Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Wednesday, 4 August 2021
Tina Quinn: Mr. Birmingham joins us on the line now. Good morning, Minister. Welcome to The Daily.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Tina. Good to be with you.
Tina Quinn: So under Labor Leader Anthony Albanese's plan, every Australian citizen who is fully vaccinated by December 1st would receive a 300 dollar cash payment from the government. Now, other countries around the world, including the United States, have introduced vaccine incentives. Why do you object to the plan?
Simon Birmingham: Well, the US and indeed other countries haven't done anything quite like what Anthony Albanese is proposing, to send 300 dollars to every single person, including the many millions who have already been vaccinated. In Australia, we're seeing that there is really strong demand for the vaccination program. If you look at the over 70s, who were the first age cohort who were allowed to go and get the vaccine, we've now got nearly 80 per cent, more than 79 per cent of over 70 have had their first dose. And increasingly, they're going back having their second dose. And so we have very high confidence that they're going to exceed the 80 per cent mark. And there's no reason why younger Australians shouldn't be just as motivated to save their lives, to save the lives of their loved ones and of others in our community by going and getting vaccinated as those older Australians have shown a willingness to voluntarily do so already.
Tina Quinn: Absolutely. But you do admit there's been there's been a number of I guess a lot of vaccine hasn't hesitancy created, I guess, especially for the younger generation with the mixed messaging that has gone on around, especially with the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is, of course, the one that we have the most supply of, and that younger Australians are now being encouraged to go and receive, even though that sort of went against the original ATAGI advice. Do you not think that there is a place for some vaccine incentives for at least younger Australians who might be hesitant about going and receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine?
Simon Birmingham: I acknowledge that in some pockets AstraZeneca hesitancy has established. I don't think that should be confused with broader vaccine hesitancy. And as we move through the rest of this year, we have many more millions of doses of the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine coming online in addition to those supplies of AstraZeneca. So as a country, when we get to the end of this year, there is going to be a large volume of vaccines available that should have been able to meet the needs and the demands of the Australian population at that time. What we need to do is to make sure that people are appropriately educated, including about the AstraZeneca vaccine that it like Pfizer has a 90 per cent reduction in relation to your likelihood of dying from COVID-19. That is a highly effective vaccine and that the ability of the medical profession to pick up the very, very rare instances of blood clotting and to treat them has improved significantly as we've worked through this vaccine rollout.
Tina Quinn: Right. Now, you do understand so the criticism that, you know, the criticism is that while the federal government is happy to splash, say, 25 billion dollars on JobKeeper for companies that don't necessarily need it, they won't fund incentives to get people vaccinated. How do you respond to that?
Simon Birmingham: Well JobKeeper was one of the most successful programs in Australian history in ensuring that at a time when the entire country, not just the very difficult situation that people in Sydney are facing right now, but the whole nation was confronted with lockdowns and shutdowns and enormous restrictions-
Tina Quinn: Right. But large corporations have, you know, quite largely benefited from the JobKeeper, from the JobKeeper stimulus, while individuals have suffered like, you know, Gerry Harvey is a perfect example.
Simon Birmingham: Those businesses benefited because restrictions ended sooner than expected. They benefited because people were actually able to get back to work and get back into our economy. That's what actually made the difference in that regard. Those businesses were ordered to shut at the time JobKeeper was born and put into place. And so it made perfect sense to make sure those big retail businesses and so on were eligible for JobKeeper at the time because there was enormous risk hanging over them at that stage too and our economy came back faster and that led them to be in a much better financial position. And what's that resulted in? Well, it meant that before these recent lockdowns, we actually had more Australians in work than we had pre pandemic. Now, that was something that no other advanced country in the world had managed to achieve as fast as Australia. And so JobKeeper was a huge factor in our economic success in getting Australians back into work. And now we've indeed refined the way in which a program like JobKeeper works so that we're able to better target it to individuals who are losing hours, to hotspots like Sydney at present and to turn it on and off for those shorter lockdowns that other cities have seen to really give that effective targeted assistance. But at the time, that just wasn't practical. When we were dealing with a nationwide situation.
Tina Quinn: Right, the goal by the end of the year is to have 70 per cent of the population vaccinated. That's the end goal. And that's basically what we need to see to make sure that we can stamp out having to continually rely on lockdown's. What happens if we don't achieve this goal, though?
