Topics:   National accounts; vaccine rollout; Victoria lockdown


Liam Bartlett:  Joining us this morning is the Federal Finance Minister and Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Simon Birmingham. Senator, good morning.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Liam. Great to be with you.


Liam Bartlett: And you, too, I suppose. Very rare to say this to people in your position. Congratulations are in order.


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think it’s congratulations to all Australians. It is ultimately the hard work of Australians. The resilience of Australian businesses is supported by policy settings that has got Australia through Covid-19 to date better than pretty much any other developed country across the world. And these growth figures out today show once again that we are exceeding expectations in our economic recovery, that we are exceeding other countries around the world in terms of the scale of that recovery. And as you said in your introduction, importantly, the GDP figures probably don’t mean a lot to the average Australian going about their lives. But these have also translated into jobs with more Australians in jobs today than before the pandemic. And the fact that we’ve seen that employment recovery is, of course, just so important to the lives of so many Australians and their families.


Liam Bartlett: That’s the thing, isn’t it? Now, look, a very that was a very diplomatic response to that question. I salute you on that. But no doubt you and your mate Josh would be doing high fives in the back room. Come on.


Simon Birmingham: We’re not too we’re certainly not at the high five stage, but we are pleased to see that the plan is working.


Liam Bartlett: All you have to do now is get the vaccine rollout working properly and you’d be absolute champions.


Simon Birmingham: Well, we’re seeing real growth in terms of the vaccine rollout, we’re up to nearly four point four million. Vaccinations that have been administered to date will be more than that when today’s update for yesterday comes out.


Liam Bartlett: But now that when you say four point four million, is that one or more, you’re not you’re not counting that figures, not people who have had both doses fully vaccinated, is it?


Simon Birmingham: That’s doses. But importantly, the first dose is shown to reduce the rate of serious illness by around 80 per cent. So the first dose has huge benefits to individuals. Of course, we want Australians to get both doses. And that’s what the plan is based upon. Most Australians who have been vaccinated to date are those in older cohorts who have had the AstraZeneca vaccine. And there is a 12 week wait between first dose and second dose there. So as of course, there’s a catch up to come for that second dose. But to give a sense as to how much faster the vaccine rollout is happening, the first million doses that were administered around Australia took 47 days. The last million doses to have been administered took 13 days. So you can see that the Australians are getting those vaccines at a much faster rate. That’s consistent with the fact that supply has picked up of the vaccines. As everybody knows, we’ve had around three point six million doses that were expected to come from Europe early in the year. They didn’t turn up. And so we’ve been more reliant on the domestic production that was that took a little longer to scale up than had been expected.


Liam Bartlett: So, yeah, but we can argue the toss on that all day long whether or not, you know, you weren’t prepared enough as an administration or whether you were hard done by the suppliers. I mean, you know, we can go back and forth on that. But when it comes to the actual figure, we’re still woefully low, aren’t we? I mean, what’s the statistic on the number of people in Australia as of now to day who are fully vaccinated?


Simon Birmingham: Look, I don’t have I don’t have to hand the two dose figure, but it would be a relatively small proportion of the of the four point three, six million doses administered overall, because the time gap between having that first dose and the second dose at 12 weeks means that it does take a while to get people through to the second dose stage. Look, we would wish that that the disruptions in terms of not getting the supply or the changed health advice in relation to who can receive AstraZeneca hadn’t occurred, but those disruptions have occurred. Our vaccine rollout is not as fast as we would wish, given those disruptions. It is still faster than Japan or South Korea or New Zealand or Malaysia. Many other countries in particularly our region, have a vaccine rollout slower than us to date. We’ve seen ours speeding up and our determination is to make sure that we keep that going as long as long as we can alongside the health advice and the precautions Australians expect us to take.


Liam Bartlett: Do you think the prime minister regrets saying it’s not a race?


Simon Birmingham: I think if we all had our time again, we would have made sure Australians understood the uncertainties associated with the roll out more. When we announced the timing and the expected delivery of those vaccines, which we were transparently revealing to the Australian public through the end of last year and the early part of this year, as we were making those contracts, when we thought doses would turn up and the fact they didn’t turn up and the fact the health advice changed, changed these things dramatically. And so, of course, we would wish that those circumstances weren’t the case. It’s important. Australians, from what I hear around the community, do want us and have always wanted us to make sure that our health officials thoroughly scrutinise the vaccines properly and independently before we put them on the market and into the arms of Australians. And I’d stand by those decisions made early on to provide that advice from the Therapeutic Goods Administration. And if their advice and analysis that is also informed us in relation to now the health experts advising us to limit AstraZeneca to over 50s. But listeners should be aware we’ve got 195 million doses of vaccination contracted for Australia-.


