Topics:   UK FTA; Singapore travel bubble; vaccination rollout; international students


Laura Jayes: Well, there are plans afoot to reintroduce international students to Australia, certainly to New South Wales. First off, and the Treasurer told us last hour that he hopes that will be signed off by the federal government within a number of days. Now, more broadly, there’s not necessarily a plan to open Australian borders. Meanwhile, trade is on the agenda as the Prime Minister attends the G7 summit. And the Minister of Finance, Simon Birmingham, joins us live from Adelaide this morning. Simon Birmingham, looking on from where you are at the moment. You were the first minister as a trade minister to get this deal done with the UK. Are we on the cusp of this being signed this weekend?


Simon Birmingham: We are very, very close to an in principle agreement around the terms of a free trade agreement between Australia and the United Kingdom being settled and full credit to Dan Tehan on the Australian side, Liz Truss on the UK side, in terms of driving this forward. It’s always useful in these sorts of negotiations to have some deadlines there. And the leaders meeting is a strong deadline. But from Australia’s perspective, we’ve always been clear from when I first launched these negotiations that will only do a deal if it’s a good deal, if it’s in Australia’s national interest to do that deal. And that, of course, is what we are driving towards in these closing few days and hours of negotiations around in principle terms of the agreement.


Laura Jayes: Well, British farmers were very worried indeed. Has Australia made any significant concessions there?


Simon Birmingham: Australia always sees agriculture and agricultural market access as being crucial and key to any trade deal that we do. For Australian farmers, they are some of the world’s best in terms of their practises, their environmental stewardship, their care of animals. The type of approaches that Australia brings to the world in terms of leading technologies, productivity and efficiencies in the farming and agricultural sector all mean that we have much to offer. And now in a market like the UK, we would expect it to be one where we would be sending high value Australian agricultural goods, making sure that we are really leveraging the distance involved in that market for the value that can be had from, of course, a significant economy like the UK, a demand for high quality goods. And what we’d be looking for there is have as open a market as is absolutely possible for Australian goods to enter, as free of tariffs and of free of quotas as can be negotiated.


Laura Jayes: The devil will be in the detail and the prime minister is headed to the UK for a G7. But first stop, Singapore. A travel bubble was discussed, but the Prime Minister of Singapore, Simon Birmingham, said that most Australians and Singaporeans will need to be vaccinated. I think he used the word ‘majority’. At the moment, in Australia, it’s two point six per cent. In Singapore, it’s thirty three per cent. So this isn’t going to happen until next year, is it?


Simon Birmingham: Well Laura, look, we’ll see. It’s certainly not a matter of days or weeks for us to reach that point of travel bubble with Singapore. Singapore has around 500 active COVID cases at present. So there are considerations on the Australian side that we will manage carefully. And we’ve got around five and a half million doses of vaccine that have been delivered across Australia now. And we’re seeing that rate continue to grow strongly. And of course, as we now see more Australians receiving their second doses, we will see those full vaccination statistics you mentioned grow quickly, as we’ve seen the first vaccination statistics growing very quickly to that point of us having five and a half million doses administered. Now, the details in terms of a travel arrangement between Australia and Singapore will be worked out over the weeks and potentially months to come in terms of how we do it safely. The Australian-New Zealand travel bubble is working very successfully so far, and our two countries have shown that it is possible for two countries to be essentially world leaders in the management and suppression of COVID-19 whilst opening up freely to one another and ideally we’ll get to a point with Singapore. But it will probably have to be on slightly different terms, noting the greater challenges they’ve faced with COVID and the fact that by the time we get there, we will have had greater vaccine administration in both countries.


Laura Jayes: We’re four months and our double jab. Our full vaccination right here in Australia is two point six per cent. What’s fast about that?


