'It hasn't worked': School plans backfire

 

Most of Australia's coronavirus response has produced the desired results - but Scott Morrison says there's been a "real problem" with our handling of schools.

In an exclusive, live interview with news.com.au on Wednesday night, Mr Morrison answered Australians' questions about the ongoing pandemic. One of those questions was why we should risk reopening schools.

"It always has been the medical advice that children are far less susceptible to this," the Prime Minister said.

Mr Morrison spoke about his own children's experience trying to learn from home, saying it had proven particularly difficult for his younger daughter.

"It's been a lot harder for (younger children) with online learning. It hasn't worked. I mean, it's always best to have children learning in the classroom. That I don't think is disputed," he said.

"But for Kindergarten to Year 6, I think it's even harder for that to work online. So I'm looking forward to her particularly going back."

And he highlighted another problem created by keeping schools shut - that parents are being forced to act as teachers while also working from home.

"For those who have been working at home, and sort of overseeing their kids' learning at home, I think that's been a real problem. That's been hard on parents, and I don't think it's best for the kids' education."

Schools were far from the only subject that came up during our discussion with the Prime Minister.

Read on for more detail on all the key moments.

 


Key points from the interview

Before wrapping things up, let's run through the key points from that half-hour with Scott Morrison tonight, because a lot of ground was covered in not much time.

+ Asked when Australia might return to something resembling normalcy, he said changes to the coronavirus restrictions would happen "gradually". Mr Morrison said Australia cannot get "fully back to normal" until there is a vaccine, but the government wants to get "as close as we possibly can";

+ On the flipside of that question, the Prime Minister was asked how he would reassure people who worry Australia is moving to ease restrictions too quickly, and risking a second wave of the virus. He said there are far more protections in place now than there were six weeks ago. "Now that we've got these protections in place, that means that we can operate at a much higher level than we had before," he said;

+ Mr Morrison reiterated his call for schools to reopen, saying it had "always" been the medical advice that children were "far less susceptible" to the virus. "That's not to say that a child doesn't get it, but it's very rare and their experience is a very mild one compared to those at a more vulnerable age," he said;

+ While on the subject of schools, Mr Morrison shared the experience of his own family, saying learning online from home "hasn't worked" for his younger daughter as much as it has for his eldest. He also said it was a "real problem" for parents to be expected to juggle homeschooling with working from home;

+ The Prime Minister doubled down on his defence of NSW Health officials, whose competence has been questioned in the wake of the Ruby Princess debacle. "Give them a go. Not everybody's going to get every call right every single time, and the expectation that they might, I think, is very unrealistic," he said;

+ He revealed it was "quite possible" that playgrounds could reopen in the "not too near future". Mr Morrison said the decision to shut them in the first place was a difficult one, and the medical expert panel was looking at the issue;

+ Asked whether other world leaders had asked him for advice, given Australia's success in containing the virus, he diplomatically said all leaders were "trying to learn from each other". But he did say he had walked British Prime Minister Boris Johnson through the key elements of our response during a recent phone call;

+ Asked why there have been so few cases of the virus among workers at retail shops like Coles, Woolies and Bunnings, where contact with the public is frequent, he gave the credit to businesses. "Employers have put in place social distancing and procedures to keep their patrons safe," Mr Morrison said, adding that he'd seen businesses do "amazing things" to adapt to the situation;

+ Finally, the Prime Minister briefly described what a "COVID-safe Australia" will look like, once restrictions are eased. He stressed that "there will still be cases" of the virus. "It won't be eradicated. There will still be outbreaks," he said. "The goal is not to bring it down to zero. That's not a practical expectation. It is to ensure that we can keep on top of it."

 


PM's defence of health officials

I want to return to one question we actually did cover before, just to give you a bit more context around Scott Morrison's answer.

Yesterday, while giving evidence to the special commission investigating the Ruby Princess debacle, a senior NSW Health official delivered a tearful apology.

NSW Health Public Health Unit epidemiologist and co-ordinator of the department's cruise ship health program Kelly-Anne Ressler said that if she and her colleagues had their time over the situation "would be very different".

During questioning, the inquiry's Commissioner Bret Walker asked Ms Ressler why he shouldn't rule there had been a "reprehensible shortcoming" by NSW Health for allowing passengers to disembark the ship - reducing her to tears.

"All I can say is that I'm very sorry it turned out the way it did. It was not our intention," she said.