Liam Barlett: Which one Senator, sorry?


Simon Birmingham: -that includes many more doses of the Pfizer vaccine. The Moderna vaccine coming through, especially in large numbers, those MRNA type vaccines that are in the second half of this year that will allow us to really charge distribution, especially in those under 50s age cohorts.


Liam Bartlett: And what about the over 50s? Will that be opened up once Pfizer and Moderna get here? We spoke to a Singaporean specialist, infectious diseases specialist earlier on. As you know, they’ve only got Pfizer and Moderna so they don’t deal with the AZ. So that’s better for them, I think, in terms of vaccine hesitancy. And you know the problem, Senator, over here, you can’t blame people despite the scientific evidence with the statistics saying it’s tiny, tiny, tiny problem. But a lot of people over 50 saying, look, you know, I want the vaccine, but I want the Pfizer, you know, I want to be able to choose. I don’t want the AstraZeneca. Don’t want to take that chance. And you can understand that happening. I mean, why can’t we do that? Why can’t we give it to them? If they choose?


Simon Birmingham: We will ultimately get to a point where the supply of vaccines across the community is strong enough to handle those sorts of consumer preference type issues. But right now, we have around a million doses a week being made in Australia of the AstraZeneca. And we’ve got clear health advice in terms of the benefits it provides to older Australians. And so I would urge people to follow that health advice. If you have concerns, make the appointment with your GP and sit down and talk it through with them so you get a fully informed perspective in doing so.


Liam Bartlett: But can I just put to you something? We had a caller this morning, a lady called Lesley, who did exactly that. She had been a nurse for 20 odd years, specialised in renal procedures, and she’s had blood clotting issues. So she went to her GP and said, look, I’m worried about this. Her GP said, yeah, I get it. You’re probably better off with a Pfizer, but she’s over 50. So her GP recommended she have an exemption and then gets knocked back. And then we have to say we have more calls like this, Senator. And messages. I mean, Rob sends us a text this morning. Who says, Liam, I’m in exactly the same situation as Lesley. And I also had pneumonia in both lungs, badly scarred, plus blood disease when I was very young, which no one can identify as records have been lost but had clotting, etc.. And my GP just trying been trying to get me the Pfizer, but I can’t have it either way. So I have to either wait, says Rob, or roll the dice. I’m ready now to have Pfizer, but I can’t. I’m 52.


Simon Birmingham: So, Liam, two things there, I mean, those individuals will certainly be able to get Pfizer. Now, there’s the availability pressures at present. We don’t have huge volumes of those vaccines coming through. There are priority cohorts that are that are being supported in terms of the delivery of those vaccines. But if there are health reasons or advice from a GP that somebody is acting on then they’re not going to be prevented from receiving an alternate vaccine on the advice of their medical experts.


Liam Bartlett: Yeah, well, that’s. Senator, you’re speaking common sense there. That’s exactly what I would expect. But, you know, they’re telling us, no, they get knocked back when they get to the medical authorities. I know you can’t control everything, but the medical authorities here in Perth, in Western Australia. Just this sounds ridiculous also. I mean, the Prime Minister had Pfizer, he’s 53.


Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s true, Liam, although in fairness, that was before the advice came out. So at that stage, we made the decision that of the two main vaccines that were intended to be used across Australia, one was Pfizer, one with AstraZeneca. The decision was the Prime Minister would have one of them, the Health Minister would have the other one to demonstrate our confidence in relation to that the Health Minister had his second dose of AstraZeneca just in the last week. So we have and did speak at the outset to provide that example. The PM’s the vaccine he received wasn’t was well before any of these issues came to the fore.


Liam Bartlett: Okay. So is it as simple as this, do you think? We’re just back we back the wrong horse with AstraZeneca. And now, as you say, it’s a timing issue. We just have to wait till we have more Pfizer doses available.


