Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Saturday, 31 July 2021
Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much for coming along today. Obviously, a tough day and a difficult announcement that has been made in Queensland and a difficult time for people across Brisbane, particularly businesses across Brisbane. The Prime Minister has spoken with the Queensland Premier, and indeed, I anticipate and fully expect that a Commonwealth Hotspot declaration will be made later today by the Chief medical officer for affected the local government areas across the Brisbane region.
We recognise that the Delta strain is highly transmissible. Some 100 percent more transmissible than the types of COVID-19 we were dealing with early last year and that the right is to go early, go in hard to get on top of it.
We've seen in Victoria and South Australia have applied that approach recently and have done so to success, and we hope that Queensland is able to do the same in relation to this latest outbreak.
The declaration of Commonwealth Hotspot for the affected regions will trigger the availability of financial assistance to Queensland individuals and householders who lose work over the course of this lockdown. On the assumption that the Queensland government will be providing, as agreed by national cabinet, business support and assistance to affected businesses.
This will mean that for Queenslanders in seven days time, if they've lost more than eight hours of work during the course and as a result of the lockdown, then they will be able to apply for the different Commonwealth assistance available. For those who lose more than 20 hours of work, more than eight hours of work or for those who may be partial recipients of benefits already. Those different financial constraints will flow to them as they are flowing already to people across New South Wales and to people across Victoria and South Australia from the recent lockdowns in those states.
National cabinet had previously agreed, the expectation is that states also step up in terms of support for businesses. We've seen that occur in South Australia, in Victoria and in New South Wales. If this goes on for a long time, the Commonwealth delivers that in partnership with the state or territory and we look forward to Queensland stepping up and providing that support to those businesses across the Brisbane area who are affected by this.
It is a reminder of the importance to everyone. Continuing to follow all of the COVID rules, all the COVID safeguards. I want to thank all Australians who continue to get tested. Who continue to scan their QR codes, follow the rules around social distancing, who test, trace and isolate where that is required. The massive resources going, continuing in tracing efforts across Australia and the record numbers of Australians who continue to get vaccinated and ensure that day on day we continue to have record levels of vaccination across the country.
This is the way that will help us work through the different phases, discussed in national cabinet yesterday, of the evidence from the Doherty Institute to get us to the point where ultimately lockdowns won't be necessary but there's a way to go for that. Right now to suppress Delta this is the right approach. And we stand with Queenslander's and those in Brisbane to help them get through these next few days, and hopefully they can do it in such a short time.
Journalist: Do you believe that Australia can reach a 70 percent vaccination rate by the end of the year? And if so, what's that going to look like?
Simon Birmingham: So we have confidence in the supply of vaccines to Australia in distribution channels and through doctors, through pharmacists and through state run clinics. And it's really then Australians, who need to continue to turn out in record numbers to have those vaccines. We've seen very strong growth in relation to the vaccination rollout, in recent times. We're seeing a million doses hit in about six days average now. That's far faster than in earlier stages. It's a factor of having more supply and that's coming in, it's a factor of having more distribution points, but also of having Australians willing to get out there and have those vaccines. I thank not only the many now millions of Australians who have been vaccinated, who have booked their vaccination appointment and are partway through that. But also in particular, those who are advocating using their profiles and positions to get out there and encourage others to have a vaccine, particularly those who are highlighting the highly a effective nature of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is widely available around Australia, I acknowledge, when the media commentators and leaders have done so, any health professionals and leaders have done so. I noticed the former leader of the opposition, Bill Shorten, do so in some social media yesterday. More strongly I'd say than the current leader of the opposition has done.
I encourage everyone to provide those positive messages of reassurance for all Australians [indistinct].
Journalist: So that's the time frame the end of the year? Is that the time frame for 70 percent vaccination?
Simon Birmingham: We absolutely have vaccine supply, distribution channels to be able to hit those targets this year. What we need to see these Australians embrace those opportunities and as they're eligible, make those bookings, get out there, get vaccinated, and that can get us to move and hit those 70 per cent targets informed by science to give us the best chance of being able to reduce the likelihood of lockdowns, but still keep Australians safe and successfully suppress COVID-19.
Journalist: Only two countries have done that, only two countries have had 70 percent and they had vaccine supply much earlier. Is that realistic?
Simon Birmingham: It's absolutely realistic. We've seen now the UK push to 80 per cent of people having had at least the first dose. Yes, they've done so on the basis of the fact that as a country, they faced an enormous COVID crisis, tragic, massive loss of death that was a motivator for people. But Australians should be motivated to, to avoid those consequences. COVID is going to be around probably for the rest of our lives and to manage it successfully people need to get vaccinated. They need to heed those public health messages and embrace all of the opportunities available to be vaccinated.
