COVID-19 Digital Forum #3 Community Sector

COVID-19 Digital Forum #3

On June 4th 2020, VCOSS and the Department of health and Human Services convened the third COVID-19 Digital Forum to guide the community sector’s ongoing response to the coronavirus pandemic.

You can view the past forums here.

The Minister for Child Protection, Disability, Ageing and Carers, Luke Donnellan, joined the forum to give his reflections on the sector’s performance during COVID-19 and the path ahead.

Our panelists were:

  • Amanda Rojak
    Public Health Incident Management Team
  • Andrea Spiteri
    Director, Emergency Management Commander
  • Argiri Alisandratos
    Deputy Secretary, Department of Health And Human Services
    (Children, Families, Communities and Disability)
  • Stephen Gniel
    Deputy Secretary, Department of Education and Training
    (School Education Programs and Supports)
  • Peta Mccammon
    Deputy Secretary, Department of Justice And Community Safety
    (Family Violence, Justice and Social Services Coordination)

Filming by Samurai AV, captioned by


Emma King:     Good afternoon, my name’s Emma King, And I’m the CEO of the Victorian Council of Social Service. Welcome to today’s joint VCOSS DHHS digital forum about COVID-19 and the community sector. I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land upon which we are all on today, and to pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. I’d also like to acknowledge that this is Reconciliation Week. We must work with and stand alongside our first nation people in tackling and addressing racism and injustice.

I’d also like to begin today with an apology. We’ve been unable to secure an Auslan interpreter for today’s event, despite our best attempts to do so. We will full caption today’s event, and we’ll have it updated online as soon as we possibly can. Today, we’re very luck to have representative from DHHS, Department of Education and Training, and Justice, as well as Public Health and Emergency response officials here to answer your questions.

We’ll also be hearing shortly from Minister Luke Donnellan, so stay tuned for that. We have had literally dozens of questions that have come through for today’s forum, and we’re going to aim to get through as many of those as we possibly can. If we can’t get to yours, we’ll work to address those and have them posted online as well. We have understandably had lots of question about funding and we’ll hear from Argiri Alisandratos shortly from DHHS.

But first of all, I would like to welcome Amanda Rojak from the COVID-19 Public Health Incident Management team, and Andrea Spiteri from the Department of Emergency Management at DHHS. And Andrea’s currently working from the state control center. Amanda, if I can start with you to begin with. So many of the questions we’ve received are about a safe return to work. And I know this is a very big question, but I might start from this point, what are your initial thoughts on Victorians returning to safely?

Amanda Rojak:     Yeah, so I think to provide a brief overview of where we’re at in the state, the SITREP is that we’ve had 1,678 cases across the state. We continue to see a handful of cases day to day, but most of those aren’t community transmission. So, they’re either from return travelers who are in hotel quarantine, or they’re contacts of known cases.

In terms of our response to that, it means there’s a couple of things we’re focusing on, one is tracing and following contacts of known cases. The second is outbreak management. When we have small outbreaks, and the third, which kind of gets to your point, is around a staged and safe return to work.

The overarching message at the moment is to stay safe, and if you have been working from home, continuing to work from home.

That being said, a lot of our work is on easing of restrictions and making sure that we’re slowly and safely moving back to people being able to do a lot of the things that they do, not only working, but also social activities and recreational activities in the community.

The way that we’re doing that is in a staged fashion. It means that we have an ability to understand the public health impacts of the changes that we’re making at a stage by stage, and it means that we then, hopefully, move in a slow, upward trajectory, rather than kind of balancing back and forth, and having to tighten restrictions.

Emma King:     Fantastic, thank you. We’ve had lots of questions along those lines around the sort of the returning to work and people traveling around. One of the questions that’s come through a number of times is it safe for our staff to be traveling on public transport and what do we as employers need to do to make sure this travel is safe?

Amanda Rojak:     It’s a really good question. So, anything in the community, there’s not no risk, because we know that we’re in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic. That being said, our community transmission is very low. And it’s a risk that’s kind of counter balanced with a lot of the implementation measures that we’ve put in place.

So, the things that we’ve done as a department is made sure that the risk is proportionate by increasing the number of services that are available, by doing things like making sure that there are increased cleaning and hygiene activities in place.

The kind of things that we would ask employers and employees to do would be to think about when they can travel in off peak times rather than traveling during peak times, to makes sure that they’re following hand hygiene and respiratory hygiene recommendations that we have in place.

Emma King:     Thank you, and one of the other things that’s come up a lot, I think pretty much in every workplace is around temperature testing. And we know that some organizations are testing staff and client temperatures every time that they enter services. Others are requiring people to sign a statement attesting that they don’t have a temperature. Can you provide more guidance about what’s the best way to manage temperature testing? Now, I know we’re talking about a broad variety of services here, but this is really common thing that continues to come up as well.

Amanda Rojak:     Yeah, so our guidance as a department is that temperature testing should only be done in healthcare facilities. So, outside of healthcare facilities, like hospitals or general practice clinics, we’re not advising temperature testing.

What we do advise is that employees check their symptoms and check in with themselves when they’re at home, and make a decision, and that may or may not include temperature testing, and at that point make a decision about whether they’re safe to go to work, but we’re not asking employees to mandate temperature testing across any other sector.

Emma King:     Okay, thank you, that’s good clarity given the number of questions I’ve had on that front as well. And just before I throw to you as well, Andrea, just Amanda, in terms of the two hour time frame that’s suggested for gatherings, how does that translate in the workplace? So, that is if two people are adequately distanced in a shared office, keeping in mind that the advice at the moment is if you can stay at home, work from home, so if two people are adequately distanced in a shared office, is it okay to work in that office all day or should you only be in there for two hours?

Amanda Rojak:     No, so I think there might be some confusion there where from a public health perspective, the two hour rule is really around our ability to identify where someone has been a close contact of someone else. So, if we’ve been in the same room together for more than two hours, then we would say we consider that close contact and that has implications for things like whether that person would need to stay at home and get tested, and things like that.

We’re not advising limits on the amount of time that someone would spend with someone else when both of those people don’t have symptoms. And so, in the workplace, we don’t have any restrictions around two hours in the same place.

What we would say is if you have meetings where you don’t need to be face to face, then think about doing them over the telephone or using the internet. If you, as much as you possibly can, to physically distance. And again, the simple things like hand hygiene, respiratory hygiene, frequent cleaning and disinfection.

Emma King:    Fantastic, thank you. And Andrea, I know you’ve been dealing with so many of these different matters as well throughout the time in the state control center. One of the other issues we’re hearing a lot is around people in the community who don’t have access to the internet or other sort of digital means, where video calls aren’t an option. How do we get these people access to the internet and affordable dada so they can use those services?

Andrea Spiteri:     Certainly, thank you very much and thank you for the question. It is something that has come up a number of times. It also comes up in other emergencies as well.

I would encourage people to use phone options as much as possible. I know that a lot of services will provide a phone option as well as something over the internet too. And certainly, with people reengaging with their workplace and coming back into work slowly, I would really encourage people to work with the services around what might be possible face to face. Often, it’s worth asking that question.

We do know that some of the community infrastructure, such as libraries, or neighborhood houses, or other places that do offer community access to the internet are slowly starting to reopen or have been open, but we do recognise that similar to the questions that you asked before to Amanda, the challenges around how you keep up hygiene in that sort of space.

We are going to have COVID-19 in our environment as a sort of new normal for a while. So, I really encourage services to think carefully about how they can allow their clients to have access, full access to their services.

Emma King:    Thanks, Andrea, and also, that you touched just in on the role of neighborhood houses as well. And I’ve had a number of questions come through from neighborhood houses who play such a vital role in terms of really the glue that keeps so many people in the community together, what do you think the role of neighborhood houses and other organisations, such as neighborhood houses are like in sort of emergencies more broadly? I’m just interested in your observations on that front.

Andrea Spiteri:     Yeah, well, look, I think that, and there are a number of really important community groups and infrastructure in local communities that are just vital during emergencies, whether they’re natural disasters or COVID-19, as we’re saying now, they’re such important places to be able to connect communities to the information that they need, particularly when they might not have access to the internet or other sources of information. And so, it is important that they can keep the service going as much as possible.

