Topics:  Vaccine incentives; vaccine rollout; vaccine passport; Parliament sitting; Leader of the House;

07:35 AM AEST



Fran Kelly:  But first, Simon Birmingham is the Finance Minister and he’s in our Parliament House studio. Minister, thank you very much for joining us.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Fran. Thanks as always for the opportunity.


Fran Kelly: Labor wants to give 300 million to everyone who’s double dosed by the first of December. Price tag, six billion dollars. If it gets the nation vaccinated, will that be money well spent for?


Simon Birmingham: Fran, the most important incentive for people to get a vaccine is that it can save their lives. The vaccine can save the lives of their loved ones and those of their fellow Australians. And that’s why Australians are turning out in record numbers already to get vaccinated. With the numbers growing each and every day and more than 12.4 million doses having been administered already, we have confidence that Australians will continue to heed the message around the benefits and importance of vaccination, that they are mature and that they understand the reasons for vaccination. For most Australians, it’s been a part of their entire lives in terms of participating in vaccination programmes, and we believe they’ll do so in this one. As we’ve seen, if you look at the oldest age cohort who’ve been eligible for the vaccine for longest the over 70s, and we’re now at a point where more than 79 per cent of Australians over the age of 70 have voluntarily had at least their first dose of a vaccine. That shows the willingness of Australians to engage in the vaccine rollout and why it is that Labor’s thought bubble here really is something that is, as the evidence from behavioural economists and others, unnecessary, unlikely to work. And frankly, it’s a little bit insulting to the many millions of Australians who are doing this for all of the right reasons.


Fran Kelly: Okay, so it’s not really a thought bubble, though. I mean, if we look on the US and Britain are both giving financial incentives ago, are you saying no incentives are needed to encourage people, that there is no hesitancy out there?


Simon Birmingham: Well, as I said, the number one incentive and the most important incentive for all Australians to understand are the health benefits, that being vaccinated is the best way to save your life, to save the lives of your loved ones and those of your fellow members of the community. And that’s the message we need all Australians to understand very clearly, that whether you’re having AstraZeneca or Pfizer, it reduces your chance of death from COVID-19 by around 90 per cent. And it makes a stark difference in terms of your risks of serious illness or hospitalisation. And they’re the reasons we need Australians to get vaccinated. And we can see from the research and the turnout of Australians they’re the reasons why Australians are turning out to get vaccinated in growing numbers each and every day. And as the supply of vaccines has continued to grow in our country and will continue to grow over the future months, we have confidence that we will see more and more Australians respond in that way.


Fran Kelly: So the government is not looking at so-called freedom incentives or special rules. The government’s not looking at any incentive program at all?


Simon Birmingham: Well, this has been very clear as we look at the research from the Doherty Institute about opening up and trying to hit those 70 and 80 per cent targets of vaccination to shift from the phase of lockdown’s into other phases of protection. There may be places where it’s appropriate for those who are vaccinated to have certain liberties that that those who are not vaccinated, as we are still seeking to manage COVID at that point may not be able to access. Now, we’ll work carefully through those on an evidence based approach, as we have done right through every stage of this pandemic.


Fran Kelly: So this is the special rules the Prime Minister talks about?


Simon Birmingham: Well, those sorts of things are possible, but it will be based on the evidence of what best protects Australians from the spread of COVID. The Doherty research makes clear that being vaccinated does have a reduction factor in terms of the rate of transmission of COVID-19. And so it does mean that you can have a management strategy that potentially does give greater liberties to some of those who are vaccinated whilst expecting those who might not be vaccinated to adhere to certain other restrictions necessary to maintain the suppression of the disease.


Fran Kelly: There’s three million AstraZeneca shots sitting on the shelf. That’s what the Lieutenant General Frewen told us yesterday. From next month, the number of Pfizer doses will start to ramp up. But those- there are people still not getting the shot when they can. So what are you going to do to convince those people? The other missing piece, of course, of the vaccine strategy is a lack of vaccine in other places. Despite those three million doses, we don’t have enough Pfizer for the groups ATAGI advise to get Pfizer outside the Delta hotspots. And, you know, I’ve got to say, listeners have contacted me in droves to say enough with you urging us to get a vaccine. I can’t get one yet. Here’s here’s one from Heather Shearer of Gold Coast. She says, when you discuss government incentives and vaccines, it’s not much point incentivising vaccination if you can’t access it. I’m in that weird 50 to 60 group who did the right thing and got vaccinated with AZ before the ATAGI advice changed, I’m due for my second. Spent hours on the phone. First available is the end of August.


Simon Birmingham: Well, Fran, and you’re right, there are around three million doses of AstraZeneca available across the country at present.


Fran Kelly: What’s the problem then? Why can’t Heather Shearer get hers on the Gold Coast. Somethings going wrong here, isn’t it?


Simon Birmingham: And I think that’s a very fair question. And look, I’d invite Heather to contact her local MP and hopefully they can point to some other distribution points that are available because she should absolutely be able to get in for her second dose, as in when it is necessary. Now she’ll be able to do that at a range of different doctors, clinics that you can get to AstraZeneca from. She should be able to do that, frankly, from state based health clinics. But Queensland hasn’t been quite so encouraging in all aspects in that regard. And I’d urge them to ensure they step up.


Fran Kelly: What about all the young Australians who can’t get Pfizer. This is a government failure isn’t it?