Journalist: In regards to the WA quarantine hub. Why was the 40 hectare site at Jandakot picked over two alternative sites at Perth airport?
Simon Birmingham: So Jandakot provides an opportunity to be able to do it as quickly as possible, as effectively as possible, and had certainly a number of aspects that we're favoured in that regard. They included noise management and acoustic management issues around different airport precincts, they also included some environmental issues in terms of the speed with which we could get the approvals necessary to build the facilities on those sites and to do so with confidence that there wouldn't be unnecessary interruptions.
Journalist: And how confident are you that this new hub in Perth will be up and running before the first quarter of next year?
Simon Birmingham: We'll be doing everything possible to make sure that we do get these new facilities, a new facility in Perth operational by early next year and the new facility in Brisbane operational by early next year. This is what we're striving towards with the new facility in Melbourne to be operational by the end of this year. We've already, in the case of Melbourne, selected a prime contractor. They've got staff on site and they've got access to the site, earthworks will commence shortly. They've got contracts with a number of people who are building the modules that will create the new facility and we will be applying that same sense of urgency to get the job done in Perth and to get the job done in Brisbane.
Journalist: Back home this week we've had the heartbreaking case of a man who has rushed home from Spain and is stuck in hotel quarantine in Brisbane while his mum has potentially days if not weeks to live in the RAH with a brain cancer. SA Health has denied his application now 3 times now to serve his quarantine here. Despite angel flight offering to charter him direct from Brisbane without any interaction with any other passengers. What have you seen this case? And would you be calling on the state government to intervene or can you intervene? To try and reunite this family before it's too late?
Simon Birmingham: I have seen the media story in relation to the case, I wasn't aware of the offer from angel flight,a very generous and welcome offer in that regard. As the federal government we made sure the through the Home Affairs processes that approval was given entry into Australia, obviously, that has enabled him to travel from Europe to reach Australia. I would hope that SA Health can find a way to enable this man in these terrible, tragic and difficult circumstances to be able to see his mum at the earliest opportunity. I know these are difficult and challenging circumstances. [indistinct].
Journalist: [Indistinct] basically said that she's not terminal enough despite her cognitive function deteriorating further every day and he's had a phone call with her where she didn't even recognise his name. Is it a matter of having a heart and taking a more of a human approach rather than just looking at whether or not it's possible to keep her alive, but not in a state where she is able to communicate with her son.
Simon Birmingham: They've been so many heartbreaking cases right around world as the globe has dealt with this pandemic and this is another immensely challenging time. It's not easy for the health officials. But of course it's so emotionally devastating, I'm sure, for the man in question. I hope that a way can be found through that reserves the successful management of COVID but does give him the earliest chance to see his mum.
Journalist: Is there anything you can do or is there anything the premier can do to intervene in this case?
Simon Birmingham: It really is, I think, a matter for SA Health and there's nothing more I can say than the hopes that a way can be found. And I'm sure everybody wants to show as much compassion and consideration as possible. It is really a matter for the health authorities to try to find that way and ensure offer, such as that for Angel Flight hopefully can make a difference in terms of providing the confidence that a COVID safe way can enable [indistinct].
Journalist: Back on national government and the vaccination rate. If we do reach a 70 per cent vaccination rate. How confident are you that the states and territories are actually going to stick to that in terms of lifting lockdowns and easing lockdowns once we reach that rate, given the fact that they have largely gone at it alone throughout this pandemic.
Simon Birmingham: I gather it was a very positive discussion at National cabinet yesterday. The Doherty Institute research is world leading in terms of having gone through a very thorough, very scientific approach to model what is possible in terms of reopening at different vaccination levels without seeing COVID spiral out of control. I've seen some very positive comments from some of the labor premiers already. And I note, for example, Dan Andrews, previous comments that he wasn't going to have lockdowns in future to save people, who won't save themselves. The recognition that each and every Australian has to take an individual responsibility to protect themselves by getting vaccinated, to protect their families by getting vaccinated, to protect their loved ones by getting vaccinated and the entire community by getting vaccinated. And it's a responsibility that falls upon all of us, and it's one that if we take it seriously and we take the opportunities available to us we can hit world leading targets in terms of vaccination. Australia is a country in terms of our normal vaccination rollouts that does lead the world in terms of uptake and utilisation of vaccine, which gives us some of the best health outcomes in the world. The same is true for COVID, if Australians embrace the opportunity to be vaccinated for COVID. The same way we take seriously childhood vaccinations then we can lead the world in setting some of the highest outcomes and giving us the greatest protection.