We’re working at the moment with all local governments to make sure that we’ve got good referral pathways through all health and community services, but also into some of those places like neighborhood houses, men’s sheds and other places that can connect people to each other, to support each other during this time as well.

I think we’ve had an announcement around the community activation and social isolation initiative. So, it’s in the final design stages now, but it is recognising that places like neighborhood houses and local governments also have a really central role in connecting people to each other to help support them if they need things, practical support like shopping, or pets walked or looked after if they are self isolating because of their own chronic health conditions too.

So, and that could potentially involve elements like the loan of portable mobile devices for a period of time. I know there are a number of organisations and local governments that already do that. So, we certainly will consider that in terms of the design, the final sort of design of that initiative as well, yeah.

Emma King:    Thank you, Andrea, and I guess this is one for both of you, really. So, the Premier has said, and it’s been very clear, that if you can work from home, you must work from home, and I think it’s been great to have that really, that being very much clarified. However, overall, our sort of, people, and I find this as a question that’s come through, our clients are finding video and phone less helpful than in-person support, and we know that for some people, actually they don’t engage at all when it comes to needing to do that remotely. So, the question from the people who are running services, we’ve had is had how do we weigh up our responsibilities to clients alongside our OHS responsibilities for staff?

Andrea Spiteri:    I might start, then I’ll see if Amanda wants to mention anything. And I guess it gets back to that point that I was making before around the fact that this is gonna be with us for a while. It is something that will need to be balanced, and there are definitely ways that we’ve seen it in other businesses that have recently opened their doors, where they have specific procedures for their clients to be able to follow, and I know that’s hard for some clients and for some services, particularly those that are much more vulnerable potentially in the community. But I really encourage organisations to think through how they’re going to do this in the longer term. The hand hygiene, the respiratory hygiene, the physical distancing in the spaces.

There is a study that has come out that says that our phone or our internet connection is more successful if you’ve already had a face to face connection. So, it could be that an initial connection could be by face to face, and then a follow up could be by phone to allow for some of the distancing.

So, I think each organisation will have to make sure that there’s a good business continuity and service continuity plan around this as well. But I’m recognising that it’s not easy for businesses and services in this time.

Emma King:     Yeah, and it so challenges then, this all about who falls through the gaps, knowing that for some people, no matter how much of a great connection you might have had with someone, the minute you flip to working remotely, I guess we’re hearing two sides of this, for some people, that remote access has actually been excellent, for others, they’re not going to engage that way, they’re not going to engage via phone, and they’re not going to engage via some sort of email, particular when they often might not have an email address in the first place. So, it’s really trying to cater to both ends, isn’t it? I guess it’s more of a statement, but it’s one of those things that I think has become really very clear during this time as well.

Andrea Spiteri:    Yeah, absolutely.

Emma King:     Any insights you have along the way for us along that front would be great as well. I guess the next question is, I suspect this is a bit of a question of how long is a piece of string, but if there is another widespread outbreak of COVID-19, do you anticipate there’d be another lockdown, and if so, would it look the same as the first?

Amanda Rojak:     It’s a really difficult question to answer, because we just can’t predict that well into the future. The premise of the way that we’re lifting restrictions at the moment is that we are moving slowly, and we’re moving in a graded way, which means that we’re releasing certain restrictions at certain points in time. Both that enables us to gain some intelligence on what is the impact of lifting those particular restrictions as opposed to lifting everything at once, and to make sure that we’re working in a safe and staged fashion.

One of the very strong premises behind that approach is that we hope that we can have a long and sustained lifting of restriction, rather than a seesawing of moving back and forth. Certainly, so that’s our intention in the way that we’re moving towards as a department. But one of the foremost things about a pandemic is to expect the unexpected. And so, we will continue to be responsive if things change.

Emma King:     Yup, thank you, Andrea, did you wanna add to that?

Andrea Spiteri:     Yeah, so just two points I’ll make. One is that we’re putting a lot of effort in, not only to the contact tracing and support around that, but also to supporting people who need to self quarantine. So, really making sure that we’ve got accommodation options available for them, that we understand what their any financial hardship or what their needs might be, their food needs and others as well, to make sure that people can take those steps that they need to do to self quarantine, keep their family safe and keep their community safe. So, that’s a really important part.

I think the second one is that the time that we’ve had to prepare. So, there is a lot more capacity in health services, we’ve done a lot of emergency management planning as well to prepare for some of those more extreme consequences that we might see in an emergency as well. So, the state of Victoria is in a much greater state of preparedness now with its plans around this specific virus.

So, hopefully, between the controlling of those small number of cases that we’re seeing now, and particularly really supporting people through those quarantine hotels that we’re running as well. And for those that need the support in the community, we can keep those numbers low, and keep that curve pretty flat.

Emma King:     I was thinking back to our first form of this, and Andrea, you’ve been at each one, and the very different stage we’ve been at as we’ve held these webinars as well. Just I guess in sort of closing, any observations you’d have around things like food relief? I know you’ve worked really hard in terms of making sure that food can be delivered to people who are in quarantine, et cetera, that there is accommodation and support, any observations that you’d have on that front? ‘Cause that’s shifted quite dramatically over time as well. So, I’d be interested in your reflections since the beginning to where we’re at now and observations, I guess, of where we’re at now, and perhaps looking forward.

Andrea Spiteri:     Well, certainly, we were gearing up in the initial stages for quite a significant impact in a relatively short period of time. And so, now it’s turned more from an acute shock to a chronic sort of stress that we see in the community. So, while we have some really robust arrangements in place for, say, food relief, we recognised very quickly that it can put a stress on the normal food relief systems. So, we need to have some different models.

We also know that there’s been a 40% increase in the number of meals that are being requested through local government and other services that provide meals as well. So, while we’ve got our food relief packages, and there have been nearly 3,000 of those delivered, we also know that there’s an increase in that need, particularly with the level of unemployment and other impacts that we’ve seen in this. From more of an economic consequence perspective, then a health perspective at this point.

So, I think that’s where some of our thinking has shifted into some of those longer term sustainable models that we can make sure that we’ve got ready, if we get a spike, but also to support people along the way as well, rather than planning for that big wave going up and down that we were at the start.

Emma King:     Yeah, just a number of things were unanticipated at the beginning, and then the impact that we’ve had on volunteers as well, which has been really significant. Can I say a very big thank you to the both of you? Andrea, as I say, you’ve been with us throughout the stage of these webinars that we’ve held, and fantastic to have you with us as well, Amanda. Really appreciate you making time, and I know when we met each other today, you mentioned that you’re a doctor in an emergency room as your kind of day job, and you’re, during this work with the Department of Health, and are generous enough to be here today. So, a huge thank you to both of you, and look forward to you joining us again, hopefully, for our next one, so thank you.

Amanda Rojak:     A pleasure.

Emma King:     Thank you.

It’s now my absolute pleasure to welcome the Minister for Child Protection, Disability, Aging and Carers, Minister Luke Donnellan, who’s in the process of joining us now. The Minister Donnellan, as you know, has been working very hard, both behind the scenes and on public view in terms of many of the issues that we’ve discussed already today, and that we’ll be discussing further with the staff from, with the deputy secretaries from DHHS, Department of Education and Training, and also the Department of Justice as well.

Minister, welcome, it’s my absolute pleasure and privilege to welcome you here today. And I know how committed you are to the community sector more generally. So, perhaps if I hand over to you start with, but it’s wonderful to have you here.

Luke Donnellan:     I’d be happy to say a few words. Okay, so, I’m gonna take here, I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land upon which we are standing and pay my respects to the longest living civilisation in the world and their elders alike, and acknowledge that last week, obviously, was National Sorry Day as well.

I’d like to acknowledge you and the work that VCOSS has done I guess with the department. It’s been a difficult time. We’ve had to rearrange everything. But I think the most important thing that it was done I guess in the partnership, because it’s gotta be done in a partnership style. So, we can all grizzle that not everything’s perfect, we know that, we can’t do everything we need to do, that we really think we have to do, because some things, we’ve had to say we can’t do, because of this coronavirus, but in many ways, it’s important we have community sector and the government sort of working together. So, that’s great.

