Topics: AstraZeneca vaccine; vaccine rollout; reopening borders; Parliament House workplace conduct



Laura Jayes: To the Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham. Simon Birmingham, we sit here this morning with more uncertainty over the vaccine. Is there some stuff up from government along the way here?


Simon Birmingham: No, there’s not. Laura, this is a deeply, deeply disappointing circumstance that has evolved around the AstraZeneca vaccine, but it’s one that is beyond anybody’s control. Frankly, it’s quite pathetic to be hearing Anthony Albanese there behaving like he’s some sort of giant Nostradamus type figure who can see into the future and predict what will happen. The truth is that our government at every stage over the last 12 months has taken the advice of health experts, that we closed the nation’s borders to keep Australia secure, that we undertook different steps in terms of the way in which social isolation occurred, social distancing occurred, in making sure that testing, tracing arrangements were put in place to keep Australians safe. When it comes to the vaccines, we’re taking all the steps to keep Australians safe as well. Now, if we had followed Anthony Albanese and the Labor Party’s advice and rushed the health approvals through and sought to undertake the vaccine rollout in some sort of extraordinarily rapid rate, then we would have had many more Australians potentially face consequences of the knowledge we’ve now found out about through the health advice, through international experience. Australia’s vaccine rollout is underpinned by the fact that we do have, contrary to the lies the Labor Party are telling, multiple contracts in place to be able to secure tens of millions of other doses of other vaccines. And that’s why all along we took the approach indeed of pursuing multiple vaccines, multiple contracts. Yes, we acknowledge this is very disappointing, but we now get on and recalibrate the programme and do so in a way that keeps Australians as safe as possible.


Laura Jayes: Well, where are those vaccines? Where are those contracted vaccines? We have a million of Pfizer and Novavax is not going to arrive till later this year. And now the sovereign capability of AstraZeneca that has been so touted by the Prime Minister is not going to be used for the bulk of Australia. Now, it can’t be used for two thirds of adults that are under the age of 50. We should have hedged a bets more back in January when we knew of the supply issue, shouldn’t we?


Simon Birmingham: We have always been hedging our bets that is why we pursued the multiple different contracts. But there’s no doubting the fact that across the globe we have a circumstance where there’s huge demand for vaccines. Vaccine manufacturers have not unreasonably prioritised countries that have major health crises. And to Australia’s credit, we do not have a major health crisis. If you look at us alongside comparable countries who have done well in terms of managing COVID, our vaccine rollout has been progressing faster than in New Zealand, than in Japan, than in South Korea. Yes, it’s all very well to go and compare us against countries like the US or the UK or parts of Europe. You know what? Many thousands of people have died and are still dying of COVID-19 in those countries. So it’s just not comparing apples with apples.


Laura Jayes: Absolutely. That’s a fair enough point. But we sit here. More than a year into the crisis, we have not returned to normal. Small businesses every day live under the threat of being locked down. And it happened just last week with two and a half million people in Brisbane. And then we hear that there’s no burning platform, there’s no rush to roll out the vaccine. Well, those thousands of small businesses would disagree, wouldn’t you think?


Simon Birmingham: I understand indeed, there are many businesses who have faced very tough consequences through the last year. But equally, that’s why we’ve responded in ways that have sought to support and assist them and have delivered once again world leading outcomes. The reason that Australia can take cautious and careful approaches when it comes to keeping Australians safe around the vaccine is because of our world leading approach to suppressing COVID the reason Australians jobs are more secure than just about anywhere else in the world is equally because of our strong economic response, evidenced this week by the IMF report, updating our growth forecast four and a half per cent, evidenced by the fact that employment levels in Australia are back above where they were in March of last year. These are extraordinary outcomes that we’ve managed to achieve through careful economic management, careful health management, through all of it, keeping Australians safe and secure. And I have to say, when I listen to Australians and their views around the vaccine rollout, the safety of it is the prime consideration for the vast majority of Australians. And that’s why we will continue absolutely to pursue a vaccine rollout as aggressively as we can but without in any way compromising the safety of it.


