Topics: EU trade deal; International borders; Border closures; Rapid antigen testing;




Laura Jayes:  Joining us is the Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, who used to be the trade minister. So can you give us any update on what’s happening with those negotiations?


Simon Birmingham: Hi, Laura, look good to talk. As I’ve seen some reports suggesting that there may be a timing change in relation to the next negotiating round, a variation of perhaps a month in that regard. These are trade talks that I know the EU has continued to express its view in the value and importance of them. Certainly, Australia sees the value and importance of them, and so I trust that we will all continue to work towards trying to secure an agreement between Australia and the European Union that would be to the benefit of all countries involved.


Laura Jayes: Yeah, you know how these things works and look, negotiations can take years. We know that with the Chinese free trade agreement. But this delay in the next round, given the environment and given the announcements over the last couple of weeks, is this the diplomatic equivalent of flipping the bird to Australia?


Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Look, I wouldn’t want people to read too much into what is being reported as a one month timing change in relation to a negotiating round, as you said in the grand scheme of discussions and negotiations that stretch over quite a number of years in these negotiations have been going on already for a number of years, and they may have some time to go into the future. A one month time in relation to what I think is, is, you know, is quite a way into the negotiating rounds. Well, that’s clearly not something that that is going to likely change the end outcome all that much.


Laura Jayes: Okay, let’s talk about international borders. We are anticipating a formal announcement from the prime minister today. Will they open in November?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think we’ll see in international borders is that there will be a cautious and staged approach in terms of what’s undertaken, consistent with the type of work of the Doherty Institute and the modelling that as a government we’ve had put in place. What we want to see in relation to international borders is that we ultimately get to a stage where people can move once again freely with confidence around the world and particularly for those who have been fully vaccinated, which is a condition of some parts of the world at present. Now, from Australia’s perspective, we will look carefully at how we take the steps of reopening. As you’re aware, there have been trials using home quarantine systems in different parts of the country, and those systems will provide a very important basis for some of the early steps in relation to reopening our borders in that careful, staged approach.


Laura Jayes: Okay, so careful, staged approach. We know there’s a national cabinet meeting today. The premiers haven’t been able to agree some premiers on state border closures, so we’re now looking at a circumstance where we might be able to go to London before we go to Brisbane.


Simon Birmingham: Laura, obviously different states are going to get different vaccination targets at different times. They’re all charging ahead quite well and what we want to see is everybody reached that 80 per cent double dose vaccination, which is the crucial target we’re striving towards now. As they do that, we hope to see the gradual reopening across the country. But it may be that those states New South Wales being the most likely to hit the 80 per cent double dose vaccination rate first become then the first test bed for if you like that reopening of international borders in that careful staged approach that the early trial stages occur there, whilst other states are still to catch up in the weeks and months that follow.


Laura Jayes: Ok, well, should these border closures be challenged in court? Do you think there’s a fair argument there?


Simon Birmingham: I think we’re some way away from people needing to worry about that, it’s certainly not the government’s plans. What we want to see is that states and territories work to broadly the national plan. There’ll be different nuances in the way that they go about that. But importantly, that they achieve that 80 per cent double vaccination target. In achieving it, that they start to provide some of the dividends of vaccination to their citizens that that are so important and it is delivering those dividends that we’re focussed on as a country. It’s why we’ve taken a decision as a government in the last few days that have been announced around the transition plans for income support for business support in the lockdown states. Recognising that as they get to those 80 per cent targets, then of course we want to see and expect to see a normalisation as much as possible of business activity there. And we expect to see that occur across the other states and territories in relation to their operations over time. And that can hopefully give people then the certainty to be able to plan for the future.


Laura Jayes: Well, there’s no sign of that certainty coming yet. There’s been national cabinet after national cabinet and companies like Flight Centre are desperate. It’s cost them upwards of $100 million. It could be even more. We saw the Gold Coast has lost about a billion dollars from its economy because of border closures. So isn’t there a firmer ground now that we have the vaccines, I mean, the government backed in Clive Palmer all those months ago, wouldn’t it be more likely to be successful now?


Simon Birmingham: Laura, I think it’s important that that we continue to work wherever possible with the states and territories, and that’s precisely the focus and attention we’re bringing by continually taking the evidence through national cabinet by giving them all of that information. And I think as Australians start to see the lived experience of states successfully as I’m sure they will reopening once they achieve these targets, then that will provide greater levels of confidence elsewhere across the country. It’s, as I say, there will be nuances in the approach that different states or territories take. But ultimately, Australians are going to want to see those dividends for getting vaccinated. The first dividend is the protection of themselves, their loved ones, their families. But beyond that, they’re going to want to know and have the confidence that they are going to be able to reconnect with loved ones across state borders, that they’re going to have greater levels of certainty in business and in their jobs and in their lives generally. And so that’s why we keep pushing forward with these plans. Appreciate that there are certain things within the powers of the states and territories that that are their powers and that we don’t control. But it’s why we keep making sure we have the discussions. We provide the evidence and analysis, and we show the leadership in terms of the decisions that we’re taking, be they in relation to clear, steady transition plans for economic support or in relation to the types of decisions and steps that will be taken in relation to our international borders.


Laura Jayes: Ok, when are we going to get those booster shots because we’ve seen other countries already start on this?


Simon Birmingham: So we have procured some 85 million booster doses of Pfizer coming through in time, as well as 15 million doses of Moderna. We will have plentiful supplies to be able to meet whatever decisions health officials take in terms of advising precisely when the optimum time is for different individuals to receive a booster dose. We obviously have the distribution channels all in place. It really is just a case of hitting the go button as and when we get that advice from health officials about how, when and in what circumstances individuals are best placed to receive those doses.


Laura Jayes: Well, what are we waiting for? Because does the TGA need to approve the administering of booster doses?


Simon Birmingham: No, these are matters predominantly for ATAGI, as I understand it, the Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation. They will be looking to, as I say, the optimal efficacy, if you like, of the receipt of booster doses. Who should receive them, when should they receive them, how long after primary doses were concluded in terms of double dose, all of those questions. Now that’s a matter for the medical experts to make those decisions on. The reassurance I’d give you and your viewers is that and we have plentiful doses, strong distribution systems and channels all in place that will simply kick into gear as and when necessary in terms of the administration of those booster doses.


Laura Jayes: Okay. Just quickly and finally, we see at home tests by November, you and I have been talking about this for quite some time. That has been approved, announced by Greg Hunt. So does this mean that we can administer them ourselves at home? Who pays for them? And how will you use the data?


Simon Birmingham: So the TGA is working through the approval processes for different applications in relation to that. But they do have cases there that should be able to see them being administered in home environments, as I understand. Now one of the things about administering them in home environments is that unlike the type of testing regimes we have at present that go through pathology labs, you don’t necessarily get that same type of a clear stream of data in place. So, so in that sense, it’s why we have always had an approach where you need to have the high level, high accuracy testing as your prime vehicle to make sure that you know precisely what’s happening. But these sorts of tests do have a place in the future and when we’re dealing with a very highly vaccinated population and in different approaches to managing COVID. And so look forward to seeing those trials expand more into the mainstream and individual businesses or households choosing to use them as appropriate.


Laura Jayes: Okay. Minister, thanks so much for your time and thanks for bringing your strobe light this morning, appreciate it. A few issues with Simon Birmingham’s lights this morning.