I think the last time we were here was like a lifetime ago. We actually had people in the room, so it’s a little bit more normalised. So, we’re in the sort of the COVID abnormal period. But I think I guess when we introduced the changes with COVID-19, in many ways, it’s the human resources sector which gets most affected by it. So, really there’s been a lot of work done with your organisations that you represent. But within the department, to try and say how we’re gonna ensure we protect our vulnerable members of the community.

We know there will be more vulnerability because of the changes we had to make in terms of face to face and really doing it on a risk assessment basis. And we know there’ll be new vulnerabilities, which have come out this.

So, I guess, again, I just wanna say thank you. It is going to to be an ongoing partnership with this. There has been great goodwill. I think there’ll be great learnings out of this as well. We don’t like doing everything on our own, because we’re in human services, and we like the face to face contact, as we know, but we’ve had to, I guess, look at new ways of delivering services. And we’ve had to accept that a contractual relations, KPIs we put in, which might have been relevant to a non-COVID-19 period, overall, a bit irrelevant. The most important thing is how do we get reaching to our most vulnerable people?

So, I think that’s going very well. We’re now in this sort of I guess the limbo period, I guess I’ll call it, and that’s I guess that’s sort of a period where we need to stay the line in terms of social distancing and the likes still, but obviously, children have gone back to school. There’s been some changes.

So, again, I guess in many ways, I guess we’ve still gotta stick to the main health message, but we will have a few more freedoms to actually gets to that face to face work. So, it’s yeah, look, it’s gonna be an interesting time over the coming months or so, but I do think, in many ways, and I’ve never seen them, a level of cooperation between the department and the CSO, the community services organisations. Usually, there’s always bloody grizzle, okay. And I think those grizzles are probably warranted on both size, that there’ll be a grizzle about this, a grizzle about that, but you’re just not hearing that at the moment. Because everybody understands we’re in this together. We’ve gotta get the job done. We’ve gotta ensure we’ve got continuity of services, even though they may not all be the services we had previously, but we’re gonna bloody work together. Find our potshots at each other, whatever the case may be. But that’s really not gonna help.

So, yeah, no, thank you for putting these on. And I do think for us the capacity to sort of say thank you to those who work in the human services area for the love and the sharing and the care, they give to our community, to the vulnerable. It’s a great opportunity to say thank you very much. But it’s also an opportunity to reinforce the need to I guess continue good, healthy practices, but also I guess to say we’ve gotta continue this team.

Emma King:     Yeah, and I think just to reflect on what you were saying before, Minister, I think that the partnerships, and actually some of the partnerships that we had in place prior to COVID, that we’ve been able to really ramp up during this time have well and truly stood the test of time. So, if I look at, for example, with Algeri who’s here and his team with their health and human services partnership implementation committee, HHSPIC, the Department of Education and Training have a similar group. Those groups have really stood the test of time. And though, for example, we used to meet bimonthly, we’re now meeting fortnightly, and really looking at what do we need to do and how can we do it together and how can we do it really quickly, ’cause it’s actually about how do we best serve the Victorian community, but also, how do we best serve people who are vulnerable and disadvantaged? And that part’s really key. And I know Algeri will be speaking a little bit later on, around some of the really key issues for the sector and things that go to funding, et cetera, as well.

Because it’s that combination of looking at, right, how do we get on, how do we all do these things, but also, how do we make sure that organisations are financially set up to ride? We know there’ll be a long tail when it comes to coronavirus, how do we walk through that and how do we do that together? So, community sector organisations working alongside government to continue to delivery as best as we can for vulnerable people in the communities, and also looking, as you mentioned, at some of the things that perhaps have come out of this that we would never have anticipated, and I always think of telehealth as an example. I think it was anticipated that it would be rolled out over 10 years, and it was rolled over 10 days, I believe. So, there are some things that come out that we perhaps don’t anticipate that are an advantage as well, there’s a whole lot of other things that are incredibly trying, and are gonna continue to be so over a period of time as well.

So, I think the role that we continue to play with you, it’s always gonna be critically important, and as you say, it’s I guess the show of partnership and working together, and being able to name up issues and being able to do that in good faith, and looking at how we deliver’s never been as important now as before.

Luke Donnellan:     Yeah, I think it’s accelerated, it’s accelerated. And no, I think you’re right. I think that movement towards more evidence based in terms of service delivery, and ensuring that we wanna spend the money, but we wanna get the outcome, but working with the sector together as opposed to imposing it upon the sector, working together to say, “Well, how we gonna do this?” I think that’s great, and I think the issue, we’ll see with coronavirus, is that secondary round of I guess, my concern is a secondary round of financial distress.

Emma King:     Yes.

Luke Donnellan:     Which, again, I don’t know when that’s gonna arrive, it might be two, three months, but quite concerned, whether it be in food relief, things like that, there will be further pressures for all of us to deal with, and realistically, the only way we’re gonna deal with it is in a partnership.

Emma King:     That’s right, and I’m sure you’re acutely aware, many of the community service organisations has seen presentations now. So, not only do they have the people that they were working with every day before, but they’re seeing presentations of an increase in 25 to 35% of people coming, who need their services, that I suspect never thought that they would need help, and that additional call on services, I don’t think any of us are gonna forget it in a hurry, the pictures of people lining up outside Centrelink at 4:30 in the morning, and thinking around the real level of distress that’s been present, and then the call on community service organisations as a consequence, and the way in which, I think, then we work alongside with you, and the broader Andrews government, it’s just so critically important. So, we’re able to help people how need it. You said whether it’s food relief, and at the same time, being cognizant, for example, of volunteers, whom we rely on ever so heavily, and for many volunteers at the moment, they’re not able to volunteer, because they’re over the age of 70, for example, or have chronic health conditions. So, they’re all things we need to navigate through together.

Luke Donnellan:     Yeah, no, no, that’s true. And that’s, in many ways, like you say, that if you represent a broad cross section where you have a lot of people in the food relief sector that don’t have the volunteers at the moment, who are struggling financially as organisations, that’s what is going back to us through surveys. I don’t have any of that, you’re already well aware of that. So, how do we support some of those to keep going? Some of them might nog be able to keep going for a while, and have to wait until this is over ’til they get their volunteers back. But how do we ensure that we’re still getting food out to those people who desperately need it, and ensuring that we provide people with dignity in that space?

Emma King:     Yes, absolutely, and I know you’re very passionate about all of the areas in which you work across, including disability, et cetera, as well. And we really appreciate your support in that area.

I think there’s been some interesting things that have shown that, inevitably, we’ll continue to have conversations with you about in terms of what’s played out in schooling, what’s played out in a whole host of other areas that I know you’re very open to having conversations in those areas, so very much look forward to continuing to do so.

And can I just sincerely thank you, Minister, in terms of making the time to be here today? I know that you weren’t able to be here at the last, but I know it was something that you really wanted to do, and there was something that pulled you in a different direction. It was a little bit out of your control. So, I’d really, like to acknowledge that. But to thank you very much for being here today, to thank you for your support of the sector, and also the fact that you’re very willing to have an open door. I know if there’s any issue, we’re able to come and able to discuss those with you, and you’re very happy to do that. So, I just wanna pass on how much that’s appreciated as well. So, thank you.

Luke Donnellan:     Thank you very much, Emma.

Emma King:     Have a wonderful rest of your day. Thank you, Minister.

Luke Donnellan:     Have a good day, thanks a lot.

Emma King:     Thank you. It’s now my significant pleasure to invite three senior leaders from across the public service. I’ll just wait as they’re moving into place. So, with us, we have, so seated directly to our right, is Argiri Alisandratos. Many of you will recognise Argiri, you’ll know him already anyway, but you’ll recognise him from our previous webinars. He’ll be a familiar face to you, and he’s the Deputy Secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Next to Argiri, we have Peter McCammon, or sorry, Peta McCammon, I should know that so well. I know Peta very well, my sincere apologies, from the Department of Justice and Community Safety. Peta is Deputy Secretary in the department, and is also leading up some of the mission work within the Department of Justice as well.

And Stephen Gniel from the Department of Education and Training. So, Peta and Stephen, if I can particularly welcome you. We’ve had lots of fantastic feedback around the fact that we, today, have education and justice sitting alongside Department of Health and Human Services at the table. We found at the last webinar, many of you had questions that they cross a number of different areas. As we know, people’s lives are not siloed. Issues around education and justice and health and human services all interrelate. So, it’s fantastic to have the panel that we do in front of us today. So, I’m extremely appreciative of your time today.

