ABC Radio Darwin

Release Date: 
5 May 2020

Presenter Ken Wyatt is the Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians. Minister, very good morning. Welcome back to the Top End. What's the plan to lift restrictions for the bio-security zones?

Minister Wyatt That's actually what I want to acknowledge firstly, the Territory has been exemplary in not having COVID-19 as an issue, nor within Indigenous communities. But when we put the Bio-security Act in place, it was to protect some of the most vulnerable members of the Northern Territory community, plus across the Top End, these by security measures were agreed to by National Cabinet, and we'll have that discussion with through National Cabinet as to when the Chief Minister would like these determinations adjusted and amended so that there is freedom of movement, partly because your borders have been contained. And certainly the Territory is a unique place in which there is significant distances. But we've had a great outcome for the Territory Aboriginal communities.

Presenter It doesn't take only one small slip of corona virus to return, as it currently stands with the Northern Territory similarly effectively contained COVID at this stage. Is that fact putting pressure on opening or closing the communities, keeping them closed?

Minister Wyatt It's a strong consideration. You're better off being patient than to end up with COVID-19 and possible death. Communities have used their out stations as well, so they've dispersed, people have returned from the larger centres back to their community. We've guaranteed and worked very closely with the Northern Territory government on guaranteeing food supply. So the outcome today has been good, but I certainly would not want to see COVID-19 appear in any community because of its devastating effect. But more importantly, the co-morbidities that some of the older people within Aboriginal communities have.

Presenter What about those people living within the communities Minister, are they calling for restrictions to be lifted?

Minister Wyatt No, I've had the reverse. I was doing a teleconference for the group of Aboriginal leaders, including the Kimberley. And five of them said don't leave the security arrangements because they said there's a couple of things we're protecting ourselves. But what they also saw was families connecting and doing things together and cultural teaching of children occurring that they haven't seen in a long time. But I've seen both the social benefits but also the health benefits. So it's been a good outcome in their eyes. So I suspect there will be some community that will still want to insist on isolating themselves even in the bio-security restrictions are lifted.

Presenter That's so interesting that you say that, Minister, because a lot of people remark that the restrictions. Yes, socially and for the family and for personally are actually really lovely to be able to take life at a slower pace and not be obliged to do so many things. Just quickly, can I take you back to something that you said earlier, which was that the Chief Minister can advise you when to lift those biosecurity measures even though they implemented the federal level? We’re told a lot by our local government. Well, this is a federal issue. So whose call is it?

Minister Wyatt It is both because we work together and we use our decisions, and our decisions are based on the advice of chief medical officers and the expert health panel, because it's important in the way in which we have to consider the impact of the virus on any community. And if we believe the chances are far better than what we had at the beginning of this process, then it's likely that Minister Hunt, myself and Minister Gunner through the National Cabinet would look at easing those restrictions. They'd probably still be some requirements. But certainly the requirement of social distancing is still significantly important.

Presenter So at this stage, at the National Cabinet level, including our Chief Minister, you're all on the same page that the biosecurity areas won't be lifted until June 18. I think was the date, wasn't it?

Minister Wyatt That's right. And we'll retain that, because again, I just don't want to see any COVID-19 cases in an Aboriginal community. We only have to look at the aged care facility in New South Wales where the virus was brought into the facility and they've lost 15 people now, senior Australians, and we would run a similar risk in a community if somebody bringing the virus in inadvertently and end up losing, and when I say us, I mean our people will lose elders and senior people.

Presenter The biosecurity areas are very much like borders, if you have a look at a map, you can see their lines drawn, creating borders for a lot of people who want to go into those national parks. Kakadu and Uluru either for, you know, their own personal tourism or fishing or camping. I think they'd like to know whether or not there was some flexibility on where those borders lie. Are people able to go and maybe fish, even if you keep some of those restrictions in place?

