Condolences – Bushfires

Whilst this summer’s bushfire season is not yet over and fires continue to ravage the landscape, I want to acknowledge the significant impact of this season’s devastating bushfires. I want to pay my respects to the families of the five people who lost their lives in Victoria and the 29 people who lost their lives in New South Wales, the ACT and South Australia. I express my deepest condolences to their families and their friends.

The recent bushfires have devastated communities, resulting in the tragic loss of lives and thousands of people being displaced. More than 1.5 million hectares of land has been destroyed, along with hundreds of homes and farm buildings, massive amounts of fencing, farm stock, wildlife and their precious habitat.

I want to place on record my thanks to the ongoing efforts of the brave firefighters from Forest Fire Management Victoria, from the CFA, from the United States, from Canada, from New Zealand and our Pacific Islander neighbour friends, and also to acknowledge the amazing work of our first responders, including Victoria Police and Ambulance Victoria. The cooperation across all levels of government has been remarkable, and I want to thank the ADF as well for transporting essential supplies, including medicines, to bushfire-affected communities. The ADF working side by side with our emergency responders in our recovery and relief efforts also is not unprecedented. We saw such efforts in the Black Saturday fires, and, like then, their contribution has been greatly valued by all of us.

As we saw from the Black Saturday fires, it is important to enable people to get back to their usual lives as quickly as possible, and I want to thank staff from my department, the Department of Health and Human Services, who volunteered from all over the state to work in relief and recovery centres. When I visited the Bairnsdale recovery centre recently I met with DHHS staff who had travelled from as far away as Mildura to help.

I want to take this opportunity to thank the Pharmacy Guild of Australia for ensuring pharmacists in bushfire-affected areas had adequate medical supplies during the crisis, and I also want to commend them for providing financial relief to bushfire-affected patients who did not have the funds available to pay for their prescriptions. To support patients during the immediate crisis, our government made a public health emergency order that is applicable until midnight, 1 April 2020. It enables pharmacies to dispense prescription-only medicines to people affected by the bushfires if they do not have a prescription. Of course we did that understanding the reality that being displaced people were not able to obtain all their relevant paperwork and take that with them, and of course paperwork that is vital to their continued health and wellbeing include things like prescriptions.

To support our health services, we engaged Rural Workforce Agency Victoria to provide a point of contact for clinicians and healthcare workers offering their services to assist with the response. A dedicated website and hotline were provided, which resulted in nearly 600 expressions of interest and over 30 short-term locum contracts to support health services and local GP practices.

I want to thank also the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, including their secretary, Lisa Fitzpatrick, for organising volunteer nurses to go and assist our health services in bushfire-affected areas and providing support and relief to those nurses there doing it tough. It was great to talk to Ms Fitzpatrick about her own engagement and support for health services in those communities. She also rolled up her sleeves and provided that support on a personal basis.

There is no greater priority to the government than supporting our communities through the remainder of the bushfire season and on the long road to recovery. This is why we established Bushfire Recovery Victoria, a new permanent dedicated agency to work directly with local communities impacted by our state’s devastating bushfires, as we begin that long process of rebuilding and recovery. The critical work of Bushfire Recovery Victoria, to be chaired by the former Chief Commissioner of Police, Ken Lay, began straightaway, even as our emergency services continue to battle bushfires in our state’s north and east. I want to thank Ken Lay for this important work. He is someone who is a very dedicated individual, committed to public service, and I thank him for taking on this additional responsibility.

The Andrews Labor government has also announced a $14.4 million case support program for people living in fire-affected areas who will be a single point of contact for those who need it, working with local residents to link them directly with vital support, such as information and advice, mental health support and financial counselling. Services will be delivered by Windermere and Gippsland Lakes Community Health in Gippsland, Gateway Health in northern Victoria and Cohealth in other parts of the state. Windermere is also providing a statewide contact, advice and information service. Affected Victorians can access this support coordinator by contacting their local council, visiting a recovery centre or by calling 1800 560 760.

My department has also been involved in assisting communities in other aspects of this emergency. To date I want to acknowledge that my department has been involved in distributing more than half a million protective P2 masks throughout the north-east and Gippsland, and the department has an additional 444 400 masks in stock ready for distribution if these are required. Also, more than 10 000 personal protective equipment kits have been delivered to the Gippsland and north-east regions to support the return of residents to their properties. The department has secured an additional 10 000 kits if required.

