Topics: Workforce shortages; Rapid antigen tests; Inflation; Wages;




Iskhandar Razak: Business groups are calling for home testing kits to be made more widely available. They also want the exemptions to apply to all workers. But unions have called an emergency meeting for Monday amid concerns the policy will lead to more illness amongst key staff. Finance Minister Simon Birmingham joins us now from Adelaide. Good morning to you, Minister. Thank you for your time. Essentially, the reaction has been mixed. Unions are critical, though. The TWU, which we spoke to, says essentially this will make things worse. More people will get sick, there’ll be hotbeds of sickness and that will create more supply shortages and problems. How do you respond to that?


Simon Birmingham: You have to realise that in dealing with the Omicron variant, we are dealing with a much more transmissible version of COVID-19 than those that went before. But on the upside is also proving to be around 70 per cent less likely to result in severe illness or hospitalisation. Now that means that with something that has less severity but more transmissibility, and we have to adjust the rules and settings to account for that. And this is precisely what national cabinet did a meeting of Labor and Liberal leaders from across the country yesterday, responding effectively to those changed circumstances, putting in place these different approaches in relation to isolation requirements because otherwise the evidence shows that we could end up with a situation where around 10 per cent of the Australian workforce, one in 10 workers would be in isolation, and the disruption to supply chains to essential services, to the availability of goods would be enormous across the country. Without these types of changes, they’re being taken carefully. Consistent with health advice, given those very significant changes that Omicron is presenting, not just here in Australia, but right around the world.


Iskhandar Razak: But minister, more transmissible, but hopefully less severe does possibly mean more people spreading the virus and getting sick. And whilst they may not end up in hospital, they may be too sick to go to work, maybe spreading it to other people key roles as well. Doesn’t this also end up with a large gap of the community, maybe even 10 per cent of the community being absent from work in just another form?


Simon Birmingham: Look, anybody who has symptoms should clearly stay at home and get tested. Testing remains free for Australians who have symptoms. It’s free for Australians who are close contacts. The requirement is there under these arrangements to have returned a negative test if you are a close contact before returning to work. The requirement is there that if you have symptoms, you should not be going to work. So these sorts of measures have been put in place with clear safeguards there. But it’s also about safeguarding the fact that our economy and the availability of goods on our supermarket shelves and elsewhere relies upon the fact that freight, logistics, transport sectors. As well as, of course, the supply of those foods and services need to be operating. These are the types of measures that our health system has been applying already to make sure that it is able to maximise the workforce available in the health sector and it make sense with the right safeguards to be able to apply this similarly to other essential sectors. Noting, as I said, that Omicron is a very different proposition and we’re responding to it by changing guidelines to change circumstances just as in other countries around the world, they are doing so as they too have seen the huge increase in case numbers resulting from Omicron. But those changed better health outcomes of less likely to have severe illness.


Iskhandar Razak: Minister the cornerstone of this is rapid antigen tests. It’s relied upon, but we’re finding it really hard to find. I know that the government has made changes for concession card holders, but people continue to call for free rapid antigen tests for the entire Australian community. Why can’t we expand it to that level?


Simon Birmingham: Because that would just result in a situation where as the Labor Party proposes any Australian could take as many kits as they want off of supermarket shelves and stockpile them at home, you would only compound shortages. What we’re doing is working with the states and territories to ensure the tests either PCR or rapid antigen tests remain free and available for Australians who are close contacts, for Australians who have symptoms, to make sure that people get a free test when and where they need it. We have provided 10 million kits from the Commonwealth to the states and territories to help them stand up new distribution centres and supply centres for those rapid antigen kits. We have, as a federal government, another 80 million kits on order and under delivery to Australia. Together with the states and territories, there’s around 200 million kits coming into the country. Yes, they’re not freely available at the supermarkets, but testing remains free for those who need it. And we’re making sure we have with the states the distribution points for people to be able to get those tests where they need it.


Iskhandar Razak: The ABC has a story this morning about rapid antigen tests. Of the 22 or so that are in Australia, only one is locally made, the rest are coming in from overseas. That’s part of the reason why they aren’t freely available in shops right now. What’s the hold-up? There are two locally made waiting approval, at least. Why aren’t we making more of these here? What’s the hold-up?


Simon Birmingham: Would you have to realise there’s a global shortage of rapid antigen tests. They’re in short supply in the United Kingdom, the United States, in Canada, right around the world because Omicron has resulted in this huge additional demand. Now, Australia still has one of the highest testing rates for population per capita in the world. So we have, despite all of the pressures of Omicron, managed to maintain some of the highest rates of testing of any country in the world. We are, as I said, before procuring additional kits to support that additional capacity. But amongst a global supply shortage, there are pressures there in terms of approvals for other kits to come onto the market. There matters that the health authorities, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, work through carefully and obviously any kit that is going to be used needs to meet sufficiently high standards in terms of its accuracy and efficacy to be able to come onto the market and that testing of those kits is important in the first place.


Iskhandar Razak: Simon Birmingham, I can’t let you go before asking you one question about Novak Djokovic. I know it’s not your portfolio. I know it’s not your ministry, but you are a member of the Australian government and this is making international headlines. It’s getting farcical. What does this say to the world about Australia?


Simon Birmingham: Look, the world should know that Australia has clear border protection policies in place. That we’ve used them throughout different governments to protect Australians and particularly our government in response to COVID-19 has used the border rules very effectively to provide protection for much of the last two years and that now we’ve been very clear since we started to reopen borders late last year that if you are not an Australian citizen, then there is an expectation that you will be double dose vaccinated to enter the country unless you have a clear and acceptable medical exemption. That policy hasn’t changed, and we will continue to apply that policy rigorously wherever we can at the borders to ensure that those who are not vaccinated and who don’t have an acceptable medical exemption understands that they are not eligible to enter Australia.


Iskhandar Razak: Simon Birmingham, thank you so much for your time.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you, my pleasure.