Acting Minister for Foreign Affairs


Topics: Australian Open COVID issues, Australian repatriations, COVID-19 vaccine, Australian exports



Sally Sara: Well, the Australian Open tennis has been thrown into further disarray, with a number of players forced into strict 14-day quarantine, climbing to more than 70. It follows the arrival in Melbourne of the weekend of a third charter flight carrying the COVID-19 virus. At the same time, more than 1200 international players and support staff are touching down, while close to 40,000 Australians remain stranded overseas. The Federal Government has announced a further 20 special repatriation flights to get some of the stranded Australians home.

Simon Birmingham is the acting Foreign Minister and joins us on Breakfast. Minister, good morning.

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

Sally Sara: Given all the problems that are unfolding, should the Australian Open go ahead?

Simon Birmingham: Well that’s a matter for Victorian Health officials working with, of course, Tennis Australia. They set out comprehensive plans to first and foremost keep Australians safe whilst operating this event; the pre-testing regimes, the post-testing regimes, the quarantine arrangements in place. And so, whether or not the Open goes ahead is something that tennis officials themselves will decide. And clearly, every tennis player, every member of their support teams or official involved in the Australian Open must obey all of the health requirements that are in place, they must stay in quarantine as is necessary. And if that prevents some of them from participating in the Open, then so be it.

Sally Sara: Does the Federal Government have some concerns, though, watching all this unfold?

Simon Birmingham: Look, we think that Victoria has put in place strong arrangements in terms of the health and safety of the Australian public in managing these arrivals. So, we do respect the fact that Victoria have gone through extensive health arrangements, just as course occurred in relation to cricket teams arriving in Australia or others that other state governments have facilitated at different points in time. So clearly, there are some cases that have been identified just as there are cases being identified routinely in medihotels right around the country. Of those coming into Australia, Australia has overwhelmingly, successfully managed those cases and kept them isolated and quarantined in medihotels. And it’s essential that that is the case in relation to these arrivals would be open to.

Sally Sara: Victorian Health authorities say that some of the players have been testing the procedures with some minor breaches so far of those quarantine protocols. Would you- would the Federal Government want those players sent home if they’re not willing to follow the rules?

Simon Birmingham: Well, there should be no tolerance for people in terms of breaching any of the rules in ways that cause threats to public safety or health in terms of the potential spread of COVID. And I would expect that if anybody does engage in that sort of behaviour, there should be consequences for those individuals.

Sally Sara: What’s your message to the players who might be doing that?

Simon Birmingham: The Australian people, the Victorian people in particular, have granted a license for the Australian Open to occur through the decisions of the Victorian Government, and that’s because we’re a country that has put on one of only four grand slam events in the world for a long period of time now. And so, there’s an understandable desire to protect the opportunity to run the event and to hold it. But the players have a responsibility, and to make sure that having come here as guests of Australia to play in this event or with their officials, that they obey every single rule that is in place to keep the Victorian public safe and all Australians safe.

Sally Sara: Is this something of a double standard at the moment, Minister, that we can have 1200 tennis players and their officials come into the country, but there are still around 38,000 Australians who are stranded oversea? Shouldn’t the Australians get first priority?

Simon Birmingham: From the Australian government’s perspective, that is our top priority. We’ve seen since the request to come home was given in March last year, around 446,000 Australians returned so far, and many of those have returned with varying degrees of assistance from the Federal Government. We’ve been conducting more than 90 facilitated return flights. And we’ve been providing financial assistance and support, and of course, working together with states and territories. We’ve seen many tens of thousands pass through medihotels and quarantine facilities around the country, operated by and large by the states and territories, but often with Federal Government support. We’ve currently got around 1600 Australian Defence Force personnel working alongside the states and territories around those quarantine arrangements. And of course, as you announced in the intro, on the weekend I announced a further 20 facilitated flights that our Government will support to help continue that task of bringing Australians home. And we do see more people registering on the register that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade keeps on an ongoing basis. So, it’s not a case that there are always individuals who had been sitting on the list for many months, the list keeps changing as we bring people home, more names keep being added. So this is a constant pressure point.

Sally Sara: Minister, with the extra 20 repatriation flights that have been announced, how many people will that bring home? What are the numbers?

Simon Birmingham: Look, it will bring home thousands of people, the precise numbers will depend exactly on where those [indistinct] come from …

Sally Sara: [Talks over] What’s the ballpark?

