Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Friday, 2 July 2021
Laura Jayes: Live to Adelaide now, the Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham, joins us, who's been imminently patient. We appreciate that. First, let me ask you, Simon Birmingham, what is the plan and why now?
Simon Birmingham: Well hello, Laura. The plan remains to ensure that every Australian has the opportunity to be vaccinated and that we encourage all Australians to take up that opportunity, as indeed we've seen some 7.8 million doses administered to date, a number that is now growing with around a million doses being administered every nine to ten days over the last few weeks. And that's very encouraging. Now, obviously, as we then push through the population and start to see very large levels of participation. For example, in the over 70s age group, we've got around 70 per cent of that population who've had at least one dose. And increasingly they're having their second goes through that cohort. That means you can start to have the conversations to think about the steps of reopening and how and when they will occur. And that's precisely what the prime minister is leading in national cabinet today.
Laura Jayes: Will vaccinated people be given more freedom, is that the government's position and the government's argument, which it's taking international cabinet?
Simon Birmingham: Well, these are part of the factors to consider. To what extent you take into account the vaccination status of an individual, how you consider the role of different nations that might present lower risks, what quantum or overall proportion of the eligible population are you needing to get to for different steps. Now, the growth of the delta variant means that modelling around these things needs redoing and updating. And there may be other uncertainties that come in the weeks and months ahead, which means that we always need to put that caveat there in terms of exactly how things will unfold. It's a global pandemic and there are plenty of uncertainties attached to it. But these are the sensible conversations to start to have now that we're seeing that increased speed in terms of the vaccine rollout and as long as that supply holds up, increased confidence attached to it and that all Australians will have their chance to have the jab this year.
Laura Jayes: So, as always, the vaccine is our ticket to freedom that has been, you know, been in the grey zone over the last couple of weeks and months, do you now accept then, Minister, that vaccine supply is holding us back?
Simon Birmingham: Vaccine supply has been a challenge. You frame the question as if I haven't accepted that before. I think I've said to you on occasion that we would wish that the three point four million doses that we had expected to arrive early this year from Europe had turned up. They didn't. That was a big hit to meeting some of those early targets. Subsequent big hit was the changed health advice around AstraZeneca. We've just had to deal with those unforeseen eventualities. They've occurred. They've meant that the strategies had to adjust. But what's important is that we've always had backup plans in place. It's why we contracted for 195 million doses of vaccine for Australians, not just AstraZeneca, but also Pfizer, also Moderna, also the use of other international cooperation facilities, all about ensuring that we had different contingencies for different scenarios. And as it's played out we've needed some of those. But crucially now we're saying that the take up of the vaccines that are coming in is strong and the number of doses becoming available has strengthened. And our expectation is that that will hold. But, of course, we continue to face those global uncertainties. It's why we had hoped that AstraZeneca would be able to be the workhorse of our vaccine programme because we could manufacture it here in Australia. That was such an important element of looking at that vaccine. But it's had the hurdles. Everybody knows about those. And that's why it's important that we have these back-ups in place and that we're seeing the increased supply of Pfizer in particular into the country.
Laura Jayes: Minister, the quantum, the number the total number of vaccines that we've ordered doesn't seem to be the problem. It's how quickly we are getting them. I guess a lot of people are sitting at home at the moment saying, why can't the government get on to Pfizer and give us more, more quickly 2.4 million in July. Is it going to be enough? We've signed up to the COVAX facility. Why can't we get more vaccines out of that more quickly?
Simon Birmingham: Australians should be assured that we continue to have discussions with the drug companies about just how quickly we can get vaccines into Australia, but this is a global pandemic and it's also a global vaccine approach. And unsurprisingly, many of the companies and many countries and regions have prioritised those parts of the world where there are huge and have been huge outbreaks and loss of life from Covid. And that's not been Australia and it's not been New Zealand. And it's why we had built a strategy really making sure that that we could have confidence through that domestic manufacturing capability. As we've discussed, that didn't happen. So - well domestic manufacturing is happening - but the health advice on AstraZeneca disrupted that process. Now, in terms of trying to get more in, we continue to have those conversations. But Australians, if they have a look at it, could see that the first million doses in Australia took around forty seven days to be administered. The last million doses administered have taken around nine days. That's the speed with which supply, distribution and administration of vaccines has grown. And we have a reasonable degree of confidence that we'll continue to see that strong supply of Pfizer and then Moderna later in the year coming into Australia. However, there's always the risk that there could be those global disruptions, which is why we have the further contingencies built in with so many doses contracted.
Laura Jayes: You say that you continue to have those conversations with suppliers, but the timeline, the horizons, whatever you want to call them over the last couple of months simply haven't changed. So have you been successful as a government, been successful in those conversations, or are you just been stonewalled? And have those conversations been fruitless?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Laura, what we've avoided some of the further disruptions like those we had at the start of the year, that 3.4 million doses that had been expected, that that didn't turn up. Now, we've been able to make sure that contracts that have been entered to are being met. But, of course, every other country in the world is still pressuring in relation to vaccine those that have the manufacturing capability of putting pressure in a domestic sense. And, of course, pretty much every other country, aside from ourselves and New Zealand and a handful of others crying out that they're Covid situation has got loss of lives occurring and that therefore they deserve priority. And these are the different factors that are weighed in arguments around the world. We're getting on with the vaccine here in Australia. It is the fact that we've got 70 per cent of over 70s have had at least one dose, around 50 per cent of over 50s have had at least one dose. Around 30 per cent of the entire eligible population over 16 have had at least one dose. And those numbers are growing far more strongly now than they were a few weeks ago. And we just want to see that growth continue. And we're very grateful for the fact that Australians have embraced the vaccine rollout, continue to do so despite some of the scaremongering, some of the naysayers around the rest of the country. And equally, Australians are still dealing with the other challenges from Covid. But it's a week in which we've seen a record of vaccinations, as well as a record day for Covid testing. And that's a real compliment to Australians that they embrace that.
Laura Jayes: Naysayers you say? Are you talking about the Queensland premier there?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I think some of the comments that came from Queensland this week have been far from helpful in that regard, but I hope that they will put the politicking aside and actually get back on with the job of supporting the vaccine rollout supporting Australia in our handling of Covid. And that may be today's national cabinet meeting can be a circuit breaker and that perhaps Premier Palaszczuk can listen to Premier Andrews, for example, who's been a bit more sensible in his messaging on the vaccine of late than she has.
Laura Jayes: Simon Birmingham. Thanks so much for your time, as always, and thanks for your patience this morning. Appreciate it.