"Myself and my colleagues at the public health unit were working very hard on this. We did what we could. And if we could do it again, it would be very different."

Mr Morrison stuck up for her, saying he found the moment upsetting to watch. Others suggested he should not have weighed in on the proceedings of an ongoing inquiry.

"Why did you feel the need to step in and defend those health officials?" Samantha Maiden asked him tonight.

"Every single day, for months now - I mean you've got to remember, the chief medical officer (Professor Brendan Murphy) and his team have been meeting daily since the 22nd of January," Mr Morrison said.

"They've been working incredibly hard. I've seen my health officials do that here, and I know that's the same thing up in NSW and all around the country.

"They've been doing a great job. Now, I made it really clear in my comments today, I'm not looking to compromise in any way, shape or form the integrity of the commission. It needs to do its job.

"But what we saw there was a public health official just trying to do her best. She was put in that situation, and subject to, I think, some quite aggressive questioning. And she broke down.

"I think there are many health officials and people out there just doing their best. They can be working in supermarkets, they can be working as nurses, they can be working as paramedics, they can be working as teachers. They're all just doing their best.

"This is a really hard time, and I just wanted to express my empathy with her and to thank all the people out there just doing their best. Give them a go. Not everybody's going to get every call right every single time, and the expectation that they might, I think, is very unrealistic."

That's as strong a defence of NSW Health officials as I've heard from anyone since the Ruby Princess was allowed to dock.

 


PM brushes off Abbott rumour

We couldn't resist asking Scott Morrison about the kerfuffle in the seat of Eden-Monaro.

This afternoon it got even weirder, with Channel 9 reporting that Liberal Party Vice President Teena McQueen was "quietly sounding out options" on behalf of former prime minister Tony Abbott to see whether he could run for the vacated seat.

"Can you imagine Tony Abbott coming back to parliament in the seat of Eden-Monaro at all?" our political editor Samantha Maiden asked.

RELATED: Tony Abbott slaps down Eden-Monaro rumour

The short answer was no.

"The Liberal Party is running, we've opened nominations, some people have expressed interest and then others have said no, they're not going to go ahead. Nominations close on Friday, there'll be a preselection, there'll be a candidate. That's the way things run and that's how I anticipate they will run," Mr Morrison said.

"Do you imagine Tony Abbott might be interested in coming back?" Sam asked.

"I don't believe he is," said the Prime Minister.

 


Homeschooling 'hasn't always worked'

OK, let's get stuck in to a few of the moments I missed on the first pass.

During the discussion on schools, Mr Morrison spoke about his own children's experience. He said the younger of his two daughters had found online learning from home particularly difficult - an experience he believed was shared by many other kids.

"It's been a lot harder for (younger children) with online learning. It hasn't worked. I mean, it's always best to have children learning in the classroom. That I don't think is disputed," he said.

"But for Kindergarten to Year 6, I think it's even harder for that to work online. So I'm looking forward to her particularly going back."

This is one of the key reasons Mr Morrison believes schools should be reopening.

His own family's experience is that older children are better able to handle learning from home.

"Our oldest daughter, she is in Year 7. And she's been doing alright on the online learning. She's quite a disciplined, studious sort of type," Mr Morrison said.

"Jen's been supporting them both. But it is a big task for parents.

"Now, I haven't been there, and Jen's been carrying the load like she always does. But it has I think put a lot of pressure on parents.

"I like how teachers have said to parents, 'Look, don't beat yourselves up. Teaching is hard, and you've just got to keep doing their best.' And I think that's what parents have been trying to do.

"For those who have been working at home, and sort of overseeing their kids' learning at home, I think that's been a real problem. That's been hard on parents, and I don't think it's best for the kids' education."

 

End of the interview

And with that, our time with Scott Morrison is up. Thanks again to the Prime Minister for giving up a chunk of his evening to answer Australians' questions.

I've been typing rather madly for the last half hour, and have undoubtedly missed a few interesting moments. We'll bring you those elusive comments in the coming minutes.

 


'There will be cases', PM warns

Question: "Why do you think workers in Coles, Woolies and Bunnings - they're in contact with everyone, but we haven't seen many cases?"

"There obviously will be cases in a whole bunch of workplaces," Mr Morrison says.

He's been issuing this warning a lot lately - that whenever the rules are relaxed, Australians should not expect cases of the virus to stop completely.

"When we get back to what I'd call a 'COVID-safe Australia' - which is what we're aiming to get back to, when a lot of the restrictions will be able to be pared away - there will still be cases.

