SUBJECTS: COVID-19 and Victoria, Schools in Victoria, Child care in Victoria
Tom Connell: Well, of course, yesterday’s announcement on longer lockdown of Victoria having major ramifications, including on children at school, right through the entire system. Joining me live now is the Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan for more on this. Thanks very much for your time. I guess, first of all, can I get your reaction, just as a federal member of Cabinet and a Victorian, on this roadmap out yesterday from Daniel Andrews. What was your response?
Dan Tehan: Well, obviously, incredibly hard time for all Victorians at the moment, Tom, and my heart goes out to all those families, those individuals, who are doing it incredibly tough at the moment. This is something that none of us imagined we’d be in the midst of at the beginning of the year, and, you know, our hope is, and especially from a Federal Government point of view, that we can get out of this as quickly as we possibly can in Victoria. And, the Federal Government will be there to support people through this, and we will make sure that we can continue to provide the financial support to businesses and to families as they go through this incredibly tough time.
Connell: So, getting out as quickly as you can, in your own words. Was that what was outlined yesterday by Daniel Andrews?
Tehan: Well, look, Tom, obviously, our medical officials are looking at the roadmap at the moment, and assessing it. One of the things that I would love to see is just that clear stating that we’re going to aim to have world’s best practice when it comes to contact tracing, world’s best practice when it comes to turning around testing times, world’s best practice when it comes to ensuring that businesses can operate with proper social distancing in place. They’re the types of things that we really all want to see, because we know when you look at New South Wales, that’s what’s helped it be able to deal with the virus in the way it has, and that’s what we’re looking to see coming out of Victoria.
Connell: So, the Victorian Government has turned down the offer of assistance from the Commonwealth on contact tracing. What do you make of that?
Tehan: Well, I think, all of us, as we’re going through these difficult times and dealing with the virus, need to be drawing on all the help and support that we can get. And, as we’ve seen from Victoria, it, amongst all other states and territories in Australia, needs the help the most. So, my hope is that we’ll be able to work very collaboratively together, and where assistance is provided, where we’re offering assistance, that that can be welcomed, and that we can work together. As I’ve said, you know, the keys to this is to make sure that you do have that world best place testing, that world’s best place contact tracing, making sure that businesses are operating with proper social distancing in place, but in a way where they can open and function. That’s what we want to be seeing, and that’s why the Commonwealth Government wants to work with the Victorian State Government to make sure we can do that, because all of us want to see Victoria come out of the current mess that it’s in.
Connell: It sounds like you hope they change their mind. We’ll hear what Daniel Andrews has to say in about 20 minutes. As for the roadmap in your portfolio, so the only point when school will resume for all students – in particular, Years 3 to 10 are the ones that go last, which is quite a few people – is when we have five daily cases, on average, over a fortnight, and/or fewer than five total unknown source cases over a fortnight. Is that too conservative for your liking?
Tehan: Well, let’s look at the positives. We’re going to get Year 12 and Year 11 back for term four – that’s welcome – and preps and grade ones – that’s welcome – because we all know how important it is to have children back at school for that face-to-face learning. Now, my hope is that we would be able to get a greater streamlining, then, of those other years, back into the classroom for that face-to-face teaching, because we know it’s those children from low SES backgrounds, it’s those children from rural and remote backgrounds, it’s those children from Indigenous backgrounds, which will miss out the most. So, let’s hope that the plan can work, and let’s hope that it can work better than it’s even set out, because the sooner we can get those children back to school, the better.
Connell: Well, let me ask you this then. Were you surprised at how high the bar was to get all those children back to school, when you first read of this plan?
Tehan: Well, obviously, our medical officials are examining and working through the detail that was announced yesterday. So, we’ll obviously take their advice. Obviously, all of us want to make sure that we’re able to deal with COVID-19 in Victoria, and get Victoria back to a COVID safe environment. So, I’ll wait to hear what our medical professionals have to say …
Connell: … Right. So, on that, because you’ve mentioned … Essentially, once they’re through this …
Tehan: … but, obviously, our position is to get children back to school as quickly as we possibly can.
