The peak Aboriginal health group in the Northern Territory has accused the territory government of excluding them from high-level decision-making about the Covid outbreak, despite the vast majority of cases appearing in Aboriginal communities.
The head of the NT’s Aboriginal medical services alliance (AMSANT) said he’s frustrated at having to find out about key decisions via the media.
CEO of AMSANT John Paterson said the government’s decision to reopen NT borders on 20 December puts “unnecessary” pressure on community-controlled clinics to ramp up vaccinations in the next three weeks.
To reach the target of 80% fully vaccinated rate by 20 December, first doses would have to be administered this week, Paterson said.
“If you look at the timeline, you need three weeks between first and second vaccination. So the pressure’s on us, unnecessarily I might add. The government could easily push back that date. We just don’t understand the urgency.
“We won’t get that [deadline]. We’re struggling now. And this is why we are calling on the surge workforce to come and help us to get the vaccination rates up.”
If AMSANT and other Aboriginal organisations like the land councils had “a seat at the table”, those concerns would be addressed, he said.
“We are a major part of the health system in the Northern Territory,” Paterson said. “We’re the major service provider for primary healthcare right across the NT from the Western Australia border to the Queensland border.”
It was “frustrating” to find out about top-level decisions via the media, he said.
“When we hear the chief minister every day go out there and make these announcements, that’s the only way we’re being informed. And then we have to go in, battling in these arguments in the media, to get further clarification.”
The NT chief minister Michael Gunner did not respond directly to AMSANT’s claim that it has been excluded from pandemic decision making, but thanked AMSANT for “all the work it has done on the remote Territory vaccine rollout since the vaccine was approved”.
“We’ve shared our supply of vaccine with Aboriginal health organisations so they had enough consistent supply for everyone in their care to have a chance to be vaccinated over the past seven months,” Gunner said in a statement.
“They have been a great partner throughout this pandemic and we also thank them for their open dialogue, data sharing and the work they’re doing on the ground.”
Gunner said the border reopening will be accompanied by “stronger rules to keep the Territory safe”.
The NT will now require all arrivals to be fully vaccinated, alongside more public health measures to protect remote communities with low vaccination rates as well as a strict testing regime for people entering the Territory, he said.
The NT’s acting chief health officer, Dr Charles Pain said AMSANT’s advice is “very much welcome” at public health advisory meetings he convenes and “is sought on a whole range of things”. But he said it was not his role to meet with them formally.
“I don’t directly meet with AMSANT,” Pain told reporters in Darwin at the daily Covid briefing on Monday. “It is not for the CHO to meet formally with them, but I reiterate, I am very open to their advice.”
Paterson said the advisory meetings were an information-sharing forum “telling us what governments are doing” but the “decisions were being made elsewhere”.
He said the national closing the gap agreement signed by all states and territories commits governments to shared decision-making.
“That’s about getting the Aboriginal leadership around, making those decisions, being part of the design, being part of any policy development strategies,” he said.
The NT recorded two new cases of Covid-19 on Monday, bringing the total number of cases in this outbreak to 37. Four people are in Darwin hospital. NT Health identified 423 close contacts most of whom have already been contacted. Pain said that just under 200 people deemed close contacts have already been transferred from the Katherine region to the Centre of National Resilience quarantine facility at Howard Springs, in an effort to reduce community transmission.
The Katherine region will remain in lockdown until 6pm on Wednesday as authorities await the results of more than 1,300 tests, amid concerns that the virus may have spread. On Monday Pain said he was expecting more cases to emerge.