Simon Birmingham: We should have high confidence of achieving that goal. We've already got 80 per cent of the first age cohort who are vaccinated and are on their way to getting their second dose in very high numbers. Already got more than 41 per cent of the entire eligible over 16 population vaccinated. And that's before we actually have opened the doors across the country to under 40s being able to go through any outlet or choice of a vaccine program themselves. So I think we should have really good confidence that Australians who, when it comes to childhood vaccination, ensure that close to 95 per cent of kids and babies across Australia are vaccinated. Australians, are big vaccinators as a population, Australians understand the benefits of getting vaccinated. And I think we will see that's the case in relation to COVID as well. And what have been the challenges to date? Have been supply challenges mean three point four million doses didn't turn up from Europe at the start of the program, have been the changes in ATAGI's advice around AstraZeneca, but they haven't been demand challenges. Australians, if anything, complain about the length of time to get a booking and the availability of vaccines and they're the things that are being fixed by getting more doses into the country and opening up more distribution points,
Tina Quinn: You're right in saying there's definitely demand for it. But to get to the 70 per cent goal of having 70 per cent of the population vaccinated by the end of the year, the federal government has said that we need weekly vaccination rates to get to at least six million by the end of August. I mean, in general, I think it's in New South Wales alone. I think it's only half a million are getting vaccinated a week at present. Do you think that we're really on track to have at least six million people vaccinated by the end of August for that to be the weekly rate?
Simon Birmingham: I don't think we've ever said that would be the weekly rate. The weekly rate is now running in excess of one million a week. I think we can certainly see a time where that should essentially double when we get the extra supply coming through the system and that we're going to see numbers that have already grown to achieving around 4.5 million a month, growing to a point of achieving six million and so on a month. And they're the figures that we absolutely think are achievable based on the confidence we now have of the supply of Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca coming through. Based on the fact that we've got new distribution points in pharmacies opening up, hopefully more doctors and the different state clinics operating, which will give people more choices of where they can get a vaccine, greater confidence in the supply and create those extra booking slots
Tina Quinn: If New South Wales, if the lockdown continues past the end of August, which is the current date and the way we're going with numbers at the moment, I mean, it does look like where we're going to be in for quite a protracted lockdown. Do you think we need to see a return of JobKeeper?
Simon Birmingham: Well, what we've put in place is something that is actually more accessible for many individuals in New South Wales than JobKeeper. So if you had been a short term casual employee, you actually weren't eligible for JobKeeper. The COVID disaster payment of 750 dollars is applicable to shorter term casual employees, as long as they've lost more than eight hours of work or more than 20 hours to get the 750 dollars. It's also a more generous payment in that it is treated tax free to two individuals than whereas JobKeeper was a taxable payment passed through the employer. These payments are disaster payments and therefore treated as tax free. And we've already seen more than one million claims made and more than 550 million dollars paid out. The Victorian premier likened this as being the next stage of JobKeeper. And I think that's a very good analogy.
Tina Quinn: Right. Just lastly, I want to ask you about something that our federal treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, said yesterday. He said that the economic cost comes down significantly if governments work quickly to get on top of the virus and that this is the prime minister's point. Early interventions, short, sharp lockdowns are the most cost effective way to handle the virus. What how do you react to this complete backflip by our PM and by your government? Basically, because, you know, a month ago, I think it was even just over a month ago, our PM was, you know, heralding how well Sydney was dealing with the latest outbreak by not locking down. And he consistently chided other states for locking down too quickly. And to fast those other states like Queensland and Victoria and the Northern Territory, WA, they've all avoided long, protracted lockdowns in recent months because they locked down hard and fast. South Australia, as well. New South Wales, of course, didn't do this and let the horse bolt from the stable. Basically, it's now costing billions and billions a week due to the lockdown. What's your reaction to this complete backflip from your government?
Simon Birmingham: The Delta variant is around 100 per cent more transmissible than the original version of COVID-19 we were all dealing with and so-.
Tina Quinn: But the other states we're dealing with, the Delta variants in their recent lockdown's as well, and they acted even harder and faster than they probably usually would have because of the increased, you know, spread ability and the increased risk.
Simon Birmingham: And we all learn from how that Delta variant operates and works. And we've obviously seen the fact that whilst New South Wales approach to avoid lockdowns, previously had been incredibly successful. Had minimised economic costs on New South Wales while still suppressing the virus very successfully, that circumstance changes with the Delta variant that the ability of testing, tracing, isolating systems to keep up with all aspects of its movement is much harder. And so they are the circumstances that have changed and as a result, the approach and advice has to change. That's just a reality that everybody has to deal with. And as a government, we're all big enough to acknowledge those changed circumstances, that it's about following the medical advice at the time. And that medical advice has changed in terms of the speed with which jurisdictions need to move to a lockdown and the way in which they apply those lockdowns.
Tina Quinn: Minister Birmingham, I understand you've got a very busy day ahead of you in the Senate. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us on The Daily.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Tina. My pleasure.