SENATOR THE HON SIMON BIRMINGHAM
Acting Minister for Foreign Affairs
Topics: Increase in scheduled repatriation flights; COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much for coming along today. The COVID-19 situation worldwide continues to be enormously challenging. Just in the last 24 hours, there have been more than 730,000 new cases recorded around the world. But here in Australia, we can be proud of our success with just one additional case being reported in that time. We, of course, know that much of the world is grappling with new strains and variants of COVID-19 as well and the challenges that that poses in terms of the public health management and how it impacts on different countries. Australia’s success has been a testament to our willingness to use the advice of public health officials at every step of the way and to the cooperation of the Australian people. The very first steps taken almost exactly 12 months ago to start closing Australia’s borders, to put in place restrictions to keep Australians safe, have worked and have been a triumph for Australia relative to so much of the rest of the world. Of course, there’ve been tragedies along the way, and each and every one of those lives lost in Australia is a tragedy as they are right around the globe. But Australians are enjoying relative freedoms, relative openness and, of course, health successes that are the envy of much of the rest of the world. Throughout this course, we’ve been very mindful of the fact that many Australians overseas have sought to come home partly as a result of our COVID success, partly, of course, just through the normal operations of people coming or going from the country. The closure of borders that’s been so essential to keep Australians safe has made it more challenging for people to be able to get home.
But I’m very pleased to say that since March of last year, when the advice to come home was issued, 446,000 Australians have made that journey. That’s 446,000 Australians who have been able to come home and do so in ways that, by and large, have been safe and, by and large, have still prevented the spread of COVID in Australia. Our Government is pleased today to announce that we are scheduling a further 20 facilitated flights to help bring more Australians home. This is in addition to 90 facilitated flights the Government has operated already through the course of helping to bring Australians home. These flights will fly from priority areas around the world, making sure that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, off of their intelligence and knowledge of where Australians most need assistance, target those flights. Indeed, we just saw in the last 24 hours a flight land from London in Australia, one of those facilitated flights we have been supporting. And we’re going to keep them going now over the next couple of months to make sure we continue to help Australians to get back home. Of crucial importance, these facilitated flights will bring Australians home over and above the caps that have been agreed by National Cabinet. So it will create additional places for Australians to get home over and above those caps by transporting people into Howard Springs in the Northern Territory, Canberra, or Tasmania, locations that are willing to work above those caps on case by case bases. Work(*) closely [inaudible] authorities those jurisdictions to make sure that it is all done with the strictest procedures and protocols to keep people safe here in Australia while safely returning Australians to Australia. They are our overarching priorities, first and foremost, to keep Australia safe and open, but secondly, to bring Australians home safely as we can.
Question: What explanations has Emirates given the Government about its decision to suspend those flights indefinitely to Australia?
Simon Birmingham: These are commercial decisions taken by commercial airlines. There are still pathways into Australia through other commercial carriers such as Qatar and Singapore Airlines. The capacity that Emirates had within the cap to bring Australians home will now be reallocated to those other airlines. So there’s no loss of capacity into Australia. We want to see the cap utilised across the states and territories, and our additional flights are going to create additional places over and above that cap.
Question: So that’s all of the Emirates [indistinct] flights capacity would be distributed? All of it?
Simon Birmingham: So, the capacity that Emirates was able to use within the cap will be allocated to other airlines, ensuring that there are still as many tickets, as many seats available into Australia after Emirates’ decision as there would have been beforehand. We do have to appreciate the airlines, of course, operating within the cap are essentially being told they have to keep some of the seats on their planes empty. So I can understand the commercial decisions there, but there are other carriers operating out of Europe or elsewhere who will be able to bring Australians home using the seats that Emirates would have been able to fill previously.
Question: Have you spoken to those airlines to ensure that they don’t make a decision like what Emirates has?
Simon Birmingham: We’ll be making sure that it is clear to the airlines that those places that Emirates would have been using will now be allocated to the other carriers. And that will enable those other carriers to operate slightly more commercially viable services by filling a few more seats on their planes.
Question: You’ve spoken about repatriation flights. Do you think it’s appropriate that we’re seeing so many international tennis stars flying in to Australia, to Melbourne and Adelaide, when cities like Adelaide have suspended their programme to bring Australians home when there are so many stranded overseas?
Simon Birmingham: Well, the governments in Victoria and South Australia have put in place arrangements, approved arrangements, with tennis authorities that see those tennis authorities paying for additional places into Australia, funding those additional places and those additional quarantine arrangements. It’s crucial that the strictest COVID safeguards and protocols are adhered to by all of those tennis authorities as they administer these programmes.
Question: Do you think- you understand people’s frustration, though? If you were a stranded Australian overseas, you’d be quite frustrated to see that these tennis stars are arriving in Australia when they’re stuck overseas and can’t get a flight home?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I understand indeed. Frustrations for many people in what is a deeply challenging environment. Our priority throughout the whole pandemic has first and foremost been to keep Australians safe and secure and then, as and where possible, to make sure that we are bringing Australians home as they wish to, as best we possibly can in these very difficult circumstances. That’s why we have worked closely with the states and territories to support their quarantine operations. We’ve got more than 1600 Australian Defence Force personnel working alongside the states and territories in support of quarantine. We’re putting on now additional repatriation flights in addition to those that were already flying to make sure that we keep the flow available for those Australians coming home. We should note that, of course, there continue to be additional people who register to come home who‘ve not previously registered to do so. They’re Australians. We understand their desire to do so. We’re facilitating that. But some of the ongoing increase, if you like, in demand is from people who, months ago, were not necessarily intending or seeking to do so.