Laura Jayes: Ok, well, let’s get down to it, because you’re a numbers man. We’ve got the budget coming up and essentially people want to know about the economic side of this as they do the health side. So how many people need to be vaccinated in Australia for us to open up the borders to us no longer to be living under the threat of a lockdown?


Simon Birmingham: We have lived for more than a year now with the uncertainty of COVID-19, and that uncertainty spills into the vaccines. And what we are still trying to assess in countries right around the world or in the same position is understanding whatever the vaccine it is, whether it’s AstraZeneca, Pfizer or otherwise, how long the vaccine lasts for. To what extent it suppresses transmission. They’re the types of factors that we will have to assess in terms of when we can make that full decision to reopen and completely return to normal. It’s not just a question of what proportion of the Australian population do you have to have vaccinated? And then tick, it’s all done. There’s a number of other questions that will still take some period of time and would have still taken some period of time, even if we had not had this setback with the AstraZeneca vaccine.


Laura Jayes: So you’re asking every Australian to get the vaccine if the health advice says they should, but you’re not guaranteeing any extra freedom, so you can’t guarantee no more lockdown’s you can’t guarantee the international border will open.


Simon Birmingham: What we can guarantee is that from the evidence shown to date and the clear analysis of our health experts and those overseas is that the vaccines prevent serious illness when people contract COVID. Vaccines appear to also be significantly reducing the rate of transmission-


Laura Jayes: Great so when do the border reopen?


Simon Birmingham: -in other countries that have big COVID outbreaks. But what we need to know is how long will the vaccines last for and just how effective is that prevention of the rate of transmission. I understand the desire to desperately see the borders reopened, but the borders will reopen when all of the health advice allows us to have confidence that we’re not going to have a major COVID outbreak in Australia when we’ll go on to health and safety of Australians.


Laura Jayes: Is that likely to be this year, next year, perhaps the year after?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I doubt you will find a health expert around the world that will be able to answer that question. And I’m not a health expert, so I’m not going to pretend to be able to jump right ahead of those considerations. I, of course, really hope that we can see those borders reopen, and I’d love to see them reopen for the early stages of next year. But whether all of the information in relation to the extent to which the vaccines last for a long duration, prevent transmission, successfully, deal with any variations of COVID arise and are occurring around the world. They’re all questions we’re going to have to continue to take health advice on and we’ll respond accordingly.


Laura Jayes: Let me ask you about the investigation in Parliament House to the staffers that conducted sex acts, let’s call them, in ministers offices? Where is that investigation up to? Has anyone else been sacked?


Simon Birmingham: In relation to the second part of the question? No. The Department of Finance has been working to put in place appropriate legal processes and arrangements that are at arm’s length politically to be able to receive information and evidence from the alleged whistleblower and from that to be able to make decisions about precisely whether or not workplace standards have been breached. If so, have they been breached by any employees still in the employment of the government? And if that’s occurred, then clearly action will be taken. We demonstrated that where there was clear evidence published by the media initially where a staff member was identifiable where the acts were clearly a breach of workplace standards. That person no longer works here. Now, it’s not as clear cut in relation to what’s being published in the media. And so we need to make sure it’s a proper process. The Department of Finance are appointing investigators to be able to look at that and undertake that work.


Laura Jayes: So it’s not six men as reported?


Simon Birmingham: I’m not going to prejudge based on simply allegations put through the media. What’s important here is that is that we have absolute confidence that if there is evidence, I assure you, and the viewers that action will be taken, but the evidence has got to stand up and as anybody would expect a due and proper process has got to be conducted to ensure that we don’t end up in a situation of dealing with unfair dismissal claims or other issues down the track.


Laura Jayes: So are we talking weeks or months until this is concluded?


Simon Birmingham: I hope these matters can all be dealt with in a period of weeks, but that will depend very much on how the investigators uncover evidence or information in their discussions.


Laura Jayes: Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for your time this morning.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Laura. My pleasure.