Second Reading: No Jab No Play

Ms HENNESSY (Minister for Health) — I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Speech as follows incorporated into Hansard under sessional orders:

The purpose of this bill is to boost vaccination rates across the Victorian community.

Vaccinations save lives. Childhood vaccinations have been proven to significantly decrease the possibility of infection and spread of vaccine preventable diseases such as whooping cough and measles in the community. They provide young children with maximum protection against serious and potentially life‑threatening illnesses.

Vaccinations protect not only immunised individuals, but also others in the community by increasing the overall level of ‘herd immunity’ in the population and minimising the spread of infection.

While the current immunisation rate for children under 5 years of age is around 92 per cent, the overall immunisation rate in Victoria has plateaued in recent years, and even a modest increase can have a significant benefit. Immunisation coverage of 95 per cent is necessary to halt the spread of particularly virulent diseases such as measles.

This bill gives effect to the Andrews Labor government’s election commitment to require children to be fully immunised before they can attend child care.

Many childcare centres are co‑located with kindergartens. To ensure the scheme is as effective as possible and includes as many children as possible, the government has expanded the policy to include kindergartens.

The policy will apply to more than 260 000 Victorian children attending approximately 3254 early childhood services that operate in Victoria. This includes a mix of private operators, local councils, community and other not‑for‑profit organisations. It does not apply to services for school‑age children such as out‑of‑school‑hours care and vacation care programs, nor to casual occasional care such as creches at shopping centres and gyms.

The bill will come into effect on 1 January 2016. From that date, a child will only be able to enrol in an early childhood education and care service if they are up to date with their vaccinations.

The bill recognises that there are some children who, for medical reasons, are unable to receive one or more vaccines and where this is documented, these children will be able to enrol in an early childhood education and care service. A recognised immunisation service provider would need to make an assessment of the child before giving the certification required for a medical exemption. Children may have a medical contraindication to a vaccine if they have a suppressed immune system or an allergy to one or more vaccines.

Conscientious objection to immunisation will not be an applicable exemption category. This recognises that vaccinations save lives, and is supported by extensive scientific evidence and expert medical advice.

The bill recognises that there are a number of vulnerable and disadvantaged children in the community who may be in exceptional circumstances or whose families find it difficult to access immunisation services. Children in these circumstances, which are outlined in the bill, will be able to enrol in an early childhood education and care service if their immunisations are not up to date on the proviso that for a period of 16 weeks after commencement at the service, the service will take reasonable steps to obtain the immunisation status certificate for the child.

In recognising that some of the criteria for these programs are complex and often change, the bill incorporates a provision for the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to issue guidelines specifying the circumstances in which the criteria will apply.

During the 16‑week period it is expected that early childhood education and care services will engage with parents and carers to obtain confirmation of immunisations, and to provide information about immunisations and how immunisation services can be accessed.

The provision for vulnerable and disadvantaged children strikes a sensible balance between controlling a public health risk and allowing access to early childhood education and care services. The proposed criteria are designed to ensure that those vulnerable and disadvantaged children will not face barriers to their enrolment. The 16‑week time period will allow a genuine opportunity for engagement with families, which is a chance to identify and address any issues that are preventing the child from becoming immunised.

Penalties may apply to early childhood education and care services for breach of an existing record‑keeping provision under the Education and Care Services National Regulations 2011 that requires the enrolment record for each child to include the immunisation status of the child. Court fines may be imposed of up to $20 000 for failure to comply with the record‑keeping requirements in the Education and Care Services National Regulations 2011.

Authorised officers in the Department of Education and Training are responsible for approval, quality assessment and compliance monitoring of early childhood education and care services in Victoria. They are currently responsible for enforcement of the record‑keeping provisions under the Education and Care Services National Regulations 2011.

Changes to the Education and Care Services National Regulations 2011 will be submitted in 2016 to refer to the new requirements in this bill. These changes will relate to immunisation status certificates showing that a child’s immunisations are up to date at the time of enrolment, that the chid has a medical contraindication or that the child meets the eligibility criteria for vulnerable and disadvantaged children. Existing record‑keeping provisions will be enforced prior to changes to the Education and Care Services National Regulations being made.

The bill imposes a number of obligations on early childhood education and care services in relation to seeking and obtaining proof of immunisation or medical contraindication, interpreting immunisation documents, and keeping records. Some of these requirements are already undertaken by services and others are extensions of existing activities that services are currently required to undertake.

The government looks forward to working collaboratively with the early childhood service sector and local government to make sure the changes are communicated to key stakeholders in a clear and timely manner.

This will enable the early childhood services sector and local government to understand and incorporate the changes into their enrolment processes and ensure a smooth transition to the new arrangements.

I commend the bill to the house