Topics: Return to school; student and working holiday maker visa holders; Living with COVID; 




Madeleine Morris: Let’s go back to our top story national cabinet meeting today, Finance Minister Simon Birmingham joins us now from Adelaide. Thanks so much for your time, Senator Birmingham.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Madeleine. Good to be with you.


Madeleine Morris: As we’ve been hearing from Dominic Perrottet of rapid antigen tests will form a crucial part of that return to school plan. But we still don’t know if we have enough. What is the situation with rapid antigen tests coming into Australia at the moment?


Simon Birmingham: So we are getting millions of additional tests coming into Australia and together between the Commonwealth and the states and territory, there’s a couple of hundred million that are being procured. We’ve been in a position to be able to supply millions of kits through crucial sectors like aged care and to supply millions of kits into the states and territories are helping them to make sure they are freely available for free to people who are close contacts to support the continued free testing of individuals who have COVID or COVID like symptoms and need that testing as close contacts. And we’re confident that we can work with the states and territories around the return to school plans to make sure they can occur safely, securely, including the use of rapid antigen tests where necessary.


Madeleine Morris: Okay, so it remains the aim of the Prime Minister and certainly of the Victorian and New South Wales premier. That school will go back on the first day of term and will stay in for as much as possible. Is that actually a realistic plan at this stage?


Simon Birmingham: We believe it is. Victoria and New South Wales, our two largest education systems have been working very closely together in terms of the types of plans that are being discussed. National Cabinet has been discussing this over its last couple of meetings and will continue to do so at this meeting. It is important that children don’t suffer further as a result of COVID-19, that they do get every educational opportunity available to them. And that’s why we are all working together across Labor and Liberal lines so cooperatively to make sure that we give the best possible chance for schools to go back for kids to get back in the classroom, for teachers to be supported. This will require ongoing work around close contact definitions around isolation rules, as well as this type of support from rapid antigen tests and the like. But all of that is possible, particularly as long as we keep in perspective that we are dealing in Omicron with a variant that is far less likely to produce serious disease. As long as we remember the children continue to be less likely to face serious disease. And of course, with the ongoing vaccination program that now has close to one in five Australian children aged between five and 11, having had their first dose. And as more places continue to become available, I urge parents who may not have been able to get a booking a few weeks ago to take another look. They may well find there are bookings available over the next few days or a couple of weeks.


Madeleine Morris: Yesterday, the prime minister announced a sweetener and incentive to get 170,000 backpacker and student visa holders back into the country who hold current visas but haven’t come back. The prime minister told those very people to go home in April of 2020. I personally spoke with many international students who just felt so abandoned by that. Why would they come back when that was the message that they’ve been given? Why would 600 bucks entice them to come back?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we know there’s strong demand for Australia in terms of the international education sector because we are seen globally as a high quality, safe English language education provider, and those are attributes in terms of being a safe location, an English language location and having world class universities that are in high demand around the world now. This announcement yesterday is really about trying to encourage some people to move a little bit faster than perhaps they otherwise would have. To say, there will be an incentive if you come now in terms of getting your visa rebated, having that extra money in your pocket. International students contribute so much to the Australian economy. We know that for working holiday makers, they spend basically every cent they earn travelling and touring around the country. But all of them also do and fill some crucial jobs in the Australian economy. But getting them back is something very helpful.


Madeleine Morris: It’s very important. In fact, it’s crucial that we get them back. But again, why would they come when we told them to go home? And the US has just put us on their list of countries that they recommend you avoid travel to? We’ve gone code red to the US. We are seen internationally is not even being a safe country to travel to now. So what hope do we have of getting those crucial foreign workers and students back in?


Simon Birmingham: We’re dealing with COVID, like the whole rest of the world is dealing with COVID. Omicron has seen a surge in cases right around the world, but indeed in Australia our testing rates remain some of the highest in the world. Our hospitals remain some of the most capable in the world. Our health system workers are working incredibly hard and we know that, but they are producing results in terms of maintaining the capabilities across our system and our education system here, as I said, is one of the best in the world. It is one of the most inviting in the world, and this incentive is about saying that we’ve reached a new point in the management of the pandemic. And that point is one where we do urge people to come back and that there is an incentive there, a financial incentive that if you do it over the next few weeks, which can help us fill some of those labour force shortages that Omicron is creating, then you’ll get that financial incentive.


Madeleine Morris: Well, the new point that we’ve reached in Australia is a supply lines buckling, nurses saying that they’re exhausted looking at bringing in bureaucrats to teach children in the very realistic prospect that teachers will be off school en masse. Is this what COVID living with COVID looks like in Australia?


Simon Birmingham: This is a factor in terms of the impact of Omicron that perhaps the single biggest impact we’ve faced from Omicron now is the pressure in terms of labour market shortages that individuals just find it harder in terms of going to work because of those isolation requirements, because of the spread of COVID at present. And now the health experts advise us that we are at or near the peak across most of the country and that we can expect to see that start to decline. But it’s why we’ve worked with changed circumstances from Omicron to change some of those close contact rules to change some of those isolation rules. Because Omicron is a changed set of circumstances, it’s transmitting far faster than any previous version of COVID-19, but it has around 70 per cent less serious health impacts than other versions, so it does enable us to change in those settings. It’s why we’ve made the changes to those visa rebates for international students, ford working holiday makers as well. It’s why we changed some of the work rules around those students and working holiday makers and others who are in Australia to make it easier for them to work longer hours, to undertake more jobs and to be able to make that contribution. But we do all have to work through this challenging time of this particular peak. But it will pass and the health advice is that we are, as I say, at or close to that peak.


Madeleine Morris: Okay, Senator Birmingham, thanks for your time this morning.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Madeleine. My pleasure.