Topics: Vaccine roll-out; Aviation and tourism support; Greensill/GFG



Laura Jayes: Simon Birmingham is the Finance Minister who joins us live now from Adelaide. Thanks so much for your time, Senator, first of all, can I ask you about the AstraZeneca vaccine? Norway has suspended it overnight, fears of blood clots. Do you have any of the same concerns?


Simon Birmingham: Australians should have a high degree of confidence in the safety and efficacy of the vaccines that we’re rolling out here. Our administrators, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, have and will continue to make sure there is expert oversight around these vaccinations. What we’ve been able to do in Australia is to take a cautious and steady approach because we don’t face the same type of pressures that other parts of the world with widespread covid outbreaks face, and we’re able to continue to do that. And so I’ve got no doubt that our regulators will be sharing information and seeking information from those around the rest of the world. But there is no reason at present for concern and every reason for confidence in the safety and efficacy of the vaccines that we have in Australia and that will be distributed to Australians.


Laura Jayes: That said, it would be nice if we could get the vaccine into our arms sooner rather than later. It’s not going to happen, the full rollout by the end of October, is it?


Simon Birmingham: We’re still working towards October, and that remains the timeline the government is going to push towards for Australians to receive the vaccine. Now, the first dose of vaccine provides a high level of protection for people, the second dose, of course, provides additional and longer lasting protection, and so what we want to do is get to the point where everybody has those two doses that are required. There have been changes to the health advice along the way. Initially, that second dose was thought to be able to be administered within about a four week timeframe, and the advice now is that that should be around a 12 week timeframe. So, of course, that delays the final administration of second doses. So we’re working with those updated health circumstances to make sure we get the best possible outcome for Australians, and what we’ll see in Australia is within the next couple of weeks, we should start to see domestic production in Melbourne of vaccines here in Australia, which is quite a game changer in terms of the certainty of supply, and that is something that is the envy of many other countries of the world to have that domestic production capability that will be able to serve Australia whilst we also still receive some of those international shipments too.


Laura Jayes: Well, a million doses, it’s said CSL can produce a week once this rollout does happen in Australia. That was slated for the 22nd of this month. Is that on track?


Simon Birmingham: It’s certainly still our expectation, as I said, within that next couple of weeks, we expect to see that domestic production start and that will crank up very, very quickly once it does start and that will enable us to move through the next phases of vaccine distribution and roll out to Australians. This is pretty much the largest peacetime undertaking to try to vaccinate effectively the entire population within the space of a single year. It’s not something that we have ever sought to do before. So it’s not going to be without its hiccups along the way. But we can say there’s a lot of determination from the Commonwealth Government, from States and Territories, from health officials right around the country to make sure we get this done and will continue to work and to adapt along the way to get the job done.


Laura Jayes: Is a vaccine or a fully vaccinated population as much as can be, is it a ticket to freedom?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think effectively it is. There will be ongoing work to make sure that we understand the length of effectiveness of the vaccine and understand its success rates in terms of reducing transmission. But some of the data we’re seeing from overseas, particularly from the UK, is showing incredible success for both the AstraZeneca vaccine and the Pfizer vaccine in terms of both reducing health impacts and avoidance of any serious health impacts and also seemingly reducing those rates of transmission.


Laura Jayes: But without the vaccine, you know, Premiers have been acting at a whim, and there’s still those threat of shutting down those internal borders, isn’t there, without a vaccine?


Simon Birmingham: Domestically, I think what’s very important there is that the risk profile will change quite quickly as we’ve moved to more than 100,000 thousand vaccines being administered and that will step up pretty quickly over coming weeks as we get more and more vulnerable Australians vaccinated first and foremost. And that does change the risk profile for what it looks like in terms of covid outbreaks and the impact of them in Australia. Now, we’ve gone 14 consecutive days once again as a country without having any community transmission whatsoever. So as a nation, we are looking in a very good position in terms of where covid is across the country. We’re going to have the vaccine rolling out and stepping up over coming weeks and months, targeting those vulnerable populations first and foremost. And that should really change the way in which states and territories think about border closures or such decisions. And I very much welcome, for example, the comments of Queensland’s Chief Public Health Officer who indicated that she thought that the different stages of the vaccine rollout were it were, an impact and a change agent in relation to how those decisions would be made.


