Topics: Returning Australians; Travel ban from India; Quarantine facilities; International travel;



Peter Stefanovic: The Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham. Minister, good to have you with us, as always. Thanks for your time. We had Dr. Anthony Fauci on our programme this morning, and I asked him about the travel ban that we have and how it compared to theirs. They’re not banning any citizens. He says the US has an obligation to return their travellers home. Do we not share that same obligation?


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Pete. Thanks for the chance. I think firstly you have to realise Australia has taken throughout the course of the pandemic a quite different approach to the United States with quite different outcomes. The border restrictions that we put in place way back from the second of February last year when they came into force in relation to China and all the way through their extension to the rest of the world since then have been a central pillar in keeping it out of Australia and in keeping Australians safe. And at many times during the course of this pandemic, we have looked across the Pacific to the tragedy unfolding in the United States that that’s seen such great loss of life. And Australians know that strong border protections have been central to keeping us safe. Now, this measure in relation to India is a temporary one, and we will, of course, resume some connectivity with India once we’ve determined that it is clearly safe to do so. But there’s been a pronounced change already in relation to the rate of infection coming into our quarantine facilities that we’re running up as high as about 13 per cent they are now down to about 0.3 per cent in terms of arrivals. And the difference there is that we don’t have that huge infection rate coming from India. And what the people in New South Wales are seeing right now is that the risk of leakage is still a real one. And that is something that I think all Australians want us to keep a very, very tight rein on. And so we will make future decisions in relation to India with that in mind as to how first and foremost, we keep Australia safe from the spread of COVID.


Peter Stefanovic: A matter is now before the court. How certain are you that the ban was constitutional?


Simon Birmingham:  I’ll let the court process determine this case from the gentleman who went to India in March of last year. What we will do is obviously defend that. Again, I think Australians would logically expect that the government of the day has the powers and should have the powers to be able to put measures in place that ensure the health and safety of Australians and the country as a whole. Now we’re going to continue to assist India. Yesterday, we saw the plane load of assistance, ventilators, oxygen, concentrators, getting out of Australia, going to India. High Commission is going to do all it can, along with our consulates in India, to continue to assist Australians on the ground there. And that includes the special purpose payments that we’ve made available. And we will put in place tight arrangements at an appropriate time. When the health advice allows that, we’ll see travel resume between Australia and India, but we’re not going to jeopardise the health outcomes in Australia. And frankly, those health outcomes have also been central not only to saving Australian lives, but to saving Australian jobs and our economy as well.


Peter Stefanovic: Let’s chat about some of those arrangements. A bit of that is being talked about today. Can you confirm that two repatriation flights will be dispatched to India when the travel ban ends next week?


Simon Birmingham: No, I can’t. We’ll take those decisions as a government following all the proper processes, including receipt of the proper advice. So we’re not going to rush in a media frenzy to make announcements or otherwise. What we are doing here is following the health advice and we’re going to stick with that because that is served us very, very well and served all Australians very well to date.


Peter Stefanovic: Will Howard Springs be used exclusively for travellers from India?


Simon Birmingham: Howard Springs has obviously certain capabilities, but it’s also worth remembering that the Northern Territory government had their concerns about the very high rate of positive tests that was coming in at Howard Springs. And so it’s not just because it’s a national facility and has certain attributes about it doesn’t negate the fact that if you have a huge incidence of positive cases coming through that facility, then it presents a threat to the local community and a potential strain on local health services in relation to the treatment of those positive cases. So it-


Peter Stefanovic: Sounds like you’ve got reservations about it.


Simon Birmingham: It is not well, it’s not a silver bullet for everything. Howard Springs is a very, very crucial part of our national response. It’s why as a government, we’ve expanded its capacity to act as a quarantine facility to up to two thousand arrivals per fortnight. And clearly, I would expect it to play a role when we do resume connectivity with India. But I think we need to just be cautious in terms of the steps that are taken there. Australians want us to make sure that we run our quarantine system- we just had a 99.99 per cent success rate to date, if they want us to maintain that high standard of success rate. And what will jeopardise that is if we have huge loads of positive cases in those quarantine facilities. Be it Howard Springs or Medi hotels across the country. And so there are other factors to work through as well, particularly factors around pre-flight testing. What capabilities can be established in that regard? The extent to which pre-flight testing can be done in a way that provides reliability, that the positive caseload in Australia will track closer to what our quarantine facilities have managed to date, rather than at extremely high levels that threaten greater risk of leakage or greater pressure on our health services.


Peter Stefanovic: What are your latest forecasts on when significant international travel can resume?


Simon Birmingham:  That’s going to be some way off. I think we have to be honest.


Peter Stefanovic: What does that mean?


Simon Birmingham: It means it’s very hard to put a precise timeline or indicator on it because there’s a range of factors, again, that will influence that. We’re dealing now in May of 2021 with arguably a more uncertain global environment in the management of COVID than we had a few months ago. The spike in relation to cases in India and indeed some other parts of the world that we’ve seen an upwards trajectory, including parts of the world that had been boasting about early vaccination trends and seeing an upward trajectory such as in Chile. These create uncertainties, the uncertainties around aspects of the vaccine rollout, including the duration of effectiveness of vaccines, what it means in relation to other variants of COVID. They’re all factors that we will have to take into consideration. And we want to reopen Australia. And clearly for Australians, the faster people respond when they’re eligible to get their vaccination, then the easier that will enable us to undertake assessments and to make decisions. But we’re not going to be making promises in relation to reopening borders that are holding out a false hope when there’s a lot of analysis to still be done before we actually get to the point of making that firm decision.


Peter Stefanovic: It’s been suggested this morning that significant international travel won’t resume until deep into next year.


Simon Birmingham: I think Australians would be surprised if it resumed at the end of this year or frankly, any earlier than that.


Peter Stefanovic: So what are you thinking the middle of next year?


Simon Birmingham: I’m really not going to go into hypothetical situations when there’s a lot of scientific advice, a lot of medical advice, a lot of expert analysis that will inform the decision of government when we get to that point of reopening borders. What I can say with absolute clarity is they’re not reopening any time soon, not when you look at the circumstances around the rest of the world at present relative to the circumstances here in Australia. Australians do not want us to reopen borders and risk COVID entering into this country and the consequential loss of life, economic damage and loss of jobs across Australia. That is a very clear message I get moving around the country, and it’s why we will remain very firm and resolute in our approach, which will be about protecting lives, jobs across this country and in the budget handed down next week, we’ll continue to respond to the uncertainties of the COVID situation. We’ll invest in a range of ways to keep our economy strong as well as to keep people safe. While we also get on with the big tasks of modernising parts of our economy through the digital economy strategy, which the Prime Minister is talking about today, delivering the services Australians rely on in areas of aged care and disability services and elsewhere. And the big agenda that we’re pursuing that at the top of that list will still remain keeping Australians safe and secure.


Peter Stefanovic: Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Pete. My pleasure.