Topics: Vaccine rollout; vaccine supply; Lockdowns; International border arrangements; rapid antigen testing kits;
Laura Jayes: Thanks so much for your time. Now, the Prime Minister says that 222,000 jabs in arms in one day is something that we should celebrate. But isn’t the bar just so dismally low here?
Simon Birmingham: Laura, it’s another record day that was set on Wednesday where we saw 222,000 doses administered. And we’re now running comfortably, clearly above one million doses being administered across the country every six days. And that is a very rapid rate of growth compared with where we were a while ago. Now, what we can expect over the coming months is to see further growth in that. And I realise that for some Australians, the challenge of getting an appointment and finding one that suits their time and their location is a challenge. And we want the demand to be strong. We’re trying to get every dose available that we can into Australia of Pfizer. We make sure that we also have the Moderna coming online. We emphasise the fact that Australians in many cases find it easier to get a booking for AstraZeneca. And the fact is these are all good, effective, safe vaccines that people should get at the earliest possible opportunity.
Laura Jayes: Demand is still far outstripping supply. The Prime Minister says the problems with the vaccine rollout have been fixed, but how can he say that they’ve been fixed when a sixty nine year old can’t get Pfizer until December? And if you try to book Pfizer in New South Wales, November is the earliest appointment. How is that fixed?
Simon Birmingham: We anticipate that as we get more doses into the country, we’ll be bringing more pharmacies and other supply points on for Australians and that will create more opportunities for individuals. So that will also enable us to open up to other age groups and provide more choices. It is the case that we’ve seen that step up in supply already to around one million doses of Pfizer coming into the country each week. And there will be further increases in that, particularly as we head towards September and October.
Laura Jayes: It’s still not enough at this point. We are six months into the rollout. Your own research shows that under 40s are the super spreaders a greater risk of getting it and spreading it. Still, they can’t get vaccinated under your own horizons until mid-September.
Simon Birmingham: Indeed, the global pressure that remains on vaccine supplies is enormous, and there’s no shirking away from that. We face that pressure in terms of what we can secure from around the world. It’s why other countries have been in similar positions to us in terms of the management of COVID-19 like Japan or South Korea or places like Taiwan or indeed New Zealand. They’re all in a comparable position to us. The challenge of trying to secure that supply and to build that rollout, and it’s always been the case where it would take the bulk of this year to be able to do that. That’s still the case. But Australians should know that on all of the projections, there will be enough for everyone this year who wants to get a vaccine, who wants to get this done to do so. And I urge Australians to continue to search for those bookings to secure them when they can, because that’s what’s going to get us to those 80 per cent type targets.
Laura Jayes: Minister, something isn’t right when we are told that there are oceans of AstraZeneca, anyone above the age of 18 can get it. Well, why are people still waiting two weeks for a GP appointment? Pharmacy bookings are open, but only as of Monday. And then it’s still hard to get a booking. If there are oceans of AstraZeneca. Where are they?
Simon Birmingham: Well, they are there. Now, of course, you’ve got the workforce and the availability of different distribution sites to be able to administer that. And that’s why we’re bringing more and more of those sites online. And as I said, there will be increasing numbers of pharmacies right throughout the course of this year as we get that extra availability of the other vaccines, but indeed, bringing more of those on faster to be able to administer the AstraZeneca-
Laura Jayes: Sorry, to interrupt you there. This have been done much, much earlier. We were told in May that CSL will produce a million AstraZeneca doses a week. I know the ATAGI advice change then went back in that time frame. But surely at this point, if we’ve got oceans of AstraZeneca, we should be able to get them really quickly.
Simon Birmingham: And Laura, I think if people look, they will find there are places available to get AstraZeneca. Now, obviously, you may not get it at the first place you look at it may not be the most convenient location, but individuals who are committed to getting a vaccine ought to look around the reason we’re hitting record numbers day after day almost at present is because there are more doses getting out there. There are more doses being administered and people are able to make those bookings. So I know that you can go on social media and find somebody who will say, I haven’t been able to get a booking. But look around, use all of the online tools available. I was asked about colleagues and others looking for bookings, and I went online myself this week and found various locations in Canberra. I know that in Sydney, of course, there’s a greater sense of urgency, but there are also more sites being brought online at a faster rate. I do urge people to use the HotDoc system, actually look and see what options are available and often there are cancellations late too that enable people to be slotting in if you keep looking.