Journalist: Was your understanding that at national cabinet yesterday, all state and territory leaders agreed to this 70 per cent target. And that was the threshold at which they would start to ease the lockdowns for those people who were vaccinated?
Simon Birmingham: My understanding is state and territory leaders accept the advice that is there. No doubt there will be further discussions and we have to be, as I think everyone would acknowledge, always prepared for uncertainty. When the government first started to get some modelling and some work done about vaccine rates necessary to reopen. That was way back before we even knew anything about the Delta variant. The Delta variant has changed things and there may be other things that could change circumstances over the months to come. We can only work on the evidence available at this point in time. I'm confident that the states and territories want to end lockdowns, want to reopen, but they want to do so as we do federally, in a way that is as safe as possible that ensures the investment that Australia has made, the investment by all Australians in their approach, their attitude as well as the enormous financial cost. Has been to save Australian lives. We want to make sure that occurs into the future, which is why this evidence based approach is so important and people embracing the vaccine rollout is so crucial.
Journalist: When do you think we might get to an 80 percent vaccination? We're currently at 18 per cent. Experts say it's going to be difficult to get to 80. When do you think that we're going to get to that? And do you think that's going to happen? Is that overly ambitious?
We have around about 40 per cent of the eligible population, over 16, who have already had a first d. If we dose. If we look at those categories of people who are first eligible for the vaccine, the over 70s, they're now nudging very close to that 80 per cent level of having had a first dose. I think that does show that Australians are eager and willing to get vaccinated. Those over 70s have had the greatest opportunity of the longest time horizon. Who were in first with the AStraZeneca vaccine have pushed their cohort to nearly 80 per cent already. It won't take much to push that age cohort over 80 percent. And it's up to every younger age group to take this just as seriously as those over 70s did. We've seen in this Sydney outbreak the tragic death of somebody in their 30s, the hospitalisations of a number of young people, it's a reminder that COVID can have devastating consequences at all age groups, and that's why people, whatever their age, should follow the lead of older Australians and make sure we all get towards that 80 per cent level.
Journalist: Minister, sorry two questions. Did the government contribute to some of the vaccine hesitancy on AstraZeneca with its late night press conferences and mixed messages about that? And then once you've answered that. Could you please give Perth a few more details? Will it be a thousand beds? What's the cost, capacity? And how did you deal with resolving some of those concerns?
Simon Birmingham: So, look, in terms of the ATAGI advice, we would all wish that the advice from ATAGI and indeed the evidence around AstraZeneca and been positive and constant right throughout. But that wasn't the situation we were dealing with. Many would have criticised if the government had sat on that advice from ATAGI for a longer period of time. And the Prime Minister made sure he shared that advice with the nation pretty much as soon as he had received it, because that's the thing we've applied all along. Acting on health and medical advice, sharing it publicly with the nation to try to make sure we maximise confidence in all stages.
Now, that advice has been refined over a period of time and pleasingly in refining it provides greater encouragement to Australians to access the AstraZeneca vaccine as well as any of the other vaccines that are available. And that's the message that's there at present. Please go out, take every opportunity you can to get vaccinated. They are good vaccines, all of them, they save lives, all of them. They've made a fundamental difference in other parts of the world. And they can and will make a fundamental difference here.
In relation to quarantine facility in Perth. We made the decision to go with the Jandakot site because it stacks up better in terms of being able to get the job done as quickly as we can, as efficiently as we can in a way that addresses a range of issues. Both site approximate to airports that obviously the Perth airport is a much busier airport than Jandakot, both have certain acoustic issues that have to be overcome. We will factor that into the design of the individual modules that will be built and constructed for the quarantine accommodation facility to provide some additional protection around noise management for individuals who are in there. But that can be done more effectively at Jandakot than at Perth. And my advice and understanding from the research that was undertaken at the sites and in comparison is that there are fewer environmental or land management issues to overcome in terms of using the Jandakot site than Perth. All of those reasons is why it makes more sense to proceed there at Jandakot. We thank the Western Australian government for their positive engagement and cooperation in the joint feasibility study for the work that is underway to settle a memorandum of understanding between the Federal Government and the West Australian government. As soon as we have all of that underway, they we will proceed as quickly as we have in Melbourne to the contracting and other details in place to make sure that works start as soon as possible.
Journalist: Are you still looking for 1000 beds though?
Simon Birmingham: The plan is certainly still for 1000 beds as we go through those different contracting phases. We will work through what's going to be possible to achieve operational capability as soon as possible in relation to the Melbourne facility we're striving to have 500 bed facility open by the end of this year, with a further 500 beds being added thereafter. And we haven't made any final determinations in relation to the facility in Perth yet. But it may be a similar path as taken to create an operational capability first and foremost, and then to finish the job thereafter.