Now, before we move on to questions, Argiri, I might just ask you to kinda kick off with some sort of initial broad observations, and then we’ll move into questions from there. How does that sound?

Argiri Alisandratos:     Sure, thanks, Emma. Can I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land that we meet on today? Pay respect to elders past and present. And thanks, Emma, again, for hosting this together, as we have been doing for the last little while. I think as the Minister said, these are really important forums. They engage us with our sectors. They’re critically important for how we disseminate information across the sectors, how we engage and understand the sort of challenges and issues that our sectors face, which is important for us, because it helps us calibrate the responses, the plans that we have in motion, and importantly, it enables us to get the policy settings right and to speak with ministers and government about the needs that we’re seeing across the community services environment, and how we respond actively to that.

So, I might just quickly just, whilst we’re talking about plans, we’ve talked a little bit in the past about the guidance that we’ve developed, the plans, the COVID plans, that we’ve developed across our community services sector with the community services guidance being the primary one. But, obviously, as Amanda has spoken about, we are now moving into a slightly different phase. We’re starting to easy restrictions. Government has made those announcements. We’re now starting to think about what restoration of services looks like, and how we undertake that carefully considered work for reactivating some face to face services and restoring some of those services as well.

So, on that level, we have put out, as of yesterday, guidance that assists our sectors to really start to calibrate their responses in this phase of work that we are in. So, the new guidance has gone on to the website, it’s gone on to the funded agency channel, and I urge people to really go and have a look at it. Use that as a guide, it has really important advice and key considerations to apply when determining how to deliver services safely in what we’re calling now the COVID safe environment that we are in. It has a range of tools to help organisations identify the risks of coronavirus transmissions and develop strategies for how we mitigate and respond to those risk, whilst working to transition to normal service delivery. And obviously, there’s a range of tools that help our sectors and our services to be able to make that guided decision for how we get to the COVID normal service delivery environment.

So, again, I hope that the guidance supports our sector’s continuing and existing business continuity planning and it’s complimentary to that. And I would urge people to use the advice that we provided as a really foundational level of advice. So, yeah, so I think that’s really important.

Emma King:     Thanks, Argiri, and I think of one of the things I know that you were really clear, when you’re working with us, was about the fact that you’ve engaged someone specifically with very clear health advice, which I thought you might just wanna share, because I know a number of organisations are sourcing their own advice around to have a COVID safe work environment, and I just thought it might be worth touching on the process that you’ve gone through, so that, in effect, DHHS just can be a bit of a one stop shop on that front.

Argiri Alisandratos:     Yeah, that’s very true, Emma. So, I’ve mentioned previously, and people would have heard a little bit through the various engagements about Professor John Catford. And John has been engaged by us to really help plan and organise that sort of advice that we’re putting out to our sectors. He’s been terrific in terms of being able to give that more disciplined health perspectives that assist for calibrating the guidance, and developing the tools, the assessment tools and the risk based assessment tools that we have positioned out across the sector as of yesterday. So, John has been engaged with many forums, and we’re using much of his expertise to translate that public health information. So, I wanna make that really clear. John’s not the public health person, but he’s a person of tremendous wisdom and experience in the public health environment. He takes the public health advice, he’s able to translate it for use within our social services environment, and the justice environment, ’cause I know John’s been working across a number of departments, equally assisting in that endeavour.

And equally, we’ve been working as a team to really bring our collective efforts so that we share in this information across our departments. And that’s partly the work that we’ve been doing through our mission coordination environment where we’re really thinking very critically about service continuity, reestablishing services, and bringing a COVID safe approach to the way that we undertake that work.

And that’s having a whole government approach as well. We’ve talked previously about those coordinating mechanisms that we have across government, and they’re really the reason we’re all sitting here and the reason we have many of these conversations is to essentially bring a much more integrated approach to the way that we think about service and continuity, the way that we think about restoration of services, and the way that we think about what do we take from this environment, as the Minister says, there’s lots of learnings that we’ve talked a little bit about that previously. What do we take and what do we wanna hold into the future?

So, it’s a pretty strong emphasis in terms of the way that we wanna really pick those kernels, if you like, of changes that we’ve made through COVID, that will really position us well into a future state environment as well.

Emma King:     Absolutely, and I guess it’s just a real flag as well for anyone who’s not seen the templates, et cetera, that were provided yesterday. Please do go and look at them. We know that organizations at the moment are spending lots of money, often having their own sort of case service or health and safety requirements made in the work place. So, just to be really clear that DHHS and the department more generally, has work really hard so that you’ve got that information at hand, and don’t need to go and source it independently. Because we’re very conscious of the amount of money that people are really wanting to deliver on how we provide for the Victorian community, et cetera, as well, and government is doing everything they can to make that job every little bit easier than it can possibly be.

So, I just really wanted to emphasise that, ’cause it is likely that not everyone has seen that. So, if you haven’t, please do jump online at DHHS, Department of Justice, et cetera, because that information is there, and it’s there, and it’s there for you to use as well. So, just to emphasise that.

Argiri Alisandratos:     And for funder organisations, Emma, on the funded agency channel as well. And again, we’re keen to get feedback on those tools, and as we have been doing through this period of time, iterating those on the back of strong advice and intelligence that we’ve been able to gain from the sectors.

Emma King:     Thank you, now, obviously, COVID-19, it’s very much driven up costs, it’s impacted on volunteers as we spoke about earlier today, as well as affecting income I guess in fund raising efforts as well. So, unsurprisingly, a lot of the questions that we’ve had for today’s forums have been around funding. So, we might just whip through a few of these.

So, in terms of programs that had, we were previously, we would have anticipated that our budget would have been in May, COVID has changed all of that, we’re now anticipating that that will be in October or November. That obviously has a significant impact for some programs, particularly those that were only funded through to the 30th of June. I understand government’s made some decisions on that front. So, perhaps, Argiri, if you’d like to walk through what those decision are and the planning that organizations can now undertake as a consequence of those.

Argiri Alisandratos:     Yeah, sure, thank you, Emma, it’s been one of the critical question that sector colleagues have been asking for clarity for some period of time, recognising that many of our organisations are businesses as well. They are there to deliver services, but they rely heavily on the funding and the people that they engage through that funding.

So, yeah, we are now in the position to say that for those programs that were due to be lapsing at the 30th of June, they will continue to the end of September. So, they will roll over, recognising the budget, obviously has been delayed, and will now take place in October of this year. So, we’ve got some continuation of those lapsing programs. We’ve put out advice today across our peak bodies of that nature, and outlining the activities that were due to lapse, and will be continuing. That, hopefully, provides the assurance for continuation of those critical services, and the people that are employed to provide those services.

I will continue to urge organisations to talk to their contacts, their funding contacts, in the departments and across the departments to really make sure that they are clear about what elements, if they’re not absolutely clear, and there’ll be more advice that will be coming out directly to organisations as well.

So, I think we’ve got some movement, some positive movement in that regard that gives some clarity to people about those lapsing initiatives. And if there aren’t, there might be some initiatives, that for a range of reasons, may not be continuing, that discussion will be had with each of the organisations that have those activities.

Emma King:     And then, in terms of that gap, I guess one of the question we’ve been asked a lot, is a round the gap between end of September, whenever budget will be held, end of year, et cetera, I’m imagining those conversations are ongoing, is that correct?

Argiri Alisandratos:     They are, they are. They’re ongoing with government, they’re ongoing with our central agencies, and whilst I’m not in a position to really give you any more clarity about that here and now, hopefully, over the coming days and weeks, we will get more clarity about that, we will be able to communicate that. We’ll use those forums and other mechanisms that we have to make sure that our sectors have that information as soon as we’ve got clarity on it so that the importance of, as I’ve heard from many, many of the organisations, they need to plan proactively and be ready for continuation of those funded initiatives.

Emma King:     Thanks, Argiri. In terms of, this particular question’s been submitted by a neighborhood house, will there be any across the board increases in funding in recognition of the challenging circumstances that community services are in?