Minister Wyatt Well, where the Chief Minister has designated areas that are open, then those areas are fine. But where we have bio-security boundaries, then there is that requirement for the two week self-isolation so that you do not take into a community COVID-19 and communities have expressed the concern, too, that they want to remain safe.

Presenter So, again, if the Chief Minister goes to the National Cabinet and says, we would like to see this particular area say Kakadu or Uluru, this particular area to be open, then that would be okay.

Minister Wyatt Yeah, we do, we make very actions to the Bio-security Act determination because at the beginning we identified with the Territory government and the other relevant jurisdictions, the areas that we felt were most vulnerable. And that was then taken into a discussion with the National Cabinet in its broadest context, and then Minister Hunt, myself and the Chief Minister in the case of the Territory, worked together on putting those measures into place. And we will again, when we unpackage it, go through a similar process to make sure that the bottom line is no risk of COVID infection.

Presenter You're on ABC Radio Darwin to Jo Laverty, Adam Steal with you, you're also hearing from Ken Wyatt, who's the federal Minister for Indigenous Australians. It's been revealed, Minister, that modelling for Corona virus in the Northern Territory predicted that as many as 2000 people could have lost their lives. Have you seen the modelling of the impact that COVID-19 may have had on Indigenous communities specifically?

Minister Wyatt Not specifically. But having worked in both W.A. Health and New South Wales Health during the SARS period when we were working on the mathematical modelling of the risk of disease spread and its implications for the loss of life. It gives me a good sense of what would apply in this instance, although this is a more virulent virus and has more dire consequences in terms of the way in which people once affected, if they're vulnerable, then ultimately ventilated, and if they don't survive that then of course we lose a family member. And that's important that we make sure that no infection occurs. The modelling rate would be significant in Aboriginal communities, I would suspect, because of the co-morbidities.

Presenter The issue of food security has been a constant problem for those communities since this virus started to impact Australia. The ABC is continuing to receive reports from people in remote communities who say the supply chain isn't reaching them. Are you aware of ongoing issues in this area minister?

Minister Wyatt Well, we've got two, there are two taskforces, one that the territory has established, we also saw the National Indigenous Agency have done the same. And in the early days, not long after we had the lockdown, myself, the Chief Minister, Selina Ubio, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Woolies, Metcash, Coles and all of the outback stores and providers came together and talked about what were the impacts of lockdowns. What was the flow of basic products into those stores? What were the shortages and how could we remedy that? What was interesting was Woolworths said straight away, tell us what you shortages are. We'll get the material to Metcash to distribute to all of the stores across the territory. And they did that with some immediacy. We had a second round and Peter Dutton and I signed off on a letter for the distributors to go directly to their suppliers to ensure that stores in the Territory had access to whatever they needed. But there was always going to be a shortage in parts of rice and flour because that's uniform across Australia. But subsequently, we're doing further work, and I've asked a parliamentary committee to have a look at some of the issues that have been raised in that is still evolving as we move further into the Bio-security Act, determination lock down areas.

Presenter We heard a number of weeks ago that extra COVID-19 tests would be taken into remote communities in the sums of thousands of extras. There hasn't been much information about them since then. So are you able to tell us how many tests have been taken into remote communities, how many have been done and how many are left over?

Minister Wyatt Well there’s 83 communities that have been identified, there's a committee that was established by Minister Hunt of Indigenous leadership in the health arena. They've provided advice. The 83 communities, they're finalising, where there is an outbreak these test kits will be made available with some immediacy, but there is equipment that has to be placed in that location. And then the training of people to use those kits, which is important given they take a swab from the throat and the nose. But it only takes it takes, less than an hour to have a result, which is far better than sending away blood samples and waiting. So there's some immediacy, but whenever there's an outbreak, the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory health systems will work together to tackle the issues, including the evacuation of people where it took place, where it is required.

Presenter It's always a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you so much for your time today.

Minister Wyatt Minister, thank you both very much, Jo and Adam.