Simon Birmingham: Well, we went down the path of AstraZeneca as one of initially four different vaccine solutions we were pursuing as a country. And now one of those which was being developed by the University of Queensland dropped off during the development stage due to concerns. And so we were left with three different vaccines that we were pursuing at that stage in terms of contracting arrangements, plus some additional through the so-called Kovács facility and so forth across the world that we cooperate in. The focus and potential in relation to AstraZeneca was because we have the capacity in Australia right here, right now to manufacture it. So that enabled us to scale up production and distribution in Australia faster than any other solution. With Pfizer, with Moderna at present, we are reliant on those coming in from overseas. In this year’s budget, we have put aside money and started the process to build that sort of capability. And these are completely new technologies that these so-called MRNA vaccines are based on. They have never been developed and used before in the world. And so our manufacturers in Australia didn’t have that technical capability and still don’t at present to make them. What we’re trying to do is go through the two stages, one of getting one of those big multinational companies in Pfizer or Moderna to agree to transfer the intellectual property to Australia. And secondly, in finding companies here in Australia that can scale up manufacturing and we put money aside in this year’s budget to make that happen. So we have the capability for the future. But right now, we have to focus on getting those from offshore, which is why many listeners probably would have heard me say before when I said, you know, 195 million doses that we’ve contracted. And that’s far more than what we will ultimately need as a nation. But that’s because we’ve put a lot of contingencies in there to make sure we have confidence that we will get what the country needs.


Liam Bartlett: Okay. And Senator, just finally, on the Victorian situation, obviously the timing on getting this rollout happening, we will see other problems. I mean, Victoria’s the biggest problem at the moment. They’re locked down. As you know, they’ve just announced the extension of that seven day lockdown. So that’ll end up being 14 days at least. And they’ve put in a request, probably to your office as finance minister to reactivate JobKeeper for affected Victorians for the first 14 days. Have you seen that request? And what’s your response?


Simon Birmingham: So JobKeeper played a really important role as part of a nationwide response. It isn’t really a programme that can work at a localised level because so many businesses across the country and national businesses with national payrolls and JobKeeper is really built around being able to measure. A downturn on a business and therefore supporting those workers. We’ve put more than 45 billion dollars, billion dollars of economic support into the Victorian economy throughout the pandemic. When other states, including WA, have had localised lockdowns then state governments have been able to provide targeted assistance, usually in much smaller amounts than that huge volume that that we’ve provided across the country. And that 45 billion in Victoria. But other states have applied targeted support in their jurisdiction with that remains the best way for the states and territories to make sure they step up where it’s localised. We still have huge other economic supports flowing through the economy. In the last budget, 41 billion dollars, a further temporary Covid support was announced that will help Victorian businesses, in particular the pandemic leave payments are there to help individuals in Victoria. We have taken steps to waive waiting requirements for access to Centrelink payments where necessary, to waive JobSeeker requirements and the like at present as well, to make sure that Victorians can get the assistance they need through those different Commonwealth measures.


Liam Barlett: So that’s a no.


Simon Birmingham: We’re not we’re not about to restart nationwide programmes like that purely for a local situation. But of course, we’ll continue to work closely with Victoria and make sure that we’re monitoring the situation there. And obviously, these are very difficult times for many Victorians. We’ve seen relatively few additional cases being added of the last few days. So hopefully that is a positive sign given the very high levels of testing happening in Victoria that they will successfully get on top of this and that it will remain a shortish lock down period.


Liam Bartlett: Okay, well, there won’t be happy with, you know, that. And they’ll point to those economic figures today that we started this discussion with and they’ll say, you’re doing all right. Thanks very much. The Victorian state government I’m talking about and they will keep putting their hand out. So come on, you’ve got to reactivate this thing.


Simon Birmingham: Well, those economic growth figures and strength across the country flows through to governments like Victoria. They are receiving significantly more by way of federal payments, including growth in GST receipts that flow through to the states and territories because of the stronger economy across the nation.


Liam Bartlett: Alright, so I hear you’re saying look after your own backyard. That’s a fair summation.


Simon Birmingham: Well, we will continue to rollout national programmes that support businesses. And because of the difficulties in Victoria, they will provide a disproportionate benefit to Victorian businesses. So the tax changes allowing businesses to carry back their losses will have a greater benefit now to Victorian businesses feeling the pressure then they probably will to other businesses around the country. That’s how a good national policy works in terms of responding to those pressures or those demands that may exist in a greater way in different states or territories, but it still applies in a consistent way across the country rather than applying ad hoc solutions on the hop and so those targeted solutions that’s where a local government is better placed to respond than a national government which can provide those comprehensive policy settings that as I say, the eligibility and the utilisation of them will no doubt be greater from Victorians than elsewhere because of this lockdown. That’s what they’re there for.


Liam Bartlett: Senator, I know you’re flat out today, so I really appreciate you spending some time with our listeners. Thanks very much.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Liam. My pleasure.