Topics:   NSW financial support; economic impact; Queensland CHO; vaccine rollout; rapid testing kits;

09:20 AM AEST


Laura Jayes: Well, this week, the federal government unveiled a new road map pledging billions more in assistance for locked down businesses and cash strapped workers. $750 million alone from the federal government will be sent to New South Wales, a further 250 million is being contributed from the state government because the reality of the lockdown is it’s going to go for at least another four weeks. Joining me live now is the Minister for Finance, Simon Birmingham. Thanks so much for your time. This lockdown in Sydney hasn’t proven to work so far. Now we’ll have ADF personnel on the streets. What next?


Simon Birmingham: Laura, we hope that this does help New South Wales to ensure the lockdown is a success. We need it to be a success for the people in Sydney and across New South Wales to suppress the spread of COVID, to get us back to a position where we beat the Delta strain as we’ve beaten across this country all other outbreaks to date. We need to make sure it’s a success as well for the people right across Australia because there is now significant assistance being provided for New South Wales. The lockdown in New South Wales has an impact, of course, on the economy more broadly. And so these additional resources which we’ve been offering to the New South Wales government in which we are pleased that they have accepted, will hopefully provide additional capability for them to ensure that everyone is living by the rules. I know that the vast majority of people right across Sydney are doing the right thing and we’re incredibly grateful to them for that. We do all appreciate the sacrifices that are being made by so many. The financial assistance is there to help people get through it, to help businesses get through it. And now the extra resources are there to help New South Wales make sure that it does actually work.


Laura Jayes: The Grattan Institute has said today in its own modelling that if we get up to 80 per cent or 80 per cent of Australians fully vaccinated, we’re looking at 10,000 infections a day, but a minimal number of deaths. Do you expect the Doherty Institute to come up with anything dramatically different?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the Doherty Institute modelling is going to be taken through its first pass, if you like, to the national cabinet this afternoon, it’s going to be an important opportunity for state and territory leaders to understand the type of work that’s being done aside from nations like Singapore. This is pretty unusual around the world for a country to be able to take the very careful approach of getting thorough epidemiological studies done to look at how we can reopen as safely as possible, to build upon the fact that as a country, we have, despite the difficulties in Sydney right now, minimised the loss of life, minimised the damage to our economy as well compared with so many other places. And we want to make sure we maintain that. Now, of course, the vaccine rates that can be achieved are looking in those sorts of parameters, if you like. It’s not a case that there is one singular moment that you go from all restrictions to no restrictions. The Doherty work is taking a very detailed look at how you step out of some of the restrictions we’ve faced as we managed to achieve some of those vaccine targets. And today we would expect to see that we get to the point where 12 million doses have been applied across Australia, showing, again, just the growth that we’ve had in that vaccine rollout.


Laura Jayes: How do you weigh up this modelling with the cost to the economy, the cost to people’s mental health, and this going for a number of years?


Simon Birmingham: So indeed, there are and is work that the Treasury has done alongside Doherty to look at the economic parameters. We know though, that if you have huge outbreaks, as we’ve seen elsewhere around the world, that you still get massive economic costs, even if there aren’t restrictions in place because people change their behaviour. We know that those huge outbreaks come with big mental health costs as people confront loss of life, serious sickness, and they still face the economic impacts because of those behavioural changes that people make. And they’re the types of things that the economic modelling has looked at and quite rightly looked at where you get to a point that people have confidence that they can engage in the community without restrictions in place and still overwhelmingly be safe and be able to do so in a way that gives you the best of all worlds, which is what in the main, through the last 18 months, Australia has enjoyed relative to the rest of the world and what we want to make sure we have going into the future, too.


Laura Jayes: Is there something wrong with the guidelines when Pfizer is going to waste? It’s thrown in the bin because when you open a vial, it needs to be used within six hours. Whose responsibility is that?


Simon Birmingham: It’s the responsibility and each and every point to maximise the number of doses that can be administered out of a vial. This is a unique occurrence in the sense that Pfizer is being produced in ways to enable more doses to get out there than would ordinarily be the case. Generally speaking, pharmaceutical companies would produce dose specific vials, they’re doing it in large quantities to get more out there. At the point of administration, I know health workers are going to enormous lengths to make sure that they do try to get each and every last dose into people’s arms, out of each of those vials. And of course, they do need to continue to work to make sure they minimise any instances of wastage there. But we also have to follow the guidelines about how long a product is safe for, once it’s come out of the freezer, once it’s been put to the appropriate temperature, once it’s been opened and so it really then does become a practical matter on the ground.


Laura Jayes: And overnight, the creator of AstraZeneca says that the mixed message about the vaccine here in Australia could be costing lives. Whose responsibility is that?


Simon Birmingham: It’s definitely been disappointing to have the different changes in ATAGI advice along the way. We understand that they’ve tried to follow evidence as best they can. I’ve seen some criticism in the UK of similar types of decisions and commentary made across Europe as well and what that had as an impact not only in Europe, but frankly, elsewhere in the world too. What I would urge all Australians to do, though, is to turn out and you get vaccinated. To be informed about the advice, of course. But that advice there is encouraging every single Australian to get vaccinated when they can and of course, to be accessing the vaccines that are available to them, particularly in places such as Sydney, where we’re scaling up distribution points and the outlets that are available to people to make sure they’ve got the maximum number of places they can to get an AstraZeneca vaccine or where possible a Pfizer vaccine of which we continue to see that increased supply coming into the country.