Simon Birmingham: Well the ballpark, Sally, it’s- I put it in the thousands. We have some repatriation flights coming home pretty much close to capacity with a couple of hundred people on board slated to come in this week from India, for example. But we have others coming from Santiago, for example, that have much smaller numbers onboard. And of course, what we’re trying to deal with here is vulnerable Australians and getting them home in circumstances where they wouldn’t otherwise have a capacity to do so. So, that’s why I’m not wanting to put a firm figure on it, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with these additional 20 will prioritize where they come from. I would expect most of them(*) be pretty full flights in the order of those couple of hundred people onboard coming from the destinations where we have large numbers of Australians still, such as the UK, Europe or India, but there may be need for some of them to come from destinations with smaller numbers to deal with their vulnerable circumstances.

Sally Sara: Minister, why is it that Tennis Australia’s able to get 17 flights to come in over the weekend, but the Australian Government can only manage 20 over the next two months?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ve been running, as I say, more than 90 already in place. And that’s more than 90 over and above the fact that we do still have commercial operations coming into Australia, they’re carefully managed so that they arrive within the caps that National Cabinet has agreed on how many people can safely be processed and quarantined, and different states and territories take their decisions around those numbers. But even within that cap, the decision we’ve taken is, of course, that with Emirates making its decision over the weekend, we’ll reallocate(*) the Emirates places on their flights to other airlines, including Middle Eastern carriers such as Qatar and Etihad to make sure that there’s no loss of capacity as a result of that.

Sally Sara: Minister, let’s keep moving forward. We’ve had reports over the past couple of days of more than 30 deaths of elderly patients in Norway who received the Pfizer vaccine. How concerned is the Federal Government about that? And have you received information from the Norwegian authorities?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we have acted swiftly in terms of seeking information from Norway, and that information is to be provided rightly to the Therapeutic Goods Administration, the independent regulator here in Australia who we had tasked with going through the normal process of assessing the safety and efficacy of vaccines for rollout in Australia. There were those who had called for us to somehow truncate that TGA process, to run faster or speed it up. But because of the fantastic positive management of COVID right across Australia, we’ve been in a position to be able to let the TGA do its job, and part of that job will be to look at the evidence from Norway. It will also be to look at other evidence around the world [indistinct]…

Sally Sara: [Talks over] Minister, just on the Norway case, are you personally concerned after seeing those reports?

Simon Birmingham: Look, individual reports can always be concerning, but we do have to keep them in perspective as well of letting the experts do the job. The Norwegian cases, I understand, are reportedly about elderly citizens, potentially with comorbidities or other issues in place. Now, that’s why we have an independent expert scientific health regulator able to look at these medicines and make the decisions about whether or not they’re going to be safe, not the politicians, to make the calls on that. At the same time as the Norwegian reports, the Center for Disease Control, based in Atlanta in the United States, reviewed approximately 1.8 million doses of, I understand, the Pfizer vaccine and found very positive results, both in terms of the safety of the vaccine and the efficacy or the effectiveness of it to date. So all of that evidence will be looked at by the TGA, and Australia can just be very thankful that our positive health management of COVID to date means we don’t have to rush these things, and we are able to go through the proper processes.

Sally Sara: Minister, on a separate issue, the Australian Industry Group has said today that it wants better alignment between economic and diplomatic interests when it comes to China. It’s saying that diplomats should get their hands dirty, particularly for Australians who are trying to find alternative markets. Is that kind of perspective one that the Government is looking to follow?

Simon Birmingham: Well, our diplomatic network, our Austrade officials around the globe well and truly has rolled their sleeves up, as they always do in terms of helping to find alternate markets. If you take the barley market, for example, there have been significant new contracts secured in Middle East, in parts of South East Asia, elsewhere. And so, this is an ongoing task for our officials working alongside industry to make sure that Australian goods, if they are no longer wanted or being taxed out of viability because of Chinese regulatory decisions, find new homes elsewhere around the world. And our networking team is doing that, and they’ll continue to work very closely with the industry groups to make sure that so far as possible, we help Aussie exporters to get their premium quality goods into markets as they’ve that done so successfully for so many years.

Sally Sara: Acting Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham, thank you for joining us on Breakfast.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Sally. My pleasure.