Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Friday, 3 September 2021
Laura Jayes: Let's go live now to the Minister for Finance Simon Birmingham. Thanks so much for your time. We saw the GDP figures out this week, though, were to be expected. We're now looking at a bounce back once we get to that 80 per cent vaccination rate. But looking at what's happening under those figures, Minister, do you accept that it's not like last time and businesses simply just can't hang on at the moment?
Simon Birmingham: Laura, I think, firstly, people should acknowledge that the Australian economy has shown enormous resilience through the course of the last 18 months or so now and continues to demonstrate that resilience in terms of the economic growth data, the employment data and indeed overall business data shows that Australia, despite the many ups and downs and uncertainties of COVID-19, Delta variants, etc., is in a very strong position, and that we should have great confidence looking to the future, that there will be a continued strength in our businesses, which equates to strength in jobs and employment for Australians, and that that is what really matters. But there's no doubt there are individual businesses who have been and continue to do it tough for a variety of reasons associated with COVID, be it the prolonged closure of international borders, or be it, of course, the localised shutdowns and lockdowns that we've seen, particularly in our two big states. And so we know they're doing it tough. Now, the scale of government support and assistance and going out continues to be very, very significant. And we are delivering billions of dollars in assistance into those states and supporting individuals through the COVID disaster assistance payments and supporting businesses in conjunction with state and territory governments. And we've shown a degree of agility in terms of working, not just with the two big states, but also in targeted ways with other states trying to support targeted business assistance packages to help those who may be continuing to feel those disruptions.
Laura Jayes: Ok, well, let's talk vaccines, because it is our ticket to freedom and my preferred topic, as you know. 500,000 Pfizer doses have arrived from Singapore this morning. Is that all we're going to get in the first week of September?
Simon Birmingham: No, it's not. That's the additional that we get from Singapore. But we continue to receive doses of Pfizer coming in and growing from a million doses a week to two million doses a week, as has been forecast. So this is an additional 500,000. If you look at what's happening with vaccinations across Australia at present. We managed to shift the dial from having had 19 million vaccines administered to 20 million vaccines administered in the space of just three days. So one million doses administered across the country in three days. It's a testament to Australians and their willingness to get out there and to all the health professionals who are working so hard in terms of delivery there and our focus is on keeping that supply and logistics-
Laura Jayes: Because those 500,000 extra Pfizer doses from Singapore will be really helpful, particularly in New South Wales. We're meant to be getting- there's a total four point eight million Pfizer doses this month. Now we're getting a million Moderna at some stage as well. So the horizons say, we're meant to be getting one point three million Pfizer doses a week. Is that going to happen?
Simon Birmingham: We expected Pfizer who have to date, honoured all of their commitments will continue to do so. Yeah. And so we're anticipating that that will be the case. And this 500,000 coming on top of those horizon's projections. So this is a very positive-
Laura Jayes: But for September, for this week. It's only 500,000 that have arrived from Singapore, even though it is extra.
Simon Birmingham: No, the 500,000 from Singapore is additional to the normal deliveries that we are receiving-
Laura Jayes: And that's what I'm asking. Do we know what's been delivered?
Simon Birmingham: I don't have the precise figure for this week, but nor am I aware of there being any disruption to that current flow that we're seeing of vaccines coming in as scheduled on time from Pfizer, who has been a very reliable partner in that regard.
Laura Jayes: Ok, let's talk about-
Simon Birmingham: I was going to make sure- you know, the delays we had at the start of the vaccine program, where three point four million didn't turn up. That wasn't Pfizer. They have been a very reliable partner. And there's nothing to suggest that that's changing.
Laura Jayes: Ok, good to know. We're looking forward to that two million a week from October as well. Now let's talk a rapid antigen testing. What's going on there? Why aren't we at least getting ready to have all the frameworks in place and all the approvals in place to do at home testing? I accept what the prime minister said a couple of weeks ago, that, you know, you need to basically see who is testing positive and who isn't. But shouldn't we be getting ready for a scenario in just a couple of months time where people can do these tests themselves?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I think we are getting ready for that that Laura. We've got states and territories now looking at applying rapid antigen testing in a broader range of scenarios. We've got pilots underway in aged care facilities in terms of people coming and going from those facilities and using them. And we've got the TGA under the request of the health minister looking at broadening the approval criteria for how and where rapid antigen testing can be used. They're all the pillars that need to change to enable it to be able to be deployed more broadly across Australia and particularly more broadly as we look at those change scenarios that in hitting those 70 and 80 per cent vaccine targets then what you're looking for there is different approaches, as New South Wales is talking about in terms of perhaps how things that we've relied on to date, like contact tracing may occur and perhaps different approaches in terms of where testing can be self-administered, such as in-
Laura Jayes: Yes. And that's the one I'm talking about, the self-administering of these tests. So are you saying that is happening at the moment, the approvals, you know, you might not want to see people self-administering these tests right at the moment, given where we are at our vaccination rate? But are you saying that the TGA and the government is working together at the moment to make sure that when we're ready to do them, we can?
Simon Birmingham: My understanding is that the Health Minister has asked the TGA to look at broadening those criteria in terms of how rapid antigen tests can be used. At present, they can only be used where a good number of them have been approved, but they can only be used under supervision of medical or health personnel to broaden that criteria of their usage would enable them to be used in other settings be they in workplaces, schools or potentially homes. Now, we'll say, well, TGA lands on there in terms of their health advice and they're the experts to make those decisions. But it is really those series of steps using them more broadly already in relation to aged care facilities and piloting and trialling that, states and territories looking to adjust their rules. Because to date they have been quite resistant and wanted to make sure that the more accurate PCR tests were where the focus on testing lay. But we're now seeing some shifts there, particularly from New South Wales and then the regulator looking at the approvals regime and the health ministers asked them to do that.
Laura Jayes: Indeed. Let's talk about the national plan now. It seems anything but national at the moment, looking at the comments of Mark McGowan and Annastacia Palaszczuk. What have you made about the public comments over the last couple of days and where we're all heading?
Simon Birmingham: Laura, it is disappointing. I'd urge all leaders to focus on facts, not fear, to focus on the realities of what we face, and that is that COVID-19 is endemic around the world. That delta variant is endemic around the world. And we do have to make sure that as a country and as individual states, we chart a pathway based on science, based on evidence to deal with the realities that we face around COVID-19. And that is what the Doherty Institute modelling and the national plan seeks to do to use scientific evidence and analysis to chart the different steps forward. Now, nobody has suggested at any stage from anyone who has properly read and understood the national plan that we just hit, 70 per cent. Everybody abandons all level of protections or the like, and we just let it rip. That is not what the national plan says. It's not what the federal government has advocated and any state leaders who to intimate that, frankly being misleading with the public. What all should be focussed on is educating the public about, firstly, the priority of getting vaccinated, driving those numbers to 80 per cent and higher, understanding that the 12 to 15 year olds we're going to start vaccinating soon are in addition to those 80 per cent targets that we've got and will add an extra layer of protection there, and that the plan is a series of graduated steps, but still expect us to operate in safer, cautious ways, particularly in that 70 to 80 per cent range. But even at 80 per cent to be undertaken in the analysis to carefully have protections where they're going to make sense and slow the spread across the community.
Laura Jayes: Okay, Simon Birmingham. Enjoy COVID free Adelaide.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Laura. All the best to everyone, particularly in the more challenging circumstance.