Question: Just about [indistinct] vaccine, the reports from sporting bodies like Cricket Australia(*) and proposals from industry groups for tourism and manufacturing to be prioritised in the second phase of the vaccine rollout. Is this something that’s being considered by the Government?
Simon Birmingham: We’ve been very clear that the vaccine rollout will follow health advice, and the health advice that we are backing is that Phase One targets vulnerable Australians and priority workers, such as those working in our quarantine hotels and facilities. It’s not for sportspeople, first and foremost. It is absolutely a vaccine for vulnerable Australians, priority workers, first and foremost.
Question: That’s the first phase, though, but will the second phase consider sporting bodies and those kind of things? And other industry groups like the tourism sector, which have been pretty hard hit by the pandemic?
Simon Birmingham: So, after we get through supporting priority workers and vulnerable Australians, we’ll work with the health officials to consider who comes next in terms of the vaccine rollout, making sure that, again, we are mindful of the best way to keep Australians safe. That’s the priority, keeping Australians safe while keeping our economy as open and strong as possible. And we’ll be getting the health advice on how to do that. But we start first and foremost with priority workers in our quarantine hotels, in our aged care facilities, with vulnerable Australians, not with sports people.
Question: You mentioned just then the priorities, the health advice, but also the economic side of it as well. Given the economic boost that these industries can give to the country, is that something that’s being considered?
Simon Birmingham: It’s the health advice that guides us first and foremost through the vaccine rollout, because it has worked so effectively through the management of the pandemic to date. And so when we come to consider the second and subsequent stages of vaccine rollout, we’ll continue to be guided by that health advice. Of course, those working in sectors that face greater exposure to more people may well be a priority when it comes to the vaccine rollout. And obviously that will be considered as we get into those second and subsequent stages. But we’ve been very clear; phase one is priority workers in our quarantine hotels, in our aged care facilities, in our hospitals and, of course, vulnerable Australians. They’re the ones who come first.
Question: There are obviously a lot of industries that are keen to be included in that second phase rollout, as we can all understand. When are we going to hear a more detailed plan about that second phase and the third phase of the rollout of the vaccine?
Simon Birmingham: We continue to work through all of those issues. Working alongside the health advice, the schedule for the vaccine rollout remains on target, as advised by the Prime Minister and the Health Minister in recent times. And we’ll continue to make sure that we update Australians as decisions are taken about the subsequent stages. Australians should have confidence that Australia has many multiples of our population in terms of the vaccine that is available to us. We’ve ordered and contracted vaccines far in excess of what Australians ourselves would necessarily need to make sure that we can get the vaccine distributed effectively, safely across Australia and also meet our obligations to our Pacific island friends and family and others in the region.
Question: There’s no date for a second phase rollout? You can’t give any sort of timeline about when we’ll have more details about the second phase?
Simon Birmingham: We’ve outlined the ambitions in terms of the number of vaccines that we expect to be rolled out by the end of March, and we’ll update during that process in terms of then other cohorts who will expect to be vaccinated and can expect to have access to the vaccine. It’s important that we take this, as we have every step of the way, in careful steps, taking the health advice on board. That we don’t rush processes, but that we get them right.
Question: [Indistinct]… Australians overseas still, Labor says the solution is a national-run Commonwealth quarantine programme. Will you consider taking over the quarantine or setting up additional Commonwealth facilities?
Simon Birmingham: These are just cheap lines from the Labor Party. They don’t actually ever propose where those facilities should exist, and they don’t seem to propose where the magical workforce to sustain those facilities would come from. The truth is that we’re working with health officials, Commonwealth health officials, state health officials, to bring Australians back as effectively as we can. That’s why the state quarantine run facilities have been supplemented by Commonwealth staff, particularly by Defence Force personnel. More than 1600 Australian Defence Force personnel working with the states and territories, helping them with those quarantine programmes. It’s a joint initiative. Anything less than a joint initiative would be failing those Australians and would actually undermine the process and success.
Question: So you’re completely ruling out a nationally run quarantine program?
Simon Birmingham: We’re stepping up in terms of putting on more Federal(*) Government facilitated flights. We’ve worked with the Northern Territory Government to create more places in environments like the Howard Springs facility there. But if we want to get Australians home safely, we need, of course, to be utilising, as the states and territories are, empty hotels in Australia that are proximate to health facilities, proximate to security services, enable us to be able to bring Australians home and actually have them cared for, supported, monitored, safe, and secure. They’re the types of priorities that the health advice has outlined all along. And that’s why we’ve done it with the states and territories successfully bringing 446,000 Australians home since March and continue to work on bringing more home.
Question: Just on a separate topic, the AFP’s High Risk Terrorist Offender team have arrested a 25-year-old Sydney man today for allegedly breaching a control order. What’s your response to that arrest?
Simon Birmingham: Well, obviously, we don’t comment specifically on police operational matters, but we have continuously sought to invest in all aspects of Australia’s national security, including ensuring that we remain safe from terrorism and other threats to the lives and safety of Australians. Just because we’re dealing with a global health crisis, doesn’t mean that we take our eye off the ball in relation to those other threats that are ongoing for Australians and others around the world. Thanks, guys.