Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Tuesday, 1 June 2021
Peter Stefanovic: Welcome back to the first edition, let's go live to Canberra now. Joining me is the Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham. Minister, good to see you as always. The government promised all aged care residents and staff would be vaccinated by March this year. It's now June. Why weren't aged care workers prioritised?
Simon Birmingham: 100 per cent of aged care facilities in Victoria have had a vaccine rollout through them and more than ninety nine per cent right across the country with just a handful with very specific exemptions or exceptions for different reasons. Now, we would have liked that to have occurred earlier, but of course at that stage we were expecting that more than three and a half million doses that were due to turn up from Europe at the start of this year would have arrived. Those contracts weren't honoured. They didn't turn up. We didn't get those vaccines. We, of course, had built the schedule around the expectation that all Australians would be able to have the AstraZeneca vaccine. Again, the health advice changed, limits it to over 50s. That has allowed us to continue to push on, particularly with those residents in aged care facilities. And that's what's enabled us to get to the point where essentially eighty five per cent of all residents in aged care facilities across Australia have chosen to have that first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. They've all had the choice in relation to doing so, bar just a handful of sites. And that first dose provides something like an 80 per cent, its estimated reduction in the likelihood of getting serious illness or sickness. And after the 12 week wait between doses, the rollout will continue to ensure they receive their second dose.
Peter Stefanovic: How many workers haven't been vaccinated?
Simon Birmingham: I don't have a precise figure in relation to that. The priority has obviously been those who are most likely to get seriously sick, ill or indeed die from Covid-19, which are the residents there, the older people who face and that greatest threat. And so they've been the number one priority. They're also the people for whom we've been able to continue to provide the AstraZeneca vaccine under the health advice that applies in Australia.
Peter Stefanovic: But workers were also in the 1A group, which is the highest priority. Now, the royal commission stated it was a failure on moral grounds not to have all workers vaccinated. So do you accept that the government has failed on this front?
Simon Birmingham: Well, as I say, we will continue to roll out the vaccine. The priority, though, has been to make sure that the vaccine goes to those at greatest risk of death or serious illness, and that's older Australians and particularly those who might be frail, old or have co-morbidities in a nursing home in aged care facilities. So the priority firmly, squarely with those residents had a younger workforce being able to have AstraZeneca well then more probably would have been, definitely would have been able to be vaccinated at the same time as those residents. But because the workforce requires, in many cases the Pfizer vaccine, it is required a different approach in relation to them and particularly for the workforce to be accessing other distribution channels, too.
Peter Stefanovic: Do you accept the rule banning staff from working at several federally run facilities shouldn't have been lifted?
Simon Birmingham: No, not necessarily. At a time when we had no Covid transmission in the community, we know that aged care facilities face workforce shortages. And so the ability of workers to be able to meet those shortages is important to the quality of care that residents ultimately receive. However, of course, as soon as problems became apparent in Victoria, again, that ban becomes a very important factor when there is potential transmission in the community to prevent that transmission from spreading any faster.
Peter Stefanovic: So you'll lift the ban again once things settle down.
Simon Birmingham: We'll work through these issues on the health advice and with the aged care sector. Our priority is making sure that residents are vaccinated and have that choice of being vaccinated, which we have achieved across facilities across the country, but also in making sure that they receive the highest possible quality of care in those facilities.
Peter Stefanovic: Sounds like the ban might be lifted again.
Simon Birmingham: As I say they are matters to work through in relation to on the health advice with the aged care sector overall, it's not a decision that I, as the Finance Minister am going to pre-empt.
Peter Stefanovic: Should there be a no job, no work policy.
Simon Birmingham: That is one for health officials. The health officials across the country had not advised and not recommended that there be a mandatory approach in relation to the aged care workforce. If they change that recommendation, that it that it be mandated will then, of course, will work with the states and territories to implement that. But again, understanding what the point of the vaccine is, first and foremost, it is to stop people from getting sick, particularly to stop those who are most vulnerable to severe illness and to potential death from Covid-19 from facing those consequences. And that is all about the older Australian cohort, first and foremost. Now, that's why we prioritised aged care facilities. That's why we also prioritise first and foremost, those over 70 expanded that to over 50s. It's been about addressing those likely to face the most severe consequences of Covid first. And we've got to 100 per cent of aged care residences in Victoria and around 85 per cent of residents in those facilities have chosen to have that first dose, which does provide a much higher level of protection for them than was faced, of course, last year during the outbreak in Victoria.
Peter Stefanovic: Okay. Will you be providing extra financial help to Victorian businesses involved in this shutdown?
Simon Birmingham: We'll continue to monitor the situation closely for businesses there continues to be. The measures such as the loss carry back that we extended in the budget, part of more than 40 billion dollars of additional Covid-19 support and responses we put into the budget handed down only a couple of weeks ago, including that additional support for businesses. For workers, particularly those facing requirements to isolate, pandemic leave payment arrangements remain in place for people to be able to access those payments. And overall, we've provided to Victoria something like $45 billion, that's billion. $45 billion of support.
Peter Stefanovic: They do need extra help, though, and the state government has asked for support.
Simon Birmingham: We welcome the fact that the state government has for this short term lockdown, put in place a $250 million support package for business.
Peter Stefanovic: That's not enough, though.
Simon Birmingham: Now, this is the third localised lockdown that has occurred since JobKeeper came to an end. We haven't rolled out a dramatic additional approaches in relation to those others because targeted state approaches are appropriate for shorter term lockdowns. If this becomes a more extended matter, well then, of course, will look at the changed circumstances.
Peter Stefanovic: Okay. And just finally and briefly here, Labor is pushing for an independent enquiry into Christian Porter. Do you believe that will proceed any further?
Simon Birmingham: No. We have independent police forces and independent courts, and they're the places that such allegations ought to be determined. There's not been grounds, I think, for any other change in approach, aside from backing the independence of our police forces and the independence of our courts. In that regard, the ABC has put clarification's up as a result of the settlement that it is reached with Christian Porter paying parts of his legal costs. That's a matter between him and the ABC.
Peter Stefanovic: Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time. We'll talk to you soon.