawing vaccine mandates. Now, you’ve got an opportunity here to make up for the previous government’s failure—the previous Liberal government’s mistakes. So I’ll ask you one more time: do you believe that you’ve misled the Senate around your comments regarding community responsibility and the vaccines? Are you willing to retract those comments?

Senator GALLAGHER (14:44):  I don’t believe I have misled the Senate, and I take the remarks I make in this place around that really seriously. I do believe that vaccination is a community responsibility; I do believe it. If we all went around unvaccinated, there would be a whole range of diseases and illnesses in this country. Whilst it might not affect many of us in this chamber—although it would affect some of us—if you are immunocompromised then the fact that people aren’t vaccinated could have a significant and serious effect on your health.

Senator Rennick interjecting—

Senator GALLAGHER: That is the reality. That’s the approach we take with the childhood vaccination program. It’s the approach we’ve taken with the pandemic. There is no doubt, and despite Senator Rennick’s interjections there is evidence, because the mortality rate from COVID is significantly reduced now that we have a highly vaccinated population. The evidence is in on that.

Senator RENNICK: The evidence is not in.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Rennick, I’ve called you to order a number of times. There’s ample opportunity during the week for you to put your opinion about a whole variety of matters. Question time is not one of those.