Simon Birmingham: Well Laura, there are a number of doses administered as I said is 5.5 million doses across the Australian population now. And so the double jab rate will climb quite quickly now that those who have had their first dose are increasingly becoming eligible for that second dose. So we’ll see that second dose rate grow quickly. It’s important to remember that the first dose itself is shown in studies to reduce the rate or likelihood of serious illness or impact from COVID-19 by around 80 per cent. The first dose is crucially important and provides a huge level of protection compared to not having the vaccine. And so getting through those first doses is crucial. But so too are the second doses in that rate will now grow just as the weeks elapse, noting that for the majority of vaccines administered in Australia, three point six million doses to date of AstraZeneca, there’s a 12 week gap required between the administration of those doses. But you’ve now seen the health minister a couple of weeks ago have his second dose of AstraZeneca having been one of the first in the country, and that will only grow quickly as we pass through the next few weeks.


Laura Jayes: You say 80 per cent protection with the first dose, which is really good news. So if you’re protected to that level, what does it allow you to do in Australia? Can you avoid a lockdown? Can you still travel between states without the threat of a border closure?


Simon Birmingham: I can tell you what it does, Laura, let’s take, for example, the couple of older Australians who I understand contracted COVID-19 in Victoria in aged care facilities. They had received their vaccination. Now we saw what happened when COVID struck Victoria last year and got into aged care homes without a vaccination. And tragically, there were many deaths. That’s not been the case this time around. So what it does first and foremost is reduce the likelihood of death or serious illness. That’s what a vaccine is intended to do. That’s the most important and fundamental thing. Now, the vaccine is going to help us as a country to maintain freedoms of activity and movement that are already the envy of much of the rest of the world in terms of the fact that we, for a long time in Australia have been able to keep going about our business unlike other countries.


Laura Jayes: Minister, but Victoria has just come out of its fourth lock down. So they would be sitting here this morning wondering about those freedoms that you speak of.


Simon Birmingham: And Laura, you cited Singapore before with a higher vaccine rate and indeed a higher incidence of COVID and they’re having a four week lockdown. So, yes, you know times have been tough for Victorians, but let’s not pretend it’s easy anywhere else in the world. In fact, it’s quite challenging elsewhere in the world where COVID is far more rampant in different parts of the world, where lockdowns have been of much longer duration and intensity and challenge in the rest of the world, where other restrictions continue, far greater intensity than any other Australian state, aside from Victoria has been facing in recent times. And we hope that Victoria, having worked through these tough couple of weeks now, can progressively get back to the same state of openness that other states have. Now, the vaccine rollout is going to be important to provide another layer of protection and therefore another pillar of support for Australia’s economy and society being open in the months and ultimately years to come. But we actually still have pretty remarkable outcomes in this country of health outcomes, of economic outcomes and of freedom of activity compared with so much of the rest of the world.


Laura Jayes: Years you say? Do you think it’ll take years to get back to normal?


Simon Birmingham: No, I think the vaccine is with us for years to come. The fact that we will likely have to have booster shots that we will likely be having booster shots responding to other variants. These are things we have to deal with and the government is already confronting. It’s why out of the 195 million doses of vaccination that we’ve contracted, we are increasingly now leveraging parts of that to have confidence of supply for booster shots. It’s also why in this year’s budget, we made the commitment to pursue establishing the MRNA technology vaccine manufacturing capability in Australia so that we can have confidence that whatever the type of vaccine or booster shots we need in the future will be able to manufacture them here in Australia.


Laura Jayes: Just finally, we spoke to Dominic Perrottet, the treasurer in New South Wales. He’s put forward a plan to get international students back into his state. He wants it to happen within eight weeks, but needs the final tick of approval from the federal government. Will you do that within days? And are there any caveats?


Simon Birmingham: Look, the caveats are obviously all of these things are subject to the health advice, but I’m confident New South Wales has worked through that with their health officials. Just as South Australia, who has a plan in terms of the return of some international students, has also got these ticked off with health officials will be looking through both of those as quickly as we can if the health case stacks up, if the places in terms of quarantine are additional to those for returning Australians and the costs are being met appropriately by students or universities, then then, of course, we will look forward to seeing those plans come to reality. International students are an important part of the Australian economy. They’re particularly important not just for our unis, but for the other benefits they provide, especially in our big cities. And so we are certainly welcome the opportunity to work with the states on pathways to achieve a gradual return.


Laura Jayes: Simon Birmingham, always a pleasure on a Friday. Thanks so much.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much, Laura.