Date: Friday, 8 October 2021
Topic(s):  Centre for National Resilience; Borders; Vaccines; France

Laura Jayes: Simon Birmingham. Good to see you. Thanks so much for your time. We’ll get to the reason why you’re in WA in just a moment. But Victoria has recorded a new grim milestone. We’re talking about record cases. They’re nudging 2000 cases a day now. Why should a curfew stay in place when it’s clearly not working?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Laura, look, these are challenging times to an extent in Victoria, although it is also crucially important that that as a nation, we start to change some of the dialogue from just case numbers to health outcomes, from the fact that whilst we had a largely or completely unvaccinated population, case numbers presented a threat to essentially all Australians. But now, with a very heavily vaccinated population and increasingly so and especially mostly vaccinated amongst the high risk and most vulnerable cohorts are older Australians, for example, that the health outcomes are a different scenario. Now there are still tragic deaths and challenging health outcomes for some individuals in Victoria and in New South Wales. But we’re not seeing the type of consequences that we had seen, for example, during the COVID outbreak last year with an unvaccinated population. And so, you know, these are some of the changes that we have to get used to as a country in making that transition to having COVID in the community. But the protections of vaccination…

Laura Jayes: You make some really good points about transition and the need to live with COVID in the community. Why, then, is the federal government forging ahead with partly funding special quarantine facilities? It seems unnecessary at this point in the pandemic.

Simon Birmingham: Well, there’s a couple of reasons for that Laura. Firstly, is that whilst we will be living with COVID in the community, there will still need to be some safeguards undertaken and the Doherty Institute’s made that clear. We have made clear in terms of international borders that we will take a cautious, careful, staged approach to reopening, prioritising fully vaccinated Australian citizens in the first instance. So there will be other cohorts of individuals potentially looking to move in and out of the country who aren’t Australian citizens who aren’t fully vaccinated, where we may have a cause or need to use quarantine facilities. Then there’s the uncertainties and unknown things for the future. What comes after the Delta strain? Will there be a need for us to protect Australia from other advances in COVID in different ways? And what about the long term resilience of the nation that we have found through the course of this pandemic? And that having the Howard Springs facility just outside of Darwin is a huge benefit to Australia and has provided us with a very useful tool for resilience and responsiveness. And so we think that it is prudent in terms of responding to future health crises, future natural disasters, potential future humanitarian crises that we have a handful more Howard Springs type facilities.

Laura Jayes: All right. Well, this is this is really important clarity because we’re getting towards Christmas. People haven’t seen their families who live overseas for almost two years now might even be longer. So the government for Christmas, let’s talk about Christmas. You’re looking at home quarantine for the fully vaccinated, but for these special facilities down the track, would people have to pay for them themselves and would it just be for the unvaccinated?

Simon Birmingham: So in terms of individuals paying, the arrangement we’ve entered into with the states and territories with Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria who are and wanted these facilities built in their different jurisdictions, the arrangement we’ve entered into is that so long as they are used for COVID quarantine type purposes, that state or territory will operate them. So cost recovery arrangements will really be a matter for that state or territory in terms of how they set it up and whether it’s catering, for example, to international students or whether it’s catering for essential workers from different countries. There are all the issues that clearly will be worked through with industry to make sure that that they are used to the best interests of that state in the nation.

Laura Jayes: Okay. Very interesting indeed. Let’s have a look more closely at the vaccination rates now in Sydney. In New South Wales, more broadly, you’re looking at 90 per cent of first doses. Supply obviously is no longer an issue, but any word on when we’re going to look at getting those booster shots?

Simon Birmingham: So, the vaccination rate, if you look at somewhere like New South Wales, is now phenomenal that New South Wales is exceeding in terms of the proportion of the whole population who have had at least one dose of vaccination exceeding places like the United Kingdom has been exceeding the United States for some time, exceeding many other European countries, and is sitting close to the top of the OECD pack in terms of vaccination. And that’s a testament to Australians turning out in record numbers. And it should equally be a message to those states and territories that aren’t surging ahead quite as quickly in relation to vaccination rates. Don’t wait to be like New South Wales or Victoria and vaccinating whilst COVID is in your community. These states and territories all have the opportunity to get ahead of COVID still. And the vast majority of people in those states and territories are doing the right thing. But some seem to have an attitude of saying, Well, I’ll wait, I’ll wait till later. It’s the silliest attitude you could have. People shouldn’t wait for COVID. They should take the opportunity that exists right across Australia now to get vaccinated and to get vaccinated now. Now, in terms of booster shots, I expect that that will have a little more to say quite soon in relation to the advice we’re receiving about different targeted cohorts initially. But certainly as a government, we have procured many tens of millions of booster shots that that will be available to Australians right from the start of next year. Indeed, from late this year, if required, that will be in a position to make sure that that if the advice is that people need a booster shot within the next few months, depending on when they had their second dose, then we’re in a position to start rolling that out. We have the doses, we have the distribution channels. It’s just a case of getting the expert health advice as to when optimally people should receive that.

Laura Jayes: Mr Birmingham, the Queensland border issue, is such a massive one at the moment. I’ve got an email this morning that shows there’s more than 8,000 Queenslanders waiting to get back into Queensland. Queensland Health is only processing around 700 a week because they’ve got 250 spots in hotel quarantine, so this means that these people, Queenslanders cannot get back into their own state and it might not be cleared by Christmas. Can anything be done here? We heard for months that this might be sorted out in national cabinet, but it just hasn’t. Does the federal government have any power?

Simon Birmingham: Laura, I would really urge the Queensland government, the South Australian government, other governments to look at the technology that South Australia is pioneered in relation to home quarantine technologies and to see how that might be able to be extended to fellow Australian citizens who are trapped outside of their home state in New South Wales or Victoria at present. I think it’s only reasonable that as we see New South Wales potentially moving to use that technology more widely on people coming in from overseas, that at least it could be used sensibly in relation to other states or territories. And I’m sure that that is being looked at in some places where the technology has been developed is being pioneered, and I hope and trust they’ll find ways and means to use that to be able to ease some of those pressures across state borders. I understand entirely that it is far better right now in Queensland, in South Australia and Western Australia and Tasmania and the Northern Territory for those communities not to be in lockdown, not to have COVID cases whilst they get their vaccination rates up. And so, of course, it makes sense for them to try to keep COVID from New South Wales or Victoria out. But there are ways and means over coming months that they can use the same type of technology that will be used by New South Wales international travellers to potentially ease some of those pressures on people who are stuck at present.

Laura Jayes: Ok, just quickly, the French Ambassador on his way back to Canberra, he says there’s no trust, though. What do you need to do to repair that?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I welcome the return of the French Ambassador as does the government. We welcome the fact that that he has acknowledged the importance of the friendship and of the relationship, and we will work very closely and hard with him, with French officials to emphasise the ongoing areas that we have for close cooperation, particularly in terms of cooperation across Pacific Island nations across our Indo-Pacific region, where France has particularly history, skills, expertise, knowledge and relationships, all of which we value very greatly. And we want to make sure that we continue to advance our shared values of respect for democracy, respect for sovereignty, liberties, all of these things that we have in common, that we cooperate globally, regionally on. And I’m sure that we will be able to continue to walk ahead in those areas, notwithstanding the fact that their disappointment around the submarine contract is understandable.

Laura Jayes: Sounds like you’ve got a bit of work to do. Minister Birmingham, thanks so much for joining us from Perth this morning.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Laura. My pleasure.