The department is also involved in providing personal hardship assistance program payments for emergency relief to eligible households and to individuals to help meet immediate needs, including for emergency food, shelter, clothing and personal items. To date 13 000 payments at a value exceeding $14 million have been made to support those who have been affected. Assessment of re-establishment payment applications is also underway, with payments commencing and appointments with community members coming in the next few days. The recovery centre in Bairnsdale has been a one-stop point of contact for bushfire-related enquiries. There have also been mobile services established. I want to acknowledge everyone, whether they are local council staff or staff from my department, who are working closely together to support these recovery efforts.

As I have travelled to bushfire-affected areas in East Gippsland and north-east Victoria I have really been amazed by the resilience and the generosity of local communities and the dedication of our health and ambulance services to ensure locals get the health care that they need. In Gippsland I visited the Bairnsdale recovery centre run by the East Gippsland Shire Council, where staff have from across various agencies come together to support locals to get back on their feet. Whilst I was there I met Renata and Cathie from the Australian Red Cross as well as volunteers from the Victorian Council of Churches and the Salvation Army, who were selflessly giving of their time to provide invaluable support to those displaced by the bushfires across East Gippsland, whether that be supporting people at evacuation, relief and recovery centres; registering people’s locations so that their loved ones can contact them; providing psychosocial first aid to reduce trauma and distress; providing food, water and relief items to people cut off by the fires in Victoria; and finally, also conducting welfare checks both by telephone and in person.

In times of adversity Victorians are at their best and always willing to help a mate. Across the road from the recovery centre was a warehouse full of donated goods supporting bushfire-affected residents to get access to the essentials that they needed, such as food, water and sanitary products. The space was made possible thanks to the generosity of well-known business figure Stephen Mann, who donated the former Dahlsens building in Dalmahoy Street.

As I talk to our dedicated health services it is hard not to think that you are in the presence of real-life superheroes. During my visit to the Bairnsdale ambulance branch I heard from Rachelle Pellow, acting Gippsland regional director, of paramedics in Bairnsdale risking their lives by driving into active fire zones to rescue patients. I listened to stories of mobile intensive care ambulance paramedics providing complex emergency care on the beach at Mallacoota. At the Gippsland & East Gippsland Aboriginal Co-operative, CEO Jamie Williamson took me through their efforts to coordinate the successful evacuation of kids in care within fire-affected areas, and they have also assisted impacted residents to register with support organisations such as the Red Cross to access food and fuel vouchers and receive access to donated goods to support local Aboriginal communities.

As I travelled to the north-east of the state I heard similar stories of resilience and fortitude. I commend Albury Wodonga Health, Corryong Health and Gateway Health for their significant efforts and work in the recent bushfire response and recovery effort, in particular for supporting and coordinating the relocation of residential aged-care residents at both Alpine Health and Corryong Health.

We know from the Black Saturday fires that whilst the physical scars of bushfires will heal in the weeks and months ahead, the deep trauma and the grief will be enduring. Whilst our government will have more to say in this space in the near future, I want to commend Albury Wodonga Health for providing their mental health teams to assist local communities in urgent need. We know that that ongoing provision of mental health support is going to be critical.

I had the pleasure of visiting Tallangatta Health Service, which played a very significant role also in providing support to Corryong Health and the Walwa Bush Nursing Centre by providing critical care to patients evacuated from these sites. On our way to Corryong we stopped in at the Tallangatta Bakery to do our bit for the local economy by cleaning them out of every type of slice known to man, and I was impressed that the bakery’s own challenges were put aside and they have committed to donating 100 per cent of their profits on 15 February to the Corryong and Cudgewa communities. This just typifies the generosity of Victorians, in particular those who are equally doing it tough, and that never ceases to amaze me.

In Corryong, Ambulance Victoria executive director Anthony Carlyon informed me of paramedics leaving their burning properties to continue to provide emergency care to patients in their community and across the border into New South Wales. In Walwa, CEO Sandi Grieve and her team turned the bush nursing centre into a makeshift relief centre, providing medical support, meals and comfort to locals and emergency services workers.

I take this opportunity to thank all of those health services that I visited—including Bairnsdale Regional Health Service, Albury Wodonga Health, the Tallangatta Health Service and Corryong Health—and many other health services both in the Gippsland region and in the northern part of Victoria that I look forward to visiting in coming weeks for their incredible support and dedication to their communities.

As Victorians we should be incredibly proud of our health and ambulance services. Their unwavering commitment to providing quality health care to their local communities is unparalleled. On behalf of our government I offer them our sincerest thanks, and I wholeheartedly support Mr Jennings’s condolence motion.