Topics:  Victorian lockdown; vaccine rollout; Budget; quarantine facilities


Scott Emerson: Well, here we go again, COVID is running rampant in Victoria, and, of course, there are concerns that given how many people have been close contact with those with COVID now, that it could, of course, come here to Queensland as well. This is the fourth lockdown that Victoria has faced. I’m joined now by Senator Simon Birmingham, who’s the Federal Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham. Thanks for being on 4BC Drive once again.


Simon Birmingham: Hello, Scott. Good to be with you as always.


Scott Emerson: Now, the Acting Victorian Premier, James Merlino, has called out the federal government. He said in his press conference today that there has been a slow vaccine rollout. So is today’s breakout and the lockdown we’re facing in Victoria the fault of the federal government?


Simon Birmingham: No, Scott, I don’t really think that any of us should be looking for blame at present. COVID is rampant across the world. Australia has done as well as any country on this planet in terms of suppressing the spread of COVID. But localised outbreaks were always going to be something that we would continue to have to respond to. In the budget handed down just over a couple of weeks ago, we had assumed that there would continue to be localised outbreaks. It’s why we had a further $40 billion worth of support for the COVID health and economic response in there. In terms of the vaccine rollout, your listeners are all aware that the health advice changed partway through in relation to AstraZeneca in its application. Of course, we would wish that that health advice had not changed and that we were able to go full steam ahead. But it did change and that necessitated adjustments to the way in which the rollout is taking place to maintain the confidence of Australians and to maximise the safety to Australians. And I trust that Victoria and Australia will respond to this latest outbreak with the same resolve and the same use of the different strategies that have worked so well for us right throughout the pandemic. You know, Australia has deployed multiple strategies that start firstly with having closed international borders that then relate to having mandatory quarantine for those who are allowed into the country, that then relate to having extensive testing systems in place and then having extensive contact tracing systems in place, having isolating requirements in place and where necessary, pursuing these sorts of targeted lockdowns. And I guess right across Australia now is a very big reminder to people, maintain the basics of hand hygiene and if you have any doubt at all, go and get yourself tested and make sure that we are as vigilant as ever so that we hopefully can prevent any other outbreaks from occurring around the country.


Scott Emerson: But, Minister, wouldn’t you have to admit that if the vaccine rollout happened faster here in Australia, putting aside what’s happening in other countries, if it had happened faster here in Australia, we may not be having this breakout now in Victoria.


Simon Birmingham: Scott, if we had if we had deployed the UK’s approach and brought vaccines through emergency approvals procedures rather than what we did, which was to say that we wanted to use the procedures of the Therapeutic Goods Administration to ensure the safety for Australians. And that we are following the advice in relation to that safety. And that advice has changed. It’s changed elsewhere around the world. In some cases, it’s changed after more distribution of those vaccines. In our case, it changed relatively early in relation to the rollout stages. We have in total 195 million doses of vaccine contracted for Australia. Some of that is starting to now build stocks for booster doses to go into next year and beyond. But the vast majority, about 180 million of those doses is procured to ensure we have a choice of vaccines for Australians, a range of vaccines and the availability of those vaccines through this year. But certainly the expectation we had around AstraZeneca not able to be fully met. And I think from the conversations I have across the community, many people, many of your listeners understand that I would urge all of those who are currently eligible for a vaccine to go and get vaccinated. The health advice remains very clear in terms of the overwhelming benefits, particularly to those over 50 of taking the vaccine that is available.


Scott Emerson: I think one of the big issues is definitely this vaccine hesitancy we are seeing at the moment. Can you explain to me, Minister, why Victoria seems to have this problem at the moment? This is the fourth lockdown in Victoria. What are they doing wrong that other states don’t seem to be doing?


Simon Birmingham: In this case. As is as is well documented, the original case, the source case appears to be somebody who had contracted COVID and then come across the border into Victoria from South Australia. Victoria, I have no doubt their systems in relation, particularly to contact tracing at present, are working overtime to get on top of it. I understand there are more than 10,000 primary and secondary contacts that are being worked through by Victoria’s contact tracers. As always, we pulled together a national effort in these circumstances. So where Victoria would need it, contact tracers would be available from other states and territories to help them get through that work effort. Just indeed, as we have made clear that there are further Defence Force personnel available to assist if need be, in addition to those that we already have on the ground in Victoria as part of the ongoing Operation COVID Assist the defence forces are undertaking.


Scott Emerson: In terms of the budget. You mentioned a bit earlier that it had forecast short lockdown’s not widespread lockdowns. But given what we’re seeing here in Victoria, this is a seven day lockdown now, but no certainty that after that seven days, that lockdown won’t be extended. If it is extended and it starts to spread across the other states. Does that put your budget forecasts into doubt?


Simon Birmingham: We’re dealing in a global pandemic environment. And so there are many uncertainties that that we deal with in terms of the way in which we have to respond. We’ve acknowledged that all along. That’s why we continue to run in the budget an elevated contingency reserve to enable us to be able to respond to some extent to uncertain or unforeseen occurrences. And it’s why we took the cautious approach of assuming there would be these sorts of localised outbreaks. Look, we shouldn’t start to get ahead of ourselves in terms of assuming it will be extended. It could, as the acting premier said to the Prime Minister during their conversations, be shortened as well if they find the situation is improving. So we will, of course, continue to respond to the circumstances presented. And by doing that, following the health advice, following the economic advice and being responsive. Right throughout this pandemic, we’ve managed to keep Australians far safer than across pretty much anywhere else in the world, say perhaps New Zealand. And we’ve managed to save Australian business and jobs in in far greater numbers than pretty much anywhere else in the world, and to recover those jobs far faster than any other developed economy.


Scott Emerson: And just finally, Minister, there’s obviously been renewed calls from the Queensland government now to fast track a regional quarantine facility here in Queensland. Are we’re going to see further progress on that?


Simon Birmingham: Well, look, we are continuing to work with Victoria in relation to their proposal. Theirs’s is quite a detailed proposal that they’ve provided. My understanding is that Commonwealth government officials had asked Queensland for further information about their proposal and are awaiting some of that further information. Victoria has put a proposal forward that would create additional places in quarantine. It’s not about removing hotel quarantine, but it is about creating additional places and potentially long term facilities being available. Their proposal is also one where they’ve made clear that they would operate it. But I think we should also be honest. There’s no system short of admitting nobody into the country that can provide 100 per cent guarantees. And so everybody has worked throughout the pandemic to do the best they possibly can to make sure that systems are strengthened. But that’s why we require different rings of containment, if you like, closed borders for those returning Australians who have who have the right to enter the country, the quarantine procedures in place strengthening that quarantine, as has been done multiple times with new standards and approaches. But then, of course, the testing regimes, the tracing regimes, the isolating regimes, they all have to work together to provide the different layers of protection and support.


Scott Emerson: Simon Birmingham, again, thanks for joining us on 4BC Drive.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Scott. My pleasure.