Laura Jayes: What do you say to Queenslanders? Should they listen to the Queensland CHO?


Simon Birmingham: Look, I was critical of some of what I thought were the extremist comments made a little while back by Queensland’s chief health officer. I think it is important that our health officers always adopt a [indistinct], measured, responsible tone. Point to the-


Laura Jayes: Well she hasn’t paired them back. She’s doubled down, Minister Birmingham.


Simon Birmingham: -facts of the advice. And look, I think that is quite disappointing. You do see clear advice there in the senses as ATAGI is encouraging people to look at the option of AstraZeneca as well, to understand the risks, certainly, and to talk to their doctors or health professionals about them. But in the end, we can see in the Sydney situation that it is far better for individuals if they’ve got the access to a vaccine to get vaccinated. And that’s why we’re going to continue to try to scale that up right across the country. And I would urge each and every state, particularly those that might be lagging a little bit behind the national average, to do all they can to lift their numbers. And that includes making sure the messaging from their health professionals to their public is encouraging rather than threatening.


Laura Jayes: Ok, well, let me get to two last questions. This week, we saw a well-connected trade journal detail how the VACC, the department sat on its hands when it came to the vaccine buying and the approach it took. And it saw our allocation of vaccines given to other countries because we took a wait and see approach. Whose responsibility is that?


Simon Birmingham:  I don’t accept except those sorts of findings. Australia contracted some 195 million doses of vaccine. We’ve now contracted more going into the forward couple of years as well. We spread across a number of different vaccine choices. Yes, because we could make AstraZeneca in Australia. We made that a priority and we knew that we were going to be able to secure those doses earlier than any others around the rest of the world. But if you look at other countries who have had comparable success in suppressing COVID throughout, such as New Zealand, who’s behind us in the vaccine rollout, such as Japan or Taiwan or Korea, who are either behind or only a little bit ahead. We’re all in a very similar situation where we weren’t prioritised necessarily from a public health perspective because the outbreaks were more serious elsewhere around the world. And we’ve all had to work through getting the vaccine rollout now, scaling up as and when we can and that’s precisely what we’re doing in Australia. Now, we’re at a point where we are approaching I think around 78 per cent of over 70s.


Laura Jayes: Well just on that, sorry to interrupt you. Sure, but there are- but that’s not the case actually in New South Wales, the chief health officer here is really concerned about hesitancy or the lack of vaccination for those over 70s. But look, I take your point about AstraZeneca. CSL were meant to be producing one million doses each and every week since May. We should have millions of AstraZeneca vaccines. Where are they?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we do have ample supply now of AstraZeneca vaccines, and that’s why we’re encouraging people where they can through these additional hubs that are being taken to actually go out and use those AZ doses. Obviously, we need everybody who is had an AZ first choice to follow through and come back and get that second dose and need to be clear. The health advice has never changed in relation to people getting a second dose there. It’s always been consistent that if you had no adverse reactions from your first dose of AZ, you should definitely go back and get your second dose. But we’re also making sure there’s increased availability in more distribution points for AZ, but also those increased numbers now of around a million doses a week of Pfizer coming into the country, enabling us to scale up at all points.


Laura Jayes: So did CSL produce a million a week?


Simon Birmingham: I know that in some ways they’ve come close to that, I’m not sure what their current production levels are off the top of my head, as is known, we’ve been also deploying some of those doses produced by CSL to support our Pacific Island partners, making sure that they don’t go to waste and that we are using that production capacity to get doses in Australia, but also to support vulnerable partners in our region too.


Laura Jayes: All right. One final, final question. Ellume is a Brisbane based company. You would have heard of them. It’s invented and manufactured rapid COVID tests right here in Australia. It is sending millions to the United States. It wants to supply them to Australians so they can test at home, which would probably really help here in Sydney at the moment. But they can’t be used here because there’s legislation standing in the way. Will you get out of the way, Minister Birmingham?


Simon Birmingham: My understanding is that something like 18 different rapid antigen tests have been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration for use in Australia. As a government, we’ve used them in aged care settings. We’re using them in relation to people who were returning from India as pre-flight testing capabilities. I know the New South Wales government is looking at using them in a range of different settings as well. And I’d encourage this company to actually make application to the TGA-


Laura Jayes: Yes, they have on that front. But this is really different. This is about people using these tests at home. So workers, if you work in the construction industry, you can get these tests, you can use them at home, and then you can safely go to work. And they have a 97 per cent strike rate.


Simon Birmingham: The work that we’re seeing in New South Wales to look at where we can potentially use these tests in a coordinated way that gives people confidence, they’re being used appropriately, that they do provide an enhancement to the PCR testing regime we have across Australia is the right thing to do. Certainly of course, we’ll continue to look very carefully at how these sorts of tests can be used effectively. And we’re seeing that as New South Wales looks at it, whether it’s in relation to schools or potentially other workplace settings.


Laura Jayes: Minister Birmingham, always a pleasure. Thanks so much.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Laura. My pleasure.