Connell: Yeah. Sorry to jump in, but, essentially, once the federal officials have gone through this and looked at the plan – because it’s not just advice, it’s how you apply it, it’s risk appetite, and so on – the Government could well say, well, we feel as though this, there could be a path that gets Victoria out of these restrictions earlier. That’s the possibility after this is reviewed, essentially?
Tehan: Well, we’ll be seeking to provide advice after we have assessed all the material and all the detail. And, as we always have, our health officials are working very closely with the Victorian health officials, and, you know, obviously, in the end, it’s the Victorian State Government which, ultimately, makes the decisions. But, we’ll be providing guidance, we’ll be providing advice, and if that advice is saying we think there’s opportunities, for instance, where we might be able to get children back into the classroom more quicker than what has been set out, then let’s hope that we’ll be able to work with the Victorian State Government to see that eventuate.
Connell: Did you or your department try to work with the Victorian Government before this was released, and asked to have input about getting students back, but that was rebuffed?
Tehan: Look, I’ve been in discussions with James Merlino, the Victorian State Education Minister, over the last couple of weeks, and, you know, he has expressed, as I have, a desire to get children back into the classroom as quickly as possible. Now, obviously, they’re working within their own parameters and their own health advice, and they’re, ultimately, making decisions based on that. We’ll assess that based …
Connell: … Do you have parameters you were able to put forward from your position, advice you’re getting? Were they put forward, but they were rebuffed?
Tehan: Oh, look, our health officials have been in constant dialogue with the Victorian state health officials to try and work through what’s the best way to be able to do this. Obviously, in the end, though, it’s the Victorian State Government which ultimately makes the decisions, but we’ll continue to work with them. Because, I think, all of us want to see, especially when it comes to our children’s education, that face-to-face teaching in the classroom occurring as quickly as it possibly can.
Connell: And, just finally, on child care. Do you have any figures on how many child care workers in Victoria, with this second wave, have either been stood down or lost their jobs?
Tehan: No, look, we obviously have put in place a package which had an employment guarantee, and what we’ve seen is, and all the feedback that we’ve had, is that the vast majority of child care providers in Victoria have honoured that degree. And, can I say to anyone who hasn’t, who’s had their work terminated, there is a hotline that you can ring, or go to the Department of Education website to let us know, so that we can then address your case. But, on the whole, all the feedback we’re getting is that the child care providers have acted according to the employment guarantee that was put in place, and we’re looking forward to continuing, now that we’ve got an idea of the roadmap for child care, continuing to provide that support and assistance for the child care sector in Victoria going forward.
Connell: So, you said the vast majority, but the employment guarantee hasn’t quite been a guarantee for some, from reports being – as I said – stood down or losing their job. You’re not sure how many that is?
Tehan: Oh, look, we’ve had some particular individual cases raised with us, so we’re investigating those, and we’ll do that, and then we’ll take that up with the providers. But, from all the indications that I’ve seen, these are very minimal cases.
Connell: And, is there another one-off payment coming for child care centres in Victoria, given lockdown is being extended?
Tehan: So, this is one of the things we’re working through right now. Obviously, the decision was taken yesterday. So, I’m getting briefed by my officials today on various measures and what we should be looking at, given the announcement that was made yesterday, and we’ll have more to say on this over the coming days.
Connell: So, people should expect, those parents that might be concerned or the centre owners or workers, there is an announcement coming, another one from you, on child care funding?
Tehan: Well, we’ll be doing everything we can to continue to support the sector. What we’ve seen is 99 per cent of providers have remained viable and operating through the pandemic. It’s been one of the absolute success stories of this nation, and the way that it’s dealt with the pandemic. We want to be able to continue to provide that support, especially in Victoria, for our child care providers.
Connell: Dan Tehan, thanks for your time today.
Tehan: Pleasure, Tom.