Argiri Alisandratos:     So, again, many of our organizations have talked about the impact of COVID-19, on their sustainability, on the resource base, particularly around fundraising that perhaps is not at the levels where it had been previously. And we are talking with government about looking at all of those impacts, ’cause they vary across the sectors, as you can imagine, small organisations like neighborhood houses are profoundly impacted by any of those shifts in the revenue streams that they receive. Equally, larger organisations, who are delivering a broader range of services, have a different amount of impact as well. And we’re undertaking some work at the moment to really look at all of those impacts to be able to collect those sort of intelligence across organisations to engage with government about what those impacts are really doing to services and how they might be impacting on the delivery end for people, ultimately, that are reliant on that support.

So, more work that we need to do on that, more engagement that we’ll have across our sectors, and more advice that we’ll positioning to government about those impacts and how we might treat those impacts going forward.

Emma King:     Fantastic, thank you Argiri, and I’ll come back with some more questions for you.

Stephen, I might just throw to you for a moment, we’ve had lots of questions, unsurprisingly, about laptops and devices, and in terms of students who are, likely I guess, one of the things that we’ve seen, I know I think there’s been the very best intention in terms of looking to roll out devices and internet access, it’s not been perfect, but gee, it’s been a pretty fundamental start compared to what was in place beforehand. So, in terms of students now starting to return to school, and my understanding is kids can have the laptops and assistance until really the end of term two, curious to think in terms of I guess what happens in terms of the formal schooling from home period in terms of the devices in as far as you’re able to say, I guess, yeah.

Stephen Gniel:     No problem, Emma. And I gonna start with two things, just to acknowledge the land on which we’re meeting as well, and particularly this week. And I know a lotta people are searching for different things to do at this stage. And Netflix was high on my list the other night, but I was on ABC iview watching “The Australian Dream”, which is the story about Adam Goodes, of course, told by Stan Grant, and just a really heart wrenching and reality check for us, I think, is where we’re up to in reconciliation. So, I would just recommend that to anyone out there, looking for something to watch.

And the other thing, Emma, and to both Peta and Argiri, is that it’s really important for Education and Training to be here, and sit at the table, and I think, before I get into the devices element of this, just the overwhelming sense of partnership that this has brought through. I think we talk a lot about students and teachers, and the partnership there. I think extrapolating that out into our parents has been a clear thing that’s happened over these last number of months. And I’d personally extend that out to our community organisations, who I think have done absolutely outstanding job of supporting some of those most vulnerable children and families. And without that base level support, some of those kids would have no opportunity to continue their learning. So, just put that out there.

And I guess the other thing to recognise is I think there’s been some great work, and I appreciate that, Emma. I think it’s also been different in different places. And probably call out, as I always used to in a former role, where Argiri and I worked very closely together, was what’s happening in Port Mill when it’s not necessarily the same down in Mallacoota, or Swiss Creek, or whilst up in O’Malley, et cetera. So, I think there’s been some differential experience of what’s out there, and yes, I call that out, because I know a lot of the people online will see that face to face with some of those things.

On the devices, it’s been a pretty full-on time for that part of our department, and for schools as well. We’ve actually made over 61,000 devices available to students. Which is pretty significant, and that’s in the government sector alone. So, there’s around 650,000 students. So, it’s sort of a 10% rate of providing devices. And about 23,000 internet sort of hotspots, dongles, I think that’s the technical term as well. And I think a lot of that is making sure that those students could access education, and without those things, remote learning’s pretty hard.

I think it also drew, into stark relief though, about some of the inequities across our whole communities, where we could provide a device and a dongle, but if there’s actually not internet capability within that community or up in the mountains and those things, then we’ve had to use different approaches. So, right through to hard copy printouts for some students.

Of course, that works better for some than others. If you’re doing VCE, I think that was the group we were sort of most concerned about, as well as our sort of priority cohorts, they were the ones we wanted to get those devices and internet access out to as soon as possible.

And in fact, we worked with our colleagues sitting here, to really identify which cohorts should we list first to get those devices. And so, our students in youth justice was one of those cohorts, our kids in out of home care, our aboriginal students, and then, sort of rolling out from there. And 61,000 sounds like a lot, but we actually couldn’t get enough devices in the country. That’s where we got to. And we ran out of dongles to that sort of point. So, and most of those devices were actually devices that were in schools. So, it was really utilising the stock and the resources that schools had to support students.

So, it’s a good news story, but as you mentioned, Emma, there are places where it wasn’t as good as I think we would have all liked, and we need to learn from that.

Emma King:     Yeah, absolutely, and I suspect you may not be in a position to comment, but any thoughts on what happens beyond the end of term two relating to devices?

Stephen Gniel:     Yeah, so, we’ve actually said into term three for those devices. I think one of the challenging bits of that is that, because so many of them were school based devices, they’ve just gotta balance that with what’s available at school sort of every day as well. And, look, I think schools are up for that challenge. I think they would recognise that for some of those students, it’s really brought it to the forefront that they don’t have that access, right?

So, it wasn’t just the fact that they need to learn remotely during the day, I think of those students going home, who are doing year 11 and 12, or doesn’t even have to be that, young kids, and not having that access to continue to learn out of sorta those regular school hours, I think is a challenge that we’re sort of taking on from this. This is a learning element for us. And not that I don’t think people have told us, probably people of the web called, to be honest. But I think it really brought it out that we sort of see if you live in the city, you think everyone’s got access, and this is all good, but there are place out there where that’s not true. And that includes in the city places as well about accessibility.

Emma King:     Yeah, and I think it highlights, as you say, some of the things that state schools relief and others have spoken about this at length around the requests on their services going from things what used to be a school top, for example, now there are requests around devices, that are significantly more expensive, that they don’t have the funding, as a general rule, to provide. So, it’s kinda highlighted an issue I think that we already knew existed, but also a real inequity between can you continue to learn at home or can’t you, ’cause you’ve either got a device or you haven’t got a device. So, I think there’s more with hopefully we can do in partnership around that front as well.

Stephen Gniel:     Yeah I agree, and calling that, look, as you say, Emma, and I don’t think we know all of them of where people have just lent devices to people or found them, or whatever that might be, or rebuilt old ones and given them to kids. So, and that’s what I meant in the start that I do think we’ve seen a real partnership kind of for everyone, right back to just that basic human need sort of aspect is let’s make sure that people are fed, and those sort of things, and they have access to those things, but also, trying to ensure that there isn’t a widening of the gap in terms of education and the equity.

Emma King:     Yes, absolutely.

Argiri Alisandratos:     I think Emma, that that digital divide is something that we’re very, very conscious of. And particularly the issue about where we’ve had families, not having access to that equipment that’s required. Some of the funding allocations that we’ve been able to make has meant that they’ve at least had the financial capacity to be able to gain some of those devices to be able to then engage in the schooling and be able to support their kids.

And equally, on the innovation side, I think if I think about the partnership between schools and kids in out of home cares as an example, where we have residential care facilities, residential care workers, who have been schooling the kids and engaging in that learning environment, and some of the things that we’ve heard, and this is something for us to take forward in our future state, that some kids have really responded very positively on the online learning, on the web based learning channels. And we’ve talked about this previously in terms of how they take to it a little bit better than some of us. So, again, I think it’s an extraordinary period of learning that we need to really think about how do we take those models of learning beyond the COVID space and how do we prepare for hybrid models of delivering those arrangements across different groups.

Emma King:     We very much look forward to working with you on that. I know we’ve had a number of our out of home care providers who have spoken to us about exactly that, where it’s worked particularly well for some student, who potentially wouldn’t have a, it possibly leads to my next question as well, Stephen.

So, in terms of we know of a normal year, and almost defies comprehension really, we know that about 10,000 students just drop out of our education system, which is more than heartbreaking enough as it is, do we have a sense as a consequence of COVID, do we know yet how many sort of additional students we think may have dropped out? And I know there’s been some really great initiatives. One of the local learning and employment networks sent me through some information yesterday. We had our recent partnership from the Department of Education and Training, some young people there who were talking about how’d they’d found remote learning and some good things and some challenging things, and as a consequence of that, one of the local learning and employment networks who was on the line, gave some students some grants around some sort of welcome back to school, money for welcome back to school activities, which was really great I think around the celebration of coming back into school. Just interested to know whether you’ve got any insight at the moment around how many students have dropped out or whether you’re still compiling that.