Laura Jayes: Just quickly on that, here’s the problem. We’re in lockdown. There are eight LGAs that can’t travel outside of their area. And the premier is saying limit your movement so you can’t really travel much far outside your suburb to find those AstraZeneca vaccines. That’s not the advice.
Simon Birmingham: Obviously, people need to follow the lockdown advice. But usually that advice provides for limited exemptions, particularly in the case of doing things like getting a vaccine. That doesn’t mean hop in a car and drive around and go knocking on the door of different sites. But if you secure a booked appointment to get vaccinated, then I’m sure people are expected and able to turn out and attend that appointment.
Laura Jayes: All right. The government, just a few quick things, the government made a quiet decision which effectively deters Australians living overseas from coming home. They now need a really good excuse to go back to their home abroad. We made this quiet decision when?
Simon Birmingham: This has been a constant process in terms of trying to make sure that we manage those flows of people out and into the country. As you well know, it’s been very difficult in terms of repatriating people into Australia. We have limited availability and one of the tools quite rightly applied to make sure that we manage that is to keep a lid where possible on the number of people exiting the country in the first place, because so many of those exiting do seek to come back again in a relatively short order.
Laura Jayes: It does seem an extraordinary amount of power our government has when you can stop people from leaving.
Simon Birmingham: If people are leaving for a serious length of time for a very credible reason well then those provisions are there for home affairs to give them the power to do so. And what we don’t want, though, and we’ve seen too much of this, is people who leave for what ends up being a shorter period of time who go and add themselves to the list of names with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of people who then want to return to Australia, just exacerbating a problem that has already been very challenging.
Laura Jayes: All right. Let me quickly ask you about something I asked you last week. It’s legislation that’s standing in the way of allowing the TGA to look at at-home COVID tests. Now, we know this is done in Europe and the United States. Any progress on that this week, Minister?
Simon Birmingham: We definitely want to see se the availability for rapid antigen testing used in an effective and efficient way. We particularly think that there’s potential for greater use in workplace settings, especially workplace settings, where there are essential work activities being undertaken, for example, in relation to lock down environments in Sydney at present, they’re discussions that are quite active. And I hope we can see the availability of those tests and admission of them undertaken. It’s got to be done in a way where health authorities have confidence that it’s going to add to the overall confidence rate in terms of detecting and reducing transmission of COVID-19. What we don’t want is a situation where they’re used in a more ad hoc manner. People think it’s an easy substitute for the higher confidence testing of the PCR test. But those conversations are certainly very active and underway with states and territories.
Laura Jayes: So it sounds like you’re amenable. Do you have a time frame because legislation is required here? I think.
Simon Birmingham: I think it depends on precisely how we’re talking about deployment there as to where the legislative sittings may sit. As we discussed last week, quite a number of rapid antigen tests do already have approval through the TGA and how they’re deployed, how they’re used, and particularly in terms of those essential workplace settings where they may well be a role and place.
Laura Jayes: What I’m talking about, I mean, the TGA has approved some is looking at some that need to be administered by a health official. Now, these are at-home tests, so there’s a clear difference there. So is that what you’re considering and having discussions about?
Simon Birmingham: Well perhaps the most valuable place for us to see these used is not necessarily in the at-home environment, but the at-work environment to be able to provide an environment where we’re essential workers going to jobs in essential industries that have to stay open in food and distribution, supply chains and those sorts of sectors where we can try to provide an opportunity for even more frequent testing of those individuals to be able to have greater confidence that the people who do have to leave their home in a lockdown don’t face the risk of spreading transmission. That’s the type of work that’s being looked at. But people shouldn’t rely on that at present. And they should with the slightest symptom, the slightest potential for exposure, go and get one of the PCR test and that remains a very important continuous message, regardless of what happens with these other testing options.
Laura Jayes: All right. We’ll do this all again next week. Minister Birmingham, thanks so much.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks Laura. My pleasure.