Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Wednesday, 28 July 2021
Peter Stefanovic: Welcome back to Late Edition. Well, there are calls for the federal government to increase financial support to Sydney as the lockdown is set to be extended for another four weeks. Joining me live now is the Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham. Minister, good to have you with us this morning. Thanks for your time. So, as you know, there is going to be an extension of four weeks at least. What extra help are you going to provide?
Simon Birmingham: These are certainly tough times for people across Sydney in particular and other COVID affected areas of the lockdown in New South Wales. What we're providing already is the support to the tune of around five hundred million dollars per week in household income and economic assistance going in across New South Wales. This is an important pillar that has helped to date. But over recent days, knowing that New South Wales government is likely to have to make this decision to extend the lockdown to seek to suppress the highly contagious Delta strain, we've been having discussions with the government about what type of additional support might be necessary. The Prime Minister had further discussions with the New South Wales Premier last night to inform her of our thinking in that regard. And there will be additional announcements made during the course of today to make sure that we help New South Wales to get through this lockdown, to make it a success in terms of suppressing COVID and to be in the best possible position for their economy to bounce back strongly at the end of it, just as every other part of the Australian economy has bounced back strongly to date from COVID suppression strategies and lockdown's that have been put in place.
Peter Stefanovic: Is one of the options a return to JobKeeper 3.0?
Simon Birmingham: No, because what we've got in the household COVID disaster assistance payments is something that is working now that has been likened by, for example, the Victorian Labor Premier, Dan Andrews, as being the new model of JobKeeper. And that really is what it's intended to be. JobKeeper worked as a nationwide program. These disaster assistance payments, are able to work as a localised program. And what we're dealing with here are localised lockdowns across Sydney, not something that requires payments to necessarily be made in Perth or Darwin or elsewhere across the country. But these disaster payments are not only able to be targeted in a more geographic sense, they're also actually more accessible to many people, particularly the casual workers. And so we've been looking carefully at how those payments are working and where we might tweak them to ensure they respond as effectively as possible in supporting individuals and households through the conditions where they're losing hours of work.
Peter Stefanovic: Will they rise from six hundred dollars?
Simon Birmingham: Look, the adequacy of the payments, particularly for a more prolonged lockdown at the types of things right now that we've been looking at. As I said the Prime Minister will have more to say during the course of the day.
Peter Stefanovic: So maybe.
Simon Birmingham: That when you get into a particular long lockdown period, such as this has become that we recognise many of those who are losing work, obviously have ongoing financial commitments that were premised on the basis that they would have work security. And so they're the types of considerations that we've been weighing.
Peter Stefanovic: Ok, so it may well rise that's your thinking. It may rise from 600 to possibly 750 a week?
Simon Birmingham: I'm not going to pre-empt the announcements by the Prime Minister-
Peter Stefanovic: Can you rule it out then?
Simon Birmingham: As I said, our government's been having these discussions. Certainly not doing that. Our Government has been having these discussions for days-
Peter Stefanovic: You're one of the money men, Minister.
Simon Birmingham: Indeed and I also respected the Prime Minister will make announcements on these matters that he's been talking overnight to the New South Wales government, informing them of the types of deliberations we've been having as a federal government about the support that we can provide. We're seeking to work as cooperatively as we can with New South Wales. And it's important we let those discussions come to a conclusion, having, as I said, done the preliminary work, knowing that this was likely and making sure we're in a position where decisions have been made to step up where it's necessary.
Peter Stefanovic: Okay. Well, this would be the fourth tweak in a matter of two months. Do you keep underestimating the problem?
Simon Birmingham: No, but look, right throughout this pandemic from day one, we've continued to adjust and adapt as is necessary, and on the whole, that has served Australia better than almost any other country in the world. Our economy has continued to bounce back from these type of setbacks faster than almost any other nation. We've been in a position where we've saved lives as a country, an estimated 30,000 through the successful suppression of COVID to date. And that's why we want to support New South Wales to continue to apply the strategies necessary to successfully suppress COVID. We've also been able to save businesses and ensure business failures in Australia far lower and across much of the rest of the world. And we've been able to save jobs with indeed employment coming back to in excess of pre COVID levels prior to these lockdown's well ahead of the rest of the world as well. So the measures we've deployed to date have worked, and our focus in terms of ongoing measures in supporting Sydney will be intently from the federal government perspective on helping make sure that we save jobs and that we put the New South Wales economy in the best possible position to come back strongly following these lockdowns, as it has done before and as economies right across Australia have done.
Peter Stefanovic: There's no end in sight though Minister at the moment, yeah we're looking at a four week extension, but that's at least. It could well go beyond that. And numbers keep rising day to day here to new record levels. Would you like to see a tougher lockdown in Sydney?
Simon Birmingham: Well it's important the lockdown is effective, and so I'm not going to judge necessarily from another city where I can't see or-
Peter Stefanovic: Doesn't seem to be affective though-
Simon Birmingham: -what's occurring in Sydney. But it is important that that people across New South Wales and especially those facing the lockdown conditions in Sydney comply with them. That they listen to authorities. That they know that they're going to have and do have the types of economic and financial support that we are providing to get them through these tough times so that they don't do the wrong thing. We know it's tough. We know it's difficult for many individuals. We know it places emotional and mental health stresses. And that's why those sorts of supports are there. But it is crucial to continue to suppress this highly contagious delta strain. We're seeing different types of lockdowns being applied in other cities of the world, such as Singapore, other cities that have sought to reopen quickly, having to wind back some of some of those conditions, such as in the Netherlands. These are not unique challenges, but Australia has shown a world leading ability to overcome these challenges right through the COVID pandemic. And we need to show that again and in particular, Sydneysiders need to show that resolve and that ability.
Peter Stefanovic: Will extra supplies of vaccines and in particular, Pfizer, be moved from other states towards Sydney to help out? Has there been any change on that front?
Simon Birmingham: So in terms of vaccines, we have now some eleven point four million doses that have been administered across Australia-
Peter Stefanovic: Will the supply be increased to New South Wales, though?
Simon Birmingham: I was going to come to that. So in terms of the New South Wales, we're seeing growth in terms of the availability of the Pfizer vaccine with a million doses a week coming into the country now forecasting increases down the pipeline. And we're providing what we can in terms of additional New South Wales, but also supporting with the provision of both Pfizer and AstraZeneca, the opening of a new pharmacy hubs in New South Wales, the opening of New VACs hubs by the New South Wales government, providing more distribution points, more opportunity. And indeed, I would urge those people across New South Wales to look very carefully at whatever vaccine is available to them as the ATAGI advice encourages them to do so.
Peter Stefanovic: Just finally, Minister, I just want to get your thoughts on rapid antigen tests, which, as you know, can be self-administered. They've been doing it overseas for a long time now. We're still not doing it here. Why is it taking so long?
Simon Birmingham: So there are some types of rapid antigen testing that I understand have the regulatory approval in Australia and so individual businesses or others wish to utilise that technology. Some may well be able to do so now. And I understand increasing numbers are potentially looking at doing so. As a complement to the PCR testing and in addition to it, then indeed, it may well make sense for people to utilise that technology, but it's not a replacement for something that provides a higher degree of confidence in terms of the results and gives greater levels of confidence in terms of whether or not somebody as COVID-19. So continuing to use those PCR tests will be essential for the management of this pandemic. But the rapid antigen test could certainly be a complement that some may choose to use. And I see the New South Wales government and speculation potentially doing so as well.
Peter Stefanovic: Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, good to have you with us. Thank you. We'll talk to you soon.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Pete. My pleasure.