Stephen Gniel:     Yeah, look, firstly, this is a real area of passion of mine. And so, I think it is still one of our challenging parts of the education system is how we deal with that really pointy end, where the completion rates have increased over the number of years. And thankfully so, but there’s still that cohort that we still I think are failing at times. And I think some of the things we talk about a lot is that that doesn’t happen, it’s not usually one day, a kid wakes up and just says, “Ah, I don’t feel like, “I’m not gonna go to school forever from now.” It’s actually how we work with families right back in prep. And we see those kids, and if you talk to teachers, they’ll say, prep teachers, they’ll say, “I can tell you the kids that are gonna struggle.”

And it’s that kind of post code destiny element, and it’s not every kid. But the average is that it averages out that more of them don’t make it through. So, I think this government in particular have been very committed to keeping those kids connected and in schools, and there’s sort of hundreds of millions of dollars out there in equity funding for schools to be able to use in that way.

I think through this process, it’s been really interesting. I’ve got some information here sort of just in front of me that I’ll bring up so I make sure the numbers are right. I’ve got this really interesting graph around the lead up to when we went to home schooling, and so, in fact, we had that it sort of hovers around that 90% attendance, on a normal daily basis, it’s a 90% attendance across the state. That dropped right off in the week, or the couple of weeks, before we went to actually learning at home, we had a lot of people sort of taking their kids out, who were probably scares, worried about the health implications. If you think about back to that time, we were in a pretty dark space, looking around the world what was happening and running on. Actually, learning from home in terms of attendance now, and I’ll get to what that means, but attendance was actually right up around that 90% as well. Now, what people then respond to me generally about when I say that is, “Yes, they may have been there, but how engaged where they? What did that look like?” And that’s a normal question for us in everyday school life. And I think a lot of people on the web will also be parents, and they will have seen this, I’ve got three kids, and they’re in the years groups that none of them are back yet. So, I had no influence over that, obviously. So, what we’re seeing is high rates of attendance of students on site in comparison to last year. So, lots of people are coming back.

There’s some other factors around that, though. People aren’t taking holidays. So, we’re not seeing that impact. And again, I think what we’re really focused on, Emma, and this is where we’ll have to work with our partners across the board on this is yeah, how are those kids that were probably at most risk already, how are they transitioning back into school? At the moment, we’ve got year 11 and 12 back in those senior groups. I think I’m personally more worried about those kids that are on the edge in year eight, the 14, 15 year olds, that I think were probably just keeping going to school, and there were people really focused on keeping them engaged, and whether this has just cropped that out a bit. So, look, it’s one where you’re right, we probably don’t have the specific information we need right now, but it’s well and truly on our agenda that we’ve gotta make sure that we know who they are and then respond.

Emma King:     Yeah, thank you.

Peta, I might throw a couple of questions over to you. I guess just thinking about as well about we suddenly have everything closed down, children and young people who would normally be involved at school, and potentially in community based activities and sport, et cetera, suddenly it all closes, and we’re told to stay safe and stay at home, we know all the challenges that are there for people who perhaps don’t have secure housing, and all those sorts of things as well. One of our members has referred to reports of some fairly heavy handed policing, particularly with regards to vulnerable, young people. Can you talk about what oversight is in place for that? I know I moving into sort of the next stage, but I guess any observations you have around what’s happened to date, but what the thinking is moving forward, given that we’re still in a state of emergency for another two and a half weeks still.

Peta Mccammon:     Sure, and I might take the opportunity just to make a couple of contextual comments as well, piggybacking on what Argiri was talking about, and also just to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we’re all meeting today.

And this is probably the most exciting thing that’s happened to me since March to come here today. And it’s really great to be invited and to see people face to face.

I think before we get to the pointy end of that question in terms of police oversight, I just wanted to really pick up on some of the comments that Argiri made and also Stephen, in relation to the work that we’re doing across government together, not just through the mission’s work, but we started some of this work pre-COVID through the common client’s work, which it’d be great to have an opportunity to talk about that today, because I think all of the contextual information we’ve had today highlights that the work that happens in DHS, the work that happens in DET, ultimately, we end up the recipients, that’s a terrible way of saying that, but we absolutely see our work as part of a system. So, the justice system is part of the DHHS and the education system.

So, I was also reflecting coming here that there’s something about the way that we work in an emergency. So, we’ve been working I think in an emergency since February, or December, really. So, we forget that we had the bush fires. And so, that really, the year that we have in terms of the way that we’ve all been working, the sector as well, we’ve been working in this emergency type way of working.

And I think there’s something though that there’s a natural way that we default in an emergency. And I think we default to collaboration. And I think I found too we default to quickly identifying what are those things that really matter. So, I know in our space, we’ve been really focused on getting a handle on what’s happening with family violence. So, and we’ve changed the way we’ve even been working in terms of how do we get operational type intelligence quickly in to our policy makers so that we can advise government quickly about what might need to change, what are some of the gaps.

So, I think there’s something about that that taking those learnings about that emergency style working, the natural way of collaboration, and I’ve really felt that I’ve spent almost as much time with Argiri than I have as my justice colleagues. And we have governance set up in relation to making sure that we don’t duplicate, I think we’ve been begging, stealing, borrowing, but I think coming today here was just I think another natural progression of that.

So, really looking forward to more types of engagement with the sector coming together. Because I think also, the other point I’d make is we don’t really know what’s next. We have economic measures, we have this idea, and I think we’re now officially allowed to call it a recession, I think now.

Emma King:     Well, the Treasurer has, so.

Peta Mccammon:     But I think we have this sense of what’s coming, but this is unprecedented. So, I think we can draw on our data, and I know our two teams across our two departments have been doing a lot of work around trying to get an early heads up on that. But I think there is something about hearing from people on the ground as well about early intelligence that I think we need to be really great, to keep discussions with these type of forums for us to have that.

But in terms of the police oversight, I think picking up on the comments that I’ve made about the common client work, ultimately, we’re looking to roll out, we started with four pilot sites, we wanna get back going on those four pilot sites to look at how do we work together with our colleagues in DHHS and police in relation to a more integrated service model for people.

And I think one of the things through COVID that is coming through is the importance of looking particularly at young people. I think the data is starting to demonstrate in relation to young people as a growing risk.

So, I think in terms of looking forward, in terms of improvements to the system, that’s something I definitely wanna come back and talk in more detail to this group, but in terms of the police oversight, I can’t speak for police, the police are their own agency, but if people do have concerns in relation to police behaviour, there’s opportunities to make complaints directly to police. And then, there’s a number of type of complaints that automatically go to IBAC. So, IBAC is the key agency in terms of police oversight.

I would say too, that the police have a number of initiatives, particularly in relation to young people. So, they have youth specialist officers within the police force, looking to draw on evidence and to also assist I guess in capacity building for the broader police force in relation to how to deal with young people. But I think if people do have, and it’s obviously a very sensitive topic at the moment, not just here, but internationally, I think I’d encourage people to, and we can make more details available, but to make complaints in relation to that any sort of types of behaviour, and also there’s also, as I’ve said, IBAC.

Argiri Alisandratos:     I might just add to that, Emma. I think it might have been at the last forum we had, I talked a little bit about the work that we’re doing with Vic Pol on this very issue, particularly for kids of out of home care, Peta, but it also extends into other cohorts that would have incoming interaction with Vic Pol, particularly around people with a mental health issue, people with a disability that may not have been responding well to stay at home provisions.

And Vic Pol were terrific in terms of coming to the table, being able to engage with us to work up a protocol, to be able to disseminate that protocol across their organisation, and particularly, out to the local level, and to respond to particular examples, where in the early days, we had a few situations that probably could have been managed differently and more productively, but to their credit, they were absolutely on to it and were responsive. And, of course, the defining of a protocol and a working agreement, I think just meant that we can input into that and really demonstrate the sort of vulnerabilities that some of our cohorts have, and how police then can calibrate their responses to it as well.

So, I think it’s been a terrific, as both my colleagues have said, another example of terrific partnership in an environment where we’ve got unprecedented sort of actions and decisions that are being made by government.

