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Today, senior reporter at The Saturday Paper Rick Morton on the outsourcing of a key frontline health service and the impact of privatisation during the pandemic.

Morrison’s Covid hotline sting

Read Transcript

Right now, if you contract Covid-19, the federal government’s advice is to contact the national coronavirus helpline. 

The hotline is supposed to direct you to the latest medical information, inform you of how long you should isolate and whether you should get tested. 

But in practice, it's staffed by workers who don’t have access to the information they need and administered by a company that previously chased welfare recipients caught up in the infamous Robo-debt program.

Today, senior reporter at The Saturday Paper Rick Morton on the outsourcing of a key frontline health service and the impact of privatisation during the pandemic. 


Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper, Rick Morton.

Read Transcript

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones - this is 7am.

Right now, if you contract Covid-19, the federal government’s advice is to contact the national coronavirus helpline. 

 

The hotline is supposed to direct you to the latest medical information, inform you of how long you should isolate and whether you should get tested. 

 

But in practice, it's staffed by workers who don’t have access to the information they need… and administered by a company that previously chased welfare recipients caught up in the infamous Robo-debt program.

 

Today, senior reporter at The Saturday Paper Rick Morton on the outsourcing of a key frontline health service… and the impact of privatisation during the pandemic. 

 

It’s Tuesday February 8.

[Theme music ends]

RUBY:

Rick, first of all, can you tell me how you came across this story? 

 

RICK:
Yeah, this is a really interesting one. Actually, I don't normally do much on my weekends, by the way, Ruby, but I was in Melbourne for the tennis and I kept getting these phone calls from a number I didn't recognise. And it was Saturday and Sunday, so I didn't pick up. But they didn't leave a message either, which was kind of annoying. And then eventually they finally did, and they were saying, You know, I have some information that you might be interested in. 

 

It's about the national coronavirus helpline and that phone call led to the discovery of a cache of documents about how this hotline was operating.

 

RUBY:
Right so can you tell me more about the hotline - and what it was that you found out about it?  

 

RICK:
Yes. It's called the National Coronavirus helpline.

 

Archival tape -- Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly:
“There is help available 24 hours a day, seven days a week on the National Coronavirus Helpline one 800 zero two zero zero eight zero.” 

 

RICK:
It's the centrepiece of the federal government's living with COVID programme.

 

Archival tape -- Michael Kidd:
“You can call this number at any time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week for advice about management of any of your symptoms. Four other medical advice advice about vaccines or about restrictions.”

 

RICK:
And it's basically an information hotline that triage its people who have tested positive for COVID 19 or who believe they are infected as part of the Commonwealth pivot to managing the disease in the community again to relieve the pressure from the hospital system in the broader health system. 

 

Archival tape -- Hotline voice:
“Thank you for calling the national Coronavirus helpline ..”

 

RICK:
But in reality, it's just a call centre, and it's stopped by workers on casual contracts with no medical experience. 

 

Archival tape -- Hotline voice:
“We are experiencing longer than usual wait times on the National Coronavirus helpline. For all the latest vaccine and restriction information, please visit health.gov.au”

 

RUBY:
OK, so, Rick, if you get Covid-19, you're supposed to call this government helpline, but you're saying that on the other end, the person who's answering they have no medical training. 

 

RICK:
No, not the call agents who pick up these calls.

 

They do have clinical offices somewhere in the group, but the calls don't make it to them unless it's particularly urgent. 

 

And so we've got these kinds of low paid workers on casual contracts who have been offered just two hours of training when they start with this company. 

 

And, I have accounts from people who have worked there and, they've been talking about the fact that they've been placed under extreme stress while managing this overwhelming variety of callers, you know, with limited information or limited ability to actually help them because what they're doing is relying on the information provided to them by the government and there's just not a lot there. 

 

So, for instance, the Coronavirus helpline is listed as the number one point of contact on almost every government department, including Home Affairs and for disability and Aboriginal health services, despite there being no specific resources for the team members to even provide the advice. So they're kind of getting.. 

