Topics: COVID-19 UK strain; quarantine facilities; COVID-19 vaccine

Allison Langdon: Covid alarm has been sounded across the country this morning with concerns the highly contagious U.K. strain is spreading in the community. A quarantine hotel in Brisbane evacuated as covid detectives work to find out how the virus spread through the grand chancellor. Minister for Finance Simon Birmingham is in Adelaide this morning and shadow minister for Government Services Bill Shorten joins us from Melbourne. Good morning to you both. Simon, to you first. We still don’t know how the virus spread. What needs to be done to tighten the system?

Simon Birmingham: Well, what we need to do is continue to work and follow the advice of the health authorities, that’s what’s kept Australians safe each and every step of the way through this pandemic. It’s what our government has done in conjunction with state and territory governments to make sure we’ve got all the steps there and that when these sorts of incidents happen, we review them carefully and we follow the advice of the health experts in terms of how we continue to keep Australians safe. The act of returning Australians from overseas home is not an easy one. We’ve successfully brought home more than four hundred and forty thousand people since March of last year. But of course, it’s got ongoing challenges in the type of new variants in covid-19 great new challenges that we’re just going to have to keep responding to and keep making adjustments necessary to maintain Australia’s success at keeping people safe.

Allison Langdon: You know, I think people, given the concerns around this UK strain, I think people are pretty desperate at this point to know what is being done to close the holes in the system.

Simon Birmingham: Well, that is indeed why we have taken actions time and time again in terms of additional testing for those working in hotel quarantine facilities, changes to the way they operate and the types of reforms that have been put in place now in terms of slowing the numbers coming into those facilities down. We’ve still got around one thousand six hundred Australian Defence Force personnel working alongside the states and territories. And ultimately, it will be the health officials who look again at these latest bits of news and what else can be done to supplement the changes that have already been made to maintain Australia’s success in keeping people safe.

Allison Langdon: Bill, the Queensland premier has flagged the use of remote mining camps instead of hotels as one option. Some say that’s too tough on return travellers. What are your thoughts?

Bill Shorten: Well, Howard Springs, which is a facility in the Northern Territory, is not in the centre of Darwin. It’s 30 kilometres out. I think Annastacia Palaszczuk just wants to make sure that if any infection jumps from people coming from overseas to staff, that then doesn’t expand in a massive city. I’ve been perplexed that we haven’t used more Commonwealth facilities in the last eight months, so I can understand why she’s doing it. There’s been a report written last year by an expert called Jane Halton. And as much as I agree with what Simon said before, I don’t understand why we haven’t implemented federally run quarantine facilities. I mean, that’s a federal power.

Allison Langdon: Simon, why isn’t there a national approach to hotel quarantine?

Simon Birmingham: Well, there is a national approach. It’s called the Commonwealth government working with the states and territories, as I said.

Allison Langdon: But they’re running they’re all running their own business and implementing their system.

Simon Birmingham: We we have scaled up the Howard Springs facility to be able to take additional people through that in the Northern Territory, which Bill just mentioned. And so we’ve been doing this together with the states and territories. These facilities, of course, do need access to security services. They need access crucially to medical services, to testing services. And that, of course, is why the health advice has driven us towards these city hotel locations that can be locked down but are proximate to those types of health services and testing services that are so important to do it effectively. And let’s remember, again, in the vast majority of cases, these are about returning Australian citizens. And so we want to do it in ways that that show compassion to their circumstances too.

Allison Langdon: Infectious diseases expert Dr Paul Griffin was on the show earlier and he questioned the decision to move the Grand Chancellor travellers to the Westin Hotel in Brisbane, which is also home to permanent residents. Simon, what are your thoughts on that?

Simon Birmingham: What really is a decision for the Queensland government. They’re running that facility there, but I trust that they are acting on the advice of their health officers..

Allison Langdon: So, hotel quarantine is a matter for the states then?

Simon Birmingham: and that all the appropriate safeguards are put in place. I’m saying they’re running that facility now, we are providing support, defence for support, we’re running with the Northern Territory government, the Howard Springs facility. We’ve absolutely worked hand in glove with the states and territories on these matters. But when it comes to those individual locations like that sort of decision, I trust it’s being done with the full advice and analysis of the Queensland Health authorities.

Allison Langdon: The federal government, meantime, is racing to secure more vaccine deals, as experts call the Oxford AstraZeneca jab into doubt. The problem. Pfizer has denied supplying anything beyond the 10 million doses already secured. This has already stirred up plenty of debate. Simon, why haven’t we been able to secure more doses from Pfizer?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ve got contracts running with three different vaccine supplies, and it’s really important for Australia, but we’ve also got to be clear and knock for six and some of the misinformation being spread about vaccines. The vaccines are safe. They’re going through Australia’s regulatory approvals and they are effective. The options that will be rolled out in Australia are effective at preventing serious impacts in relation to COVID-19. And so what we want to make sure here is that Australians, when the vaccine distribution starts to take up the vaccines with confidence, and that’s what every Australian should have confidence that we’re not rushing this. Unlike some countries who are in panic situations, we’re going through the proper regulatory processes that drugs in Australia are always approved by. We’re putting these through their paces and the vaccines themselves in the evidence that’s there are actually being demonstrated to keep people safe, to stop them getting very sick, to stop them dying. And that’s exactly the outcome, of course, that everybody wants.

Allison Langdon: Bill, it’s so important, isn’t it, for the public to trust in the vaccine options that are available, risking that confidence?

Bill Shorten: Well, for me, it’s a pretty straightforward issue. I asked myself, what is the best in the world, and then I form the view, if it’s the best in the world, then it’s just good enough for Australians. I agree with part of what Simon was saying, that vaccination, the rollout is important. There’s a lot of misinformation. Certainly when vaccinations come out, mainstream political parties are backing. It is a good strategy. The question I really have is that there’s about six major vaccine producers around the world and there’s some more coming online. But the Australian government’s only negotiated deals with three of them. Now, as early as March of last year, the United States had its deals in place. And whilst Simon says that other countries are panicking and rushing. The reality is that we’re not at the front of the queue. So my quick quibble isn’t so much with the AstraZeneca vaccine. And certainly I’m supportive of rolling that vaccination scheme out. My quibble is why don’t we have deals with all of the producers and why do we not have and why is it taking so long and why would these deals take so long and why we only got three out of six options on the table to get the best vaccination regime possible. I would have hoped that the federal government could have negotiated, like other governments, that have more options available so we can really thoroughly deal with vaccination.

Allison Langdon: Ok, unfortunately, we’re out of time. We appreciate you both joining us this morning, Simon and Bill. Thank you. And you have a great day.