Emma King:     Yeah, I think this time has been very much defined by I would say information and sort of the critical sorts of information and collaboration, which has been, we’ll touch a little more a bit later in terms of some of the things we don’t wanna lose. And I know we’re keen to do more work around that as well.

And Peta, if I can just go back, ’cause I know one of the challenges that we’ve had around is around the number of fines that have been issued, and there’s been lots of commentary around that, I don’t intend to revisit it, but we’ve had more than 6,000 fines that have been issued in Victoria. One of the challenges that we know is that if someone’s poor basically, and they’re vulnerable, they don’t have $1,600 plus really in terms of each fine. So, in terms of we’ve had questions from members around well, what do we tell our clients? If they’ve been issued with a fine for over $1,600, they have no capacity to pay whatsoever. Or if they do pay, it means that they’re simply, they’re destitute.

What, and I guess this is a question across the board, really, so what can we do in those circumstance and what do we tell people?

Peta Mccammon:     Yeah, and I think like a lot of the things we’re talking about today, these aren’t new issues, they’re issues that have been I guess exacerbated in the COVID environment. So, and it is a difficult issue, obviously, this is a pandemic, a major health emergency, and there’s an appropriateness too in terms of the police and the health officers in terms of issuing fines.

Look, there are special circumstances that people can apply for. So, people should apply to Fines Victoria. So, there’s special circumstances in relation to homelessness and also mental health. And I understand there’s been nearly 40 internal reviews that we’re aware of at this stage that have been subject to that. So, in the first instance, people should get in touch with Fines Victoria.

There’s also a special unit in DJCS. I think it’s called Customer Care Team, that are actually looking at some of the more complex cases. And there’s opportunities in relation to payment plans or holding patterns.

So, I think in the first instance that there is an opportunity for review and there is an opportunity to look at some of those more complex cases. But look, it’s a challenging issue, and as I said, it’s not new in terms of some of the proportion of vulnerable people who end up subject to fines.

Emma King:     That they have no capacity to pay, but I think that the point that you raise is a really important one around looking at where people can go, if they if they get a fine they can’t pay, knowing that there’s somewhere that you can go to actually seek help, assistance, et cetera, from there. It’s a starting point, so.

Peta Mccammon:     Yeah, and we can make sure those details are available.

Emma King:     That would be great, we’ll make sure that we distribute those after the forum today as well.

So, I guess, Argiri, going back to you, in terms of looking, and we touched on this earlier, around the crisis driving a whole lot of new people into hardship, whom I suspect probably never thought they would find themselves, and we hear this a lot, of people who present a member organisation, saying I never thought this would be me. I now need to come and ask for emergency relief, they’re asking for financial counselling, they might be in a family where they had jobs and now the jobs have disappeared. Interested in terms of the work that’s being done to reach this cohort and making sure that people are getting the support they need, and I guess in asking that question too, I do wanna be very clear that in no way does it dismiss people who have consistently found themselves in that situation as well, but we’ve now got people who are already in entrenched disadvantaged and poverty, people who are teetering on the edge, and now, we’ve got a new group of people who were probably doing fine, and finding themselves in that first category as well.

Argiri Alisandratos:     Yeah, I agree, and I might call on Peta to help me with this one, because it really crosses over much of the work.

Emma King:     It does.

Argiri Alisandratos:     That we’ve been talking about, and Peta’s already alluded to. So, we recognise there are new cohorts of people that are coming into need, whether that be through financial stress, unemployment, and we know that that’s a real factor for people, that potentially leads to mental health challenges. And again, these are people that perhaps have not been in our traditional sort of scope of delivery, but through the circumstances that they’ve found themselves in through COVID-19, it is exacerbating and pushing them into needing more support.

And as you’ve seen, many of the announcement that government has made, it tries to tackle both elements. Those that are already in our services that we know have got substantial need, and those that are newly potentially coming into services. And we have to think about them in slightly different ways, because the traditional delivery arrangement for our traditional cohorts may not be the right delivery arrangements and may not hit the mark for some of those newly emerged disadvantaged cohorts and vulnerable cohorts. So, part of the work that we’ve been doing and thinking about throughout our mission coordination is really to think about what’s the service response, because clearly we don’t wanna draw them more deeply into existing services, but equally, we’ve gotta have an attuned response and a service model that understands the differentiator between previous cohorts and current emerging cohorts, and data analysis will be critical to that. Our service organisations and the intelligence that they bring, and the policy setting that we’ve created to enable a more agile way of responding to the needs of those cohorts.

So, I think they’re all in the mix in terms of of work that we’ve been doing, but equally, they’re front and centre of government’s thinking, particularly about economic participation and initiatives that will reestablish economic participation for many of those that have fallen out of work, the Working for Victoria Fund, as you know, has been an important initiative on how we get that pool of people back into work, meaningful work, and supporting meaningful endeavours of government delivery and other delivery.

So, they’re some of the initiatives, and by no stretch of the imagination will they be the only ones, but it really begs the question about how do we think about a different service system response and how do we engage and collaborate with our service sectors to really help us on that journey.

Peta Mccammon:     Yeah, yeah, and just to add maybe to even complicated some of these forums going forward, I think picking up on Argiri’s point in terms of some of the mission work, the Department of Jobs and Precincts is a really important player in this in terms of access to jobs, and the government’s made a number of very significant infrastructure investments. What’s the role in terms of social procurement, in terms of opportunities for people for work? And the other, I guess is also the Commonwealth in this space in terms of we’ve got particular points coming up in relation to Jobkeeper, Jobseeker.

So, I think how do we work, we’ve had discussions or decisions about national cabinet. There is moment here in relation to the Commonwealth and our interaction with them that I think, in the last bit of time, that I think they’re another important player in relation to some of that linking the economic decisions and opportunities with some of the social outcomes.

Emma King:     I could not agree more.

Stephen Gniel:     Can I just jump in as well?

Emma King:     Yeah.

Stephen Gniel:     And I think this is why, and I agree with Peta, that having jobs raisings here is part of that mix as well, but it just shows you why the collaboration and coordination across government and with community sector organisations is so important. Now, as I was sort of listening there as well, remembering that yeah, the Department of Education is training as well. And, of course, a lot of this is about what we might need to do to retrain people that have lost jobs, or the industries are falling over, and those sort of things.

And also, part of that education portfolio’s kindergarten, and long daycare, and those things, so, you can see that as soon as you start to think like that, all of these things are important. Just thinking about those people that have lost their job, but their kids may not be at school or at kindergarten, how do they then put the time into applying for jobs? And seeking different training and all those things. So, it’s all interlinked.

And I guess wanting to give that sort of assurance that I think particularly the three of us, but across the government, that those people with those key portfolio responsibilities are well aware that we need to respond to people’s needs in a coordinated fashion, rather than push what that portfolio kind of approach might be. And I think, certainly, that’s something I’ve heard of in terms of frustration from some of the community sector organisations. They don’t even have the funding with multiple funding sort of things. And I sort of talked about that as we need the adults to together to support, in my case, it’s toward children, of course, and young people, but I think for all of us, it’s those common clients, how do we work together, starting from the people and the individuals, and recognising that their touch points are across all of different government services.

Emma King:     I think you’ve repeated what all my lines would be, Stephen, in terms of well, no, because it’s his part to just say it’s not like we always talk about it, and knowing that the challenges that individual bureaucrats have in their own day job, but it’s the part about actually where do we rise above it and work together, and it is one of the interesting things out of a crisis time. And we all know, for example, if a child starts school from behind, it’s unlikely they’re ever gonna catch up. That’s the case without a crisis.

And the chance to extend this conversation out to Department of Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, absolutely, that would be fantastic, and as you know, we’ve been working really closely with them, for example around Working for Victoria, and again, the really instrumental role of the Department of Education and Training has played on that front has been really critical.

I might just get to, I’m mindful we’ve got about sort of 10 minutes left for question, a couple of key things, and I do just wanna pick up on a point I think each of you are making, and I can probably take it to a different level, but the part around Jobseeker and Jobkeeper is really critical. We know that we’re at a really key point at the moment in terms of we know that for people who are on what was Newstart is now Jobseeker. The amount was doubled. We know that makes this extraordinary difference of people in terms of of being able to put petrol in the car, or being able to buy shoes for the kids, those kinds of things. And I know that’s a federal issue, and I know, I suspect all of you are working really hard to keep that on the agenda alongside looking at how Jobkeeper might be adapted and actually delivering for people who desperately need that.