 

RUBY:
They're getting set up to fail really…

 

RICK:
Yes. I mean, there's nothing, you know? I mean, imagine you are doing that job. Would you know what to say to these people who are often, you know, in distress, they're worried about family members that might actually be quite sick themselves? And that's exactly what's happening for the helpline workers are also fielding calls from people who are experiencing family violence, poverty, you know, other types of this extreme stress, and they're expected to arrange welfare checks or talk them through complex problems with little support. 

 

And although they are provided scripts for the call centre operators in they’re meant to read from these scripts to advise patients to do things like seek rapid antigen tests if they are available. That's word for word, but it's not part of the help line treatment, for example, to actually provide those tests or even say even where they might be located. 

 

Because the problem, as you and I both know quite well by now, is that the government doesn't know, you know, they bought a few, they sent a few out into the wilderness. And if you get one, you're lucky. And if not, tough luck. 

 

RUBY:
Right, well, it sounds like an incredibly difficult situation that would be frustrating for people on both ends, Rick. The person who's calling, trying to get help and the person on the other end who just doesn't have the tools to be able to give that help. So how did this happen, exactly? How did the centrepiece of the government's living with COVID plan become this hotline that's staffed with people that that don't have enough training that can't give people the advice that they need? 

 

RICK:
It's a great question, and basically it's because even though it's a government hotline being promoted by the government and it's paid for by the government, it's been outsourced to a private company.

 

It's being run by an umbrella company called Probe Group and its subsidiaries on contracts that are worth more than $270 million dollars. And the Probe Group has a lot of history in working with the government, but not really in terms of providing health services. In fact, it's not a health service company at all. 

 

It is one of the government's former robo debt collectors.

 

Archival tape -- Reporter:
“The federal court has approved a multi-million dollar payout for victims of the controversial robo debt scheme.” 

 

RICK:
This was that programme that was run for years and in which at least $1.7 billion in debt notices were handed out to people that were ultimately deemed illegal.

 

Archival tape -- Reporter:
“The program saw debts totalling $1.7 billion were unlawfully raised from more than 430,000 Australians.” 

 

Archival tape -- Librarian:
“A debt collector calling me up, telling me, you know, you have thousands of dollars, $16000 and you have to pay now.” 

 

Archival tape -- Lawyer:
“There has been untold suffering to hundreds of thousands of people.” 

 

RICK:
Not just wrong, but actually unlawful and knowingly so.

 

Archival tape -- Reporter:
“In a blistering judgement, Justice Bernard Murphy said robo-debt had exposed a shameful chapter in the administration of the social security system and a massive failure of public administration.”

 

RICK:
So this company was the one that actually chased people who owed money under the now illegal robo debt scheme. And now it's providing this hotline to provide the first point of call health information for people in a once in a generation pandemic. 

 

RUBY:
We'll be back in a moment. 

 

[Advertisement]

 

RUBY:
Rick, can you tell me more about how this situation - where a private company that specialises in debt collection is running the national covid-19 hotline - how came about? Because chasing welfare debts and providing advice to people about Covid-19 they would on the face of it seem to be quite different jobs.

 

RICK:
So back when this hotline was first announced, the call centres were set up by a company called Stella Asia Pacific. That company has since been bought by Probe Group, which and there were two former rivals. In fact, they were often listed side by side as preferred suppliers in government procurement contracts. But now, of course, they just one company. And together, the two companies have won more than half a billion dollars in government contracts in the past five years, largely with Services Australia and the Australian Taxation Office also to collect tax debts in that case.

 

And so because of their history, working closely with the government on providing these kinds of services, that's where the government turned again when they needed a new system set up as quickly as possible. 

 

And it's really just another example of how hollowed out our government services are that, you know, these private companies are paid hundreds of millions of dollars to run pretty basic things like the welfare system and core component of our public health. And yet that's what we've ended up with, of course. 

 

RUBY:
Hmm. Yeah. I mean, as you say, Rick, this is not the first time that we've heard about big government contracts going to private companies, and that trend really seems to have accelerated during the pandemic. Does it seem that way to you? 

 

RICK:
Yeah, I mean, certainly, you know, I've been reporting on this now for two and a half years almost. And you know, they privatised some of the vaccination clinics for aged care and disability care. 

 

They privatised or at least heavily relied on with massive incentives for private pathology for the testing, the PCR testing, the lab testing, you know, they privatised some elements of the contact tracing, hotel quarantine.

