Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Thursday, 21 October 2021
Laura Jayes: Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for your time. First of all, good news.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Laura.
Laura Jayes: All these flights are going to resume. We've got jobs back in the aviation industry, which is good for the entire economy. Why can't the government say when you're going to open to tourists and international students?
Simon Birmingham: Laura, it's been a really fantastic week in terms of progress against the national plan. What we've seen, of course, is the continued steps towards reopening in New South Wales. The wonderful celebration that's happening in Victoria today as they reopen. The announcement by Queensland in terms of their adoption of the national plan and when they're going to reopen borders and how they're going to do so at those 70 and 80 per cent double vaccination rates. So all of this shows that that the evidence the Prime Minister put on the table some time ago is working in terms of providing that roadmap and that pathway that states are adapting to their circumstances. But broadly, they are working to those 70 and 80 per cent targets. They're working to the four phases and Phase C which we're really celebrating with the announcement from Qantas is providing more opportunity for fully vaccinated Australians to be able to travel and move more freely and not just within Australia, but internationally. We always said that was Phase C and that that would run for a while before we got into the final stage D, which is where we can see some normalisation of those international borders.
Laura Jayes: But we're seeing these flights. Qantas is putting on flights to Singapore at the end of November. Fiji closely followed after that. I mean, does Qantas know something that we don't? Or are these flights only for Australians vaccinated ones at that?
Simon Birmingham: Well, it's fully vaccinated Australians, their families, permanent residents, it's a reasonable catchment that exists there. Clearly destinations like Fiji that you highlighted are largely an outbound destination in terms of a destination that Australians travel to. It's not one that we get quite so many visitors from. So that's Qantas decision as to how they schedule those flights, but it's extraordinarily welcome news that they have the confidence to do so. And we do want to make sure that assuming all goes well as the systems are tested with those fully vaccinated Australians and those close to Australians, that we can then move as quickly as we possibly can onto that fourth and final stage that will provide for international students, international tourists, greater business travel and investor travel.
Laura Jayes: Just on the international students. International students are desperate for information at the moment. You would know that there's a lot of correspondence going around at the moment from all these students just trying to get some clarity. Can you give some of that clarity today? I mean, the first semester next year, will they be back in on campus in Australia?
Simon Birmingham: So, Laura, we are going to go through each of the stages, we're going to go through them as quickly as we can. Once we've tested the systems and make sure we provide Australians with confidence that what we're doing is keeping them safe. Managing COVID still, as we have to do going forward, but also providing the dividends of highly vaccinated population and the ability to reopen as quickly as we can. That means that we do want to get into the international student market and their ability to return as quickly as we can, and I think they should be optimistic about the first semester of next year. But we're not going to put a fixed date on that yet until we've actually got that movement happening at our international borders as a proving up the systems, making sure Australians have confidence, making sure that we're delivering on all the promises we've made about this being done safely and against a plan, which is precisely what we've been doing.
Laura Jayes: But you should be able to give a fixed date by Christmas, surely?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I think once we start to see that movement happening at the international borders, then yes, obviously that's, you know, that's when those systems will be tested, when people hopefully will have confidence and when we will be able to say, okay, Phase C is working, Stage C is working, we can move on to that Stage D.
Laura Jayes: We're really excited about these announcements. It does feel like we're starting to get back into some kind of normal life. But 2,189 new cases today in Victoria as that state starts to open up and 16 more deaths. Does that make you nervous?
Simon Birmingham: I think it reinforces precisely some of the things I was just saying. That the national plan is not about simply saying, everything instantaneously goes back to how it was pre-COVID. Because that's not what we've ever said, and we recognise that living with COVID is going to require us to show a degree of vigilance in terms of the type of practises that are put in place to keep slowing the spread where possible. Requires us to test all of those systems to make sure that they work in terms of, if we're saying, only fully vaccinated people coming into the country. That all of our border controls and other measures work effectively to make sure it's only fully vaccinated people coming in. All of these are the types of careful, cautious parts of the national plan that we've put in place.
Now, obviously, now we do have to keep some perspective about these things, though, as well. If you go back to 2019 to pre-COVID days, you had around 160,000 people who died in Australia in 2019, about 460 per day. Deaths happen on a daily basis. At a personal level, they're tragic in every individual circumstance and we want to minimise them as we seek to do through medical research, through vaccination, through road safety measures, through mental health measures, a whole range of different policies and programmes. And managing COVID is now moving into that sphere, where we seek to minimise the health impacts through extensive vaccination and through other proper, careful safeguards.
Laura Jayes: You've been kind of bullied into these quarantine facilities by the states, some states, I might say. Aren't they looking increasingly redundant, given the announcements we've seen in New South Wales and the reluctance for state premiers to enforce this kind of quarantine in the future?
Simon Birmingham: I think what we'll see is that indeed, their purpose will continue to evolve depending upon the evidence we see as we move through these different stages. So at present, we're still only talking about those fully vaccinated Australians in those cohorts close to Australians coming in. Obviously, there are questions about unvaccinated Australians and how and where they quarantine. There'll be questions about other cohorts of people who may still face some quarantine periods but may not have homes to quarantine in in different circumstances. There are questions about what happens if we see something beyond the Delta variant that requires us to pivot or change or require a quarantine in the future. And so the facilities that we're building in Melbourne, in Perth, in Brisbane to complement the one we have in Darwin, they're about providing the long term resilience. They may meet future COVID demands and they may respond to other global health crises. They may respond to national emergency and disaster situations in Australia. We'll work with each of those state governments to make sure that they're utilised in an optimal way depending on the emergency conditions we face at the time.
Laura Jayes: Okay, Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for your time. We'll see you soon.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Laura. My pleasure.