Topics: Covid disaster payment; Quarantine facilities; Victorian lockdown; Australia at G7;


Laura Jayes:  The Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham, joins me live now from Adelaide. Thanks so much for your time. It looks like you’ve bowed to pressure on two fronts here?


Simon Birmingham: Hello, Laura. Well, it’s good to be with you. In terms of helping hand to Victorians and making sure our assistance is there. This is what we’ve done right throughout the pandemic in relation to making sure that we respond to circumstances. This is the first lockdown running for more than a week’s duration we’ve had since we took the steps out of the nation wide support programs like JobKeeper. And so is an important assistance package for retail workers, hospitality workers, those who might find themselves facing a lockdown stretching beyond one week and who need that bit of financial assistance because their hours have been reduced to zero and they may not be seeing pay in that regard. So we’ve responded there, we’re taking that through National Cabinet so that it then stands as a consistent program available right across the nation for any future occurrences that might happen in a similar way, because that is the uncertainty that we’re dealing with. And it’s uncertainty that we also recognise has a long way ahead of it as well in terms of handling this pandemic and potentially other threats in the future, which is where we’ve been working with Victoria for some weeks now on their proposal for additional facilities. And I’m very pleased that we’ve now been able to sign a memorandum of understanding between the Federal Government and the Victorian Government that enables us to proceed through to hopefully see that facility built.


Laura Jayes: So does this quarantine facility mean that Victoria can take more returning Australians?


Simon Birmingham: Yes, it does Laura. So this was the proposal Victoria put to us some weeks ago now that they wanted to see the facility established, that they wanted the Commonwealth to fund its construction and own the facility, but that they would operate and run the facility and that it would provide additional quarantine places for returning Australians and essential arrivals into Australia. There all the criteria against which we’re working. That’s what the MOU is based upon those principles that we will work with Victoria in terms of building it. We will fund the construction. Commonwealth will own it over the long run. Victoria will operate it and it will provide additional places.


Laura Jayes: Well, does this mean because Victoria has from time to time, stop taking overseas arrivals full stop? Does this mean once this quarantine facility is up and running, it will not be able to do that? It will have to take whatever returning Australians would be able to fill that facility at Avalon.


Simon Birmingham: Clearly, if there are extreme circumstances that occur, then we’d work through those sensibly with the Victorian government in the future. But our expectation is that Victoria honour its word. They made this proposal as a facility that would take additional Australians over and above those through the medi hotel system. And so that’s precisely the type of agreement that we’re entering into with Victoria and we expect that that’s how it will operate into the future.


Laura Jayes: Ok, well, we were told this week that this lockdown in Victoria is because of ‘a beast of a strain’, quote, unquote. Now, there’s two false positives. Is the lockdown the extent of it still justified?


Simon Birmingham: That’s for Victoria and their health authorities to explain when they’re running 50,000 tests per day and the like. There will be occasional false positives, and that’s understandable. But they need to make sure that they reassess in light of new evidence and new information and then explain to the Victorian people clearly if they’re maintaining current settings, why that’s the case, if there’s room for any change, equally why that’s the case. If over coming days, case numbers are such that with these bits of new information and case numbers coming through in coming days enable Victoria to perhaps ease some of the lockdown restrictions earlier to let more people back to work or back to school or to narrow further the reach and scope of the lockdown, then I know that would be very, very welcome. But it has to be informed by the health advice.


Laura Jayes: Should fully vaccinated people be exempt from state border closures?


Simon Birmingham: Well at present the evidence is still unclear as to the extent to which vaccination prevents transmission. We know that vaccination works incredibly well in terms of preventing serious illness, and that is why everybody should heed the advice and get vaccinated as quickly as they’re eligible and as quickly as they can. And it’s wonderful to see that in the past 10 days, more than one million doses have been administered across Australia and we want to see that that public enthusiasm for vaccination continue and continue strongly. In terms of those questions of whether having a vaccine reduces transmission. The international evidence says that it does. But there’s a wide range to the extent that it does. And that’s where it’s understandable that right now, where it may only reduce transmission by 30 or so per cent, according to some studies, that obviously still poses a fairly high risk, particularly when you’re dealing with potentially more highly contagious variants from other parts of the world.


Laura Jayes: Well, business, agriculture, tourism industry leaders today are begging for a clearer road map on international borders. So the first question is what proportion of the population needs to be vaccinated before that can happen? Any kind of overseas travel without these really strict exemptions? Do you have a read on that?


Simon Birmingham: We are still quite some distance from that Laura. And we’ll take those decisions based on the best health advice at the time when we get to having a vaccine program that is fully available to all Australians and where we’ve got widespread take-up. And at that stage, we’ll then have a look at what variants exist around the world, what the evidence is in relation to transmission, what the threats are. I hope that we can have a broad reopening in a relatively orderly way once we get to that to that latter stage of the vaccine rollout. But to hypothesise right now would really be to base it on evidence that hasn’t been fully considered because we do know that it keeps changing in terms of the advice and the information around the world. And we want to rely on the most up to date, the most accurate evidence at the time we make those decisions.


Laura Jayes: Well, the Prime Minister is travelling overseas next week. He’s off to the G7. He’ll be going to Singapore and Europe. Isn’t he demonstrating that overseas travel is necessary and vaccines work?


Simon Birmingham: Well, he’s demonstrating that overseas travel in exceptional circumstances is necessary. And we have enabled exceptional circumstances travel for many Australian businesses as well as many other individuals where they have a very strong case. And in this instance, the Prime Minister having been invited to the G7 has an opportunity for his first dialogue with a number of world leaders in a long period of time to confront some very significant issues, Covid related issues, but also other strategic issues of importance to international security and to the world economy, as well as dealing with topics like climate change. And so I think people would accept that this is an exceptional opportunity for the Prime Minister, Australia doesn’t usually get invited to G7 meetings. And so he’s seizing that, yes, in terms of vaccines, it does show a confidence that exposure to the virus will not necessarily mean that somebody gets sick. Indeed the vaccine dramatically reduces those chances of serious illness. And so that’s the protection that the Prime Minister takes. But he will still have to go through quarantine and those sorts of arrangements, like any other returning Australians.


Laura Jayes: At home, which is nice.


Simon Birmingham: He still has to go through that quarantine, that expectation in terms of the risk that even though he’s been vaccinated, he could still be carrying and therefore transmit the virus.


Laura Jayes: Yeah, I mean, it’s a good point, though, isn’t it? If you are vaccinated, maybe home quarantine is a good idea?


Simon Birmingham: Well, those things, as we get more information, will be able to be considered. Everybody knows that the Prime Minister is under plenty of scrutiny. And of course, his home and such is well secured as well. So people can have confidence he won’t be leaving and spreading.


Laura Jayes: Now, that wouldn’t go down so well, I imagine. Thanks so much, Simon Birmingham. Great to talk to you.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Laura.