I’m not sure whether you can comment on this at the moment, but keeping in mind around some of the people who are excluded from Jobkeeper, for example, Argiri, in knowing that I’m not sure whether there’s an opportunity here to talk about the challenges that are facing people, for example, who are refugees, on temporary protection visas, et cetera, who are currently, they’re not able to access federal government assistance, such as Jobseeker and Jobkeeper. I know there’s been some work that’s been undertaken in terms of helping families or people who fall into that category. Are you able to just briefly touch on that as well or is that something you need to kinda come back to talk on in more detail?

Argiri Alisandratos:     No, no, no, no, no, I’m happy to make some comments about that. So, I think I absolutely agree with all those comments, Emma. The role that National Cabinet will continue to play, and I think for all of us, and you would have all heard, the Prime Minister’s announcement about the more enduring nature of National Cabinet, I think is gonna be really important for how we keep the Commonwealth leaders connected with the state and jurisdictional policy settings. So, I think that that’s incredibly important.

But to your point, we recognise that there are particular groups that fall out of some of those income support initiatives and enhancements that have been made at the Commonwealth level and that the Victorian Government has been very, very focused on. So, I might run through some of those. I know we’re short on time. So, it might be quicker for me to just give some visibility.

One to let people know that from a health service delivery perspective, our Victorian health services, will continue to deliver health support and health intervention to all of those people that are not eligible for Medicare or don’t have a residency status, and that’s an important fundamental element of how we support people through what is a health crisis.

Equally, the Victorian Government recently made a range of announcements of supports through the helping multicultural Victorians have through Coronavirus package. So, $2 million being invested to battle social isolation and strengthen community connections, with up to 150 multicultural community organisations to provide IT support, enhance digital capacity, and increase outreach services to those in need, to make sure that young people in multicultural communities have the right support.

Nearly $5 million has been made available to support vulnerable in that risk youth and families in financial hardship who need essential items, such as food and clothing, $2.2 million will be made available to provide basic needs assistance to thousands of asylum seekers. And $1.1 million towards cultural appropriate family violence prevention and early intervention services, which is really important. That package also includes $1 million to boost translated messages across government departments. So, Victorians with English as a second language can better navigate their way through the pandemic, and in our engagements with the Victorian Multicultural Commission, this is an important initiative, and one that those communities can keep calling on government to make sure that we target the communication, we make it appropriate and accessible, so that’s an important initiative.

At a previous forum, I spoke about the range of supports available to people seeking asylum, refugee communities, and other vulnerable temporary migrants, including $3 million that was allocated in the ’19, ’20 budget to address rising asylum seeker destitution vulnerability by boosting the capacity of specialist asylum seeker programs to deliver crisis support.

So, as you can see, there are a range of initiatives, and probably more that are incoming, I would say, Emma. So, stay tuned for maybe a few more announcements that target specific cohorts, and the Victorian government is very, very committed to understanding the needs of those groups, and our community service organisations continue to fly the flag, local government, same, and do a lot of work to engage and support those communities as well.

Emma King:     Thanks, Argiri, we’ll keep our, we’re listening eagerly, waiting for potential future announcements on that front.

There’s a couple of other points I wanna get to, and I may not get to them all today, but one of the key things I think is looking at the large number of people who’ve been placed in emergency accommodation during this time, possibly in a way that before we were told, to be frank, was impossible, and we’ve seen it happen. And people who were without a home.

And so, I’m interested, and I guess, I wanna name up in a way that possibly the three of you can know in terms of how I can’t, I’m devastated by the Federal Government’s announcement today of throwing money at people who, to be frank, don’t need it, for renovations, when I think that money could have gone to social housing and providing homes to people who simply don’t have one. I think it’s a no brainer as an economic stimulus, it provides jobs, it provides homes for people who need it.

So, I name that by way of commentary, and it’s an observation on a broader point from the Federal Government. I guess my hope is that state government can continue to influence federal government to do more work on that front in terms of social housing.

I know that it’s not your portfolio, Argiri, and again, but it probably, it reaches all of you in terms of in the work that you do. I’m interested to know whether anything along the lines of sort of a housing first model might be considered long term. If none of you are able to answer that, we can take it offline and look at who might be better placed to do so. But it is a question that’s come through, and I think it’s a particularly valid one. We were very hopeful in terms of the Federal Government announcement, there would be some prospect there for social housing because it’s a no brainer. Unfortunately, we haven’t see that today. I guess interested in any reflection you may have or whether it’s something that you need to take on notice.

Argiri Alisandratos:     Yeah, I might kick it off, Emma, and then my colleagues can jump in. But you’re right, strong commitment from the Victorian government about people deserving safe and secure accommodation, and one that’s enduring.

So, and whilst I haven’t got all the details and happy to make that more details available, the government has invested nearly $15 million to protect people experiencing homelessness, as we’ve seen, hotel accommodation support that has been implemented through this COVID-19 period of time so that they get the right support, are protected, and we minimise transmission. So, really important initiative.

Equally, we know through the housing and homelessness system there are a range of pathways that are now being activated to really start to plan for the transition of those people into more sustainable options. So, that’s an important bit of work that we are continuing to do, and obviously, private rental assistance programs and a whole range of other social and public housing initiatives will be critical to that endeavour.

Also, as part of the $2.7 billion building works package, almost $500 million has been allocated to build and refurbish social housing, including $30 million to upgrade emergency and transitional housing for people at risk or are experiencing homelessness.

So, you can see, from the Victorian government perspective, that’s a huge investment. Certainly, it’s not gonna address all the need, but it’ll go a fair way to be able to attend to the needs of those people, and equally, have the benefit of creating employment opportunities at the same time as we build up and scale that sort of building approaches.

Stephen Gniel:     Yeah, just, Emma, it’s connected in a way, in two ways, one of the things that we continue to do is provide transport for school students during the pandemic. And I think what we see with homelessness and the impact on families can be that moving and potentially losing the sort of bedrock of those children’s lives to have had that connectivity. So, again, that’s something that we’ve been working on more across government is how do you look at finding homes, but also how do you maintain those social connections and fabric for those children.

And the other call that I just wanted to make, Emma, was to communities like East Gippsland what are still suffering from the bush fires as well, and again, what we see with some of those is temporary moving around. And so, that’s something where we’re mindful of as well in looking at the data of yeah, student movement between schools as well, and how we try and support families where that is sort of the best way for them to keep within a home. But the impact can be fairly marked on those students too. So, it’s how do we make sure we continue to support them, even if they are having to move houses? But also schools at times.

Emma King:     Yeah, thank you. Now, I’m very mindful of time, and we’re in our final couple of minutes. So, that’s probably all the time I’ve got time for questions today.

Can I say a huge thank you to all of you? It’s just that I think it speaks volumes that we’ve got the Department of Education and Training, Justice and Community Safety, Health and Human Services sitting here together, and having had your other colleagues with us earlier today as well, very happy, we’d be thrilled to have Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions at our next forum as well.

Thank you to everyone for submitting all of your questions in the lead up for today, and thank you for everyone for fronting up to answer them. I know it’s not always easy to do so.

Can I also say a really huge thank you to the VCOSS and the DHHS staff who’ve worked incredibly hard to bring today together, and to everyone who’s been involved in today? There’s a huge amount of work behind the scenes.

And of course, a huge thanks to all of you who’ve submitted questions as well. I’m very mindful that we didn’t get to all of those questions today. We will answer everything offline that we possibly can and post the answers to questions. For example, there was some great questions around young people and mental health and the work that schools are doing to support them. So, we’ll follow up on those and we’ll make sure that we post those questions online.

By way of reminder, and I guess also for follow up, these forums are now being held monthly on the first Thursday of each month. So, make sure that you get your questions in for the next forum. We’re really keen to get as many questions in as we can, and very focused on making this as much of a getting your questions answered forum as much as we possibly can.

So, the next forum, if you pop it into your diary, Thursday, the 2nd of July. We hope to see you then, if not beforehand.

Stay safe, everyone, thank you very much for being with us, and wishing you all the best, thank you everyone.