 

I'm talking about all levels of government here, by the way, but mostly the federal government, which is, you know, trying to run the show in a national cabinet, sit up and they privatised, you know, even policy advice when it came to whether we should manufacture mRNA vaccines in Australia, which was of course, done by McKinsey, the management consultants. So it's almost like things were not great before the pandemic arrived, of course, in terms of the public service being gutted and private companies doing a lot of the work. 

 

But the moment you actually do have a major crisis unfold, suddenly you don't have the depth of experience, the talent or even even the contract management skills, to be quite honest to get yourself out of the jam. And that's what we're that's what we're witnessing. 

 

RUBY:
Yeah, it doesn't really seem to be working. I mean, judging what you've said about how the Probe Group is, is running the COVID 19 hotline and, you know, staff that aren't trained properly. So do you get the sense that that might be acknowledged by policymakers, that there might be any kind of realisation that there should be perhaps more investment in these services rather than privatising them? 

 

RICK:
Yeah, it's an interesting question. I mean, I don't.. No, I don't get that sense and I don't want to be overly cynical about it. But I do get the sense that particularly with the Covid stuff, the ability to outsource the problem is part of the thinking in modern government these days. It's like, well, it's off our books. We've solved it. You know, we needed a call centre. We've got a call centre. Who cares whether it's actually good or not, but we've got a call centre so we can say that there's a number you can call the number. And you know, everything else is personal responsibility, quote unquote to use Scott Morrison's preferred term.

 

And that kind of solves the immediate problem. But every, every kind of one of these calculations is a false economy because, sometimes I do things in the immediate moment that make my life easier, but it makes the future version of myself makes things more difficult for future Rick, for example. And it's the same in government. You can solve an immediate problem, but it doesn't mean it's actually going to help you in the long term. And that applies to both the way the government operates, but also to whether the citizens or residents are getting the services they need. 

 

RUBY:
And so, Rick, how do you think we should think about all of this going forward when we consider that the pandemic, it's far from over. It doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. 

 

RICK:
Yeah, I don't think there's been a lot of learning even, you know, they kept saying things were unprecedented at the start. And of course they were. But things are now very precedented. A lot of these things are familiar patterns in this pandemic now. 

 

Archival tape --Professor Paul Kelly:
“I don't have a crystal ball, of course, for exactly what might happen. I do know that there has been substantial Omicron infection in the past couple of months” 

 

RICK:
Now, on Wednesday last week, the nation's chief medical officer, Professor Paul Kelly, was asked whether further waves of coronavirus infections are expected in the coming winter. Now he couldn't say for sure. 

 

Archival tape -- Professor Paul Kelly:
“There is a lot of people that have had Omicron. There is also a lot of people that have not had Omicron. And I think there's been there's emerging evidence that people above a certain age have have generally withdrawn from from society over the last month” 

 

RICK:
He did acknowledge that there is emerging evidence that people above a certain age and he put it in the range, above 50 and 60 have generally withdrawn from society over the last month or two months to avoid infections, and that the cohort that they're now worried about.

 

Archival tape -- Professor Paul Kelly:
“So if they have not been exposed, they are at risk of being exposed in the next wave Omicron. There will be another wave of Omicron. It's most likely in winter.” 

 

RICK:
He said, There will be another wave of Omicron.

 

And now all we're really left with is this hotline to help us. And you know, do you think that that is a good solution? I certainly feel like it is to me. 

 

RUBY:
Rick, thank you so much for your time.

 

RICK:
Thanks, Ruby. 

 

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RUBY:
Also in the news today,

 

The federal government has confirmed a national anti-corruption commission will not be established before the upcoming election.

 

Despite Prime MInister Scott Morrison promising the establishment of a corruption watchdog in 2018 -  a spokesperson for Attorney-General Michaelia Cash on Monday said the government would be prioritising other legislation. 

 

***

 

And in Western Australia, hundreds of firefighters are battling bushfires in the states south. Several homes and businesses have been destroyed and over 60,000 hectares of bush have been burned.

 

Bushfire specialists and additional firefighters from NSW have been flown into the state to assist local authorities.

 

I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am, see you tomorrow.

 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.

Guest

Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.

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