Laura Jayes: Let’s talk about money now and stimulus going into the economy. The travel industry got that big announcement yesterday. How did the government choose which locations got these cheap flights?


Simon Birmingham: Based on the extent to which those individual regions are dependent upon tourism as a generator of jobs across their local economy, and so I think most people would appreciate that those parts of north Queensland, but the other regions listed as well have a more significant proportion of jobs in their communities that frequently depend upon the tourism industry. And so it’s very much a data driven approach, looking at those regional areas with a greater reliance on tourism jobs to prop them up, and particularly where there’s an element of international tourism now, trying to layer that, if you like, against other economic impacts in some of those areas. Bushfire impacts that have disrupted, for example, travel around parts of the New South Wales south coast that have continued to have severe economic impacts there and to make sure that we give that support.


Laura Jayes: Marginal seats were they a consideration?


Simon Birmingham: No, and I just mentioned the New South Wales south coast, we’re talking about a Labor seat there. In my home state, Kangaroo Island’s, an independent held seat, to the Northern Territory seats are Labor held seats.


Laura Jayes: Darwin was a late addition.


Simon Birmingham: We’ll be continuing work, that’s also a Labor held seat, though, I note, so, and, in a Labor held state or territory. So I’m not sure about the insinuations from some quarters there. This has been about responding to the data. And what was said very clearly is we’ll continue to work with the airlines and the tourism industry and we will happily and continuously update and tweak where the subsidies flow. What we’re talking about is about 46 000seats a week on flights of cut-price tickets, 800 000 overall. And the mix of those will change over time, dependent upon travel flows and bookings and the information that we’re getting back about whether we’ve got hotels sufficiently full. And we know that if people have spent a dollar on their flight, they’re likely to spend another ten dollars in terms of on accommodation, on restaurants or experiences. And if we’re getting the feedback that some regions are doing really well, then we’ll look to provide additional support to others that may not be doing so well.


Laura Jayes: Kangaroo Island is certainly my recommendation. I’m sure you’d certainly endorse that as a South Australia?


Laura Jayes: All right. Well, more seriously as a South Australian how worried are you about the collapse of Greensill and the threat it poses to the Whyalla steelworks?


Simon Birmingham: This is obviously a concern in terms of the uncertainty it creates, and I know that many workers, especially in Whyalla would be very concerned. During the course of this week, I’ve had discussions with the Prime Minister, South Australian Premier, relevant ministers and officials about the potential circumstances that could flow here. Pleasingly, though, Sanjeev Gupta, the chairman of GFG who owns the steelworks and associated businesses, has provided quite strong assurances to both our government and the South Australian government that they are actively refinancing their arrangements, and they seem to have a degree of confidence around that. It’s clearly in everybody’s best interests for that to be the first line of success and for that to occur.


Laura Jayes: There are some reports, though, that the GFG’s Australian steel business could be sold separately. Would that be a good thing?


Simon Birmingham: Look, I don’t think it would be. I don’t think it would be in anybody’s interests for the integrated steel businesses of the GFG group in Australia to be broken up. It wouldn’t be in the workers interests, it wouldn’t be in Whyalla’s interests, and I don’t think it would be in Australia’s interests either. What we’ve got there is a business that is more profitable as the sum of its different parts. And if those components were broken up, then there would be greater viability pressures left on some parts and in particular the Whyalla steelworks. And so I think it’s an important consideration there, and I would hope that we see that group maintained. Hopefully it is able to refinance itself, but certainly we will continue to work and monitor that situation closely to make sure that those critical capabilities for Australia are maintained where essential into the future.