"I mean, it won't be eradicated. There will still be outbreaks," the Prime Minister says.

"The goal is not to bring it down to zero. That's not a practical expectation. It is to ensure that we can keep on top it, that if there are outbreaks we can shut them down, that when people contract it we can isolate them, and we can ensure that the health system remains in a position to be able to respond.

"That way we can get the economy open and we can stay on top of the coronavirus."

On retail shops specifically, and why they have had so few cases, Mr Morrison gives the credit to employers.

"Why haven't there been more at retail shops?" he muses.

"I haven't seen the stats specifically on that, but what I would say is employers have put in place social distancing and procedures to keep their patrons safe.

"That's where I've seen businesses do amazing things to adapt to this new environment."

Asked when the Bunnings sausage sizzle would reopen, he jokingly acknowledges its status as an "essential service", and says it is "certainly be on my list" of things he's looking forward to.


 

What do other leaders ask?

Question: "When you've been on the phone to other world leaders like Boris Johnson or Donald Trump, have any of them said to you how did you do it? How did you flatten the curve?"

Ever the diplomat, Scott Morrison says world leaders are "all trying to learn from each other".

He notes he had some excellent, illuminating conversations with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a few weeks ago.

More recently, he spoke to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who he described as "full of beans" after recovering from the virus.

"He was very much asking that exact question," Mr Morrison says.

"And I was able to take him through what we'd done on the border shutdown, and then the tracing, and the testing we'd put in place.

"The common elements of how you deal with this are quite clear."

Those three elements are comprehensive testing, the "industrialisation of those health detectives" tracking down every case, and the ability to have a localised response when there is an outbreak."

To back up that third point, Mr Morrison points to examples of localised responses in northwest Tasmania and the meatworks plant in Melbourne.

 


Will playgrounds be reopened?

Question: "Will National Cabinet consider reopening children's playgrounds?"

"It's something I know the medical expert panel is working through," Mr Morrison says.

He admits the playground ban was "a difficult decision at the time we made it".

"The issue was, how are (playgrounds) cleaned all the time? It's also a place where parents congregate. We were trying to discourage people clumping together in groups.

"I think it's quite possible in the not too near future that that might be able to be addressed."

That's a tentative yes, then.

 


Expectations on officials 'unrealistic'

Question: "You said that maybe the questioning (of NSW health officials) went a bit over the line. Why did you feel the need to step in and defend those health officials?"

This question was referencing the Ruby Princess commission of inquiry. You can read more about the context here.

"Every single day for months now, (health officials) have been working incredibly hard. That's the same thing up in NSW and around the coutnry," Mr Morrison says.

"I'm not looking to compromise in any way, shape or form, the integrity of the royal commission. It needs to do its job.

"What we saw there was a public health official just trying to do her best, and subject to I think some quite aggressive questioning, and she broke down.

"They're all just doing their best. This is a really hard time. And I just wanted to express my empathy with her.

"Give them ago. Not everybody is going to get every call right every time, and the expectation that they will is, I think, very unrealistic."

 


Is there inconsistency on schools?

Question: "Why risk reopening schools? Why should you open schools if I can't have a birthday party for my kids?"

"It always has been the medical advice that children are far less susceptible to this," says the Prime Minister.

"Children have always been at a much lower level of risk. That's not to say that a child doesn't get it, but it's very rare and their experience is a very mild one compared to those at a more vulnerable age.

"It's been proved week after week after week.

"The issue in reopening has been to make the place safer for teachers. They've been more at risk in the staff room, catching it from each other, than in the classroom."

Mr Morrison acknowledges the birthday party comparison is a fair question, but says the government has been trying to be as clear and consistent as possible.

"The birthday party thing is a good example. The reason that the premiers decided to have that arrangement in place was that it would be confusing to say you can have five kids around, but not five adults," he says.

The Prime Minister says his own children will be returning to school on Monday.

Originally published as PM answering your questions live


Areas of Western Downs set for 80ml drenching

Premium Content Areas of Western Downs set for 80ml drenching

THE Western Downs is set to be in the eye of a severe weather system which is...

Big night lands Tara driver in court

Premium Content Big night lands Tara driver in court

A MITCHELL man driving through Tara after a big night landed himself in court.

Drug dealer caught driving on meth in Miles

Premium Content Drug dealer caught driving on meth in Miles

A WOMAN on probation for supplying drugs faced Chinchilla court for driving on...