Simon Birmingham:  We’re now at the point where we’re seeing one million doses of Pfizer coming into the country each week-


Fran Kelly: Yeah, but there’s not enough, Minister. I mean, just listen to Brad Hazzard every single day. He’s still saying we don’t have the Pfizer we need. We don’t have it.


Simon Birmingham: And I’d encourage Brad Hazzard to also be encouraging utilisation of that AstraZeneca-


Fran Kelly: Well, he is.


Simon Birmingham: -and encouraging all to do that. But equally, Fran, we will see further Pfizer doses in excess of those million doses a week that are coming in, added to the roll out when we hit the coming months and we’re going to see additional distribution points added as we get that extra supply in and so that people will be able to access more pharmacies, more doctors, as well as those state based clinics as we get that step up in supply of the Pfizer and ultimately the extra Moderna that will come through. And that’s going to provide enough vaccine and enough distribution points for every eligible Australian to be able to go out and get vaccinated during the course of this year. And we urge all to do so. Yes, it does mean that there will be a bit of patience required from time to time in terms of those booking sequences. But that once again just shows the demand is strong from Australians. And that’s where this thought bubble policy of Labor’s today is so misplaced, just seeking to spray cash everywhere rather than recognising that what the government is having to do is focus very much on how we get that extra supply at each and every step available, how we get it effectively distributed across Australia, how we open up those points. And Australians are quite happily voluntarily turning out to be vaccinated and we thank them for it and encourage and continue to do so, particularly as the further stages unfold.


Fran Kelly: All right. Well, you make it sound as if there is no problem here with people getting vaccinated. But if we-.


Simon Birmingham: I’m not saying that, Fran.


Fran Kelly: Well, you are. You’re saying that we’ve seen millions of people turn out in droves and we don’t need incentives. That’s what you’re saying?


Simon Birmingham: Fran, you’ve just put to me the challenges of the fact that there is strong demand, people frustrated in terms of the timing to get an appointment or not being able to get the vaccine of their choice.


Fran Kelly: In some groups and clearly in other groups not. I mean that’s clear.


Simon Birmingham: And so, Fran, if we look at, you know, I think younger Australians are as capable of hitting the 80 per cent mark as older Australians. Those over 70 are now in excess of 79 per cent of them have reached the first dose. Now, I see no reason why younger Australians won’t be as enthusiastic, as committed, as willing to protect themselves, their loved ones in the community as older Australians. And I back younger Australians to do that. And we’re seeing them wanting to do that. And that’s what’s driven as to more than 40 per cent. Around 41 per cent of all eligible Australians have now had at least their first dose. And that keeps growing each and every day.


Fran Kelly: Let’s not pretend that’s a good number. We are way behind where we should be. Is the government considering essentially a vaccine passport so that, you know, there will be a bit of paper or some documentation that allow vaccinated people to get on with personal freedoms and restricting some of those who aren’t like who aren’t vaccinated? Is that in our future?


Simon Birmingham: So certainly we’re making sure the technologies is in place for people to be able to demonstrate that they have been vaccinated. Very important that that people have that ability, particularly potentially when it comes to overseas travel in the future, not just in terms of what rules Australia might put in place, but the rules other countries might put in place as well. And so those technologies are being established. Indeed, I understand that if it’s not live yet, very close to being live in terms of being people able to put in their Apple wallet on their iPhone devices and the like a vaccine certificate already.


Fran Kelly: Parliament’s going to be sitting for four of the next five weeks, but it’ll be reduced to about one third of MPs and Senators due to lockdowns and other restrictions. There is, of course, always a risk, particularly with the Delta variant, that flying people in from most other parts of the country could trigger an outbreak. How concerned are you about that? Government’s legislative agenda is a little underwhelming for the next few weeks, why should we risk bringing Parliament back at this point, or certainly why do we need to bring it back in a physical sense? Could it not all be done by Zoom as the rest of the country is doing all of their work or much of the rest of the country?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Fran, very extensive safeguards and precautions have been taken in relation to the meeting of Parliament. As you’ve identified, it will be a slimmed down parliament in terms of the number of parliamentarians attending dramatically slimmed down, in terms of the number of staff working in Parliament House and indeed, significant numbers will not be here in that regard. Closure of the building to the public, extensive practises in relation to social distancing, all of the types of protections that we were taking last year to be able to effectively do things that we’re taking this year. And it is important that we legislate to make sure that the COVID disaster assistance payments are able to be delivered, as we’ve promised to the public under the terms we’ve promised, and that we have the business support arrangements in place that are necessary. And these are some of the things that that we have first and foremost on our legislative agenda for this meeting of parliament.


Fran Kelly: Just finally, Peter Dutton, the defence minister, is in isolation in Brisbane. Christian Porter will fill in as leader of the House, which was part of his old job before he resigned following rape allegations, which he denies. Why is he back in that role when David Gillespie is the deputy leader of the House?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s customary that the Liberal Party provides the manager of government business, the leader of the House in that role. That’s been the case all along-


Fran Kelly: Yeah, but we’ve got a Deputy Leader of the House, David Gillespie.


Simon Birmingham: So it’s been the case on previous occasions. Back when Christopher Pyne filled that role, others were asked to step up in his absence and this is the same practice-


Fran Kelly: Why not use the deputies? All I’m asking, would seem obvious.


Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s not been the practice in the past. It’s the practice in the coalition that the Liberal Party has filled that role and including having a member of the senior party in the government fill that role when the incumbent is unable to do so.


Fran Kelly: Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for joining us.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Fran. My pleasure.