Topic(s): Victorian lockdown; financial support; vaccine rollout; quarantine facilities

Gabriella Power: Welcome back to AM Agenda. Victoria’s down is expected to cost the economy one billion dollars. Thousands of people will be out of work for the next seven days and this time there’s no JobKeeper. Joining us live is Finance Minister Simon Birmingham. Minister, thanks for joining us. Was looking down the state of Victoria the right thing to do?


Simon Birmingham: Hello Gabriella, good to be with you. Look, we respect and support the decisions made by the Victorian government to take swift action to make sure that this outbreak remains under control, we had always assumed in relation to framing the budget coming into this year that there would continue to be localised outbreaks of some sort. That is the type of risk that we are dealing with in terms of a global pandemic, of a highly infectious virus such as COVID-19. Taking these steps is something we understand. I’m pleased to hear that, that in terms of yesterday, there were some 47,000 tests conducted across Victoria, identifying only four new cases. I urge and encourage people to continue to get tested in such numbers. Thank them for doing so. This is how we’ve proven before that the different strategies of containment work to make sure that we have extensive testing. You have in place the contact tracing, you get the isolation underway. That’s why keeping all of those systems is just as important as our closed international borders too.


Gabriella Power: Ok, will the federal government be providing financial support to those who won’t get paid this week?


Simon Birmingham: In the budget we handed down just a couple of weeks ago, there was a further $40 billion worth of temporary COVID-19 related measures, the majority of them economic supports that flow through to Australian businesses will, of course, monitor the situation very closely, particularly should it become extended beyond what’s there. There’s a chance it might end up being shorter than what’s there as well. We just have to watch and see in that regard. But there are very significant economic supports still available for Australian businesses in terms of the extended loss carryback provisions we put in place, the highly discounted small business loans that are available, the targeted support in areas of tourism, of aviation, of entertainment sectors. So but as always through this pandemic. We’ve reacted to changed circumstances and we will monitor these ones closely.


Gabriella Power: So I suppose the big difference for workers and casual workers this time around is there’s no JobKeeper will you guarantee they will receive something like that?


Simon Birmingham: Look I would urge businesses to be very mindful of that, recognising the scale of support that remains available to Australian businesses through the various measures that continue to be in place. Now this is a short lockdown period. And we’ve seen short lockdown periods around the country before. And we hope that this remains short, possibly even shorter than is forecast. As I said, we will monitor the circumstances.


Gabriella Power: Ok, Anthony Albanese says that this lockdown could have been avoided if the vaccine rollout was up to scratch. He’s essentially blamed your government. Does he have a point?


Simon Birmingham: No, he doesn’t. I mean, you’ve got a situation in Singapore, for example, at present who are in something like a four week lockdown period. Their vaccine rollout is a little bit ahead of ours. Ours is ahead of countries like Japan, South Korea or New Zealand. Ultimately, I think Australians do understand that the health advice in relation to the vaccines, particularly in relation to AstraZeneca, changed dramatically. We had more than three and a half million doses expected to come to Australia. That didn’t turn up as expected and forecast. These have been real impacts that we have to deal with. It’s a global crisis, the pandemic. What we do have, though, is a hundred and ninety five million doses that are contracted and high confidence that during the latter part of this year, Australians will not only have an abundant supply of vaccine, but also choices in relation to those vaccines flowing into the country that enables us to have a rollout available to all Australians. But there’s still uncertainties that that we deal with. That’s why we’ve contracted across multiple vaccine sources to provide those different pillars of support for the future.


Gabriella Power: What about dedicated quarantine facilities? Could we be doing better when it comes to our quarantine program?


Simon Birmingham: We are working with Victoria in relation to their proposal, but their proposal was for an additional quarantine facility. The use of hotels as dedicated, secure quarantine facilities has been important, has by and large been successful in more than 99 per cent of cases, and, of course, has been part of the continued plans by the states and territories as well. Nothing can provide 100 per cent certainty in relation to keeping COVID out of the country unless we were to stop all transfers of people and goods and everything else in and out of Australia. Now, that’s not feasible. And what we have tried to do is take a cautious risk management approach. The closed international borders are important, continuing to learn every possible lesson you can in relation to the operation of those quarantine facilities. To make them as secure as possible is important. But so, too, is maintaining those extensive testing regimes, the extensive contact tracing that has to underpin it, the isolation requirements where necessary, and using targeted localised lockdowns, where required.


Gabriella Power: Just finally, Minister, this is Melbourne’s fourth lockdown. What do you say to Victorians today that have every chance of getting thrown into another one down the track?


Simon Birmingham: To stay strong, to continue to recognise that as tough as it has been in Melbourne and for Victorians, that across the rest of the world and we’ve seen so much loss of life, so much disaster, so much economic destruction as well. And so we know that it’s tough and we are across the rest of the country incredibly grateful to Victorians for the fact that they are showing such strength in going through these difficult times. But by doing so, you’re giving yourselves and the rest of Australia the best chance to continue to enjoy the rates of success in being safe, keeping people safe in their lives, keeping people safe in their businesses and their jobs relative to the rest of the world. And we still have by far and away outperformed almost any other country. And I’m sure we will get through this one and maintain that reputation worldwide.


Gabriella Power: Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for your time.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Gabriella.