Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Thursday, 20 January 2022
Peter Stefanovic: On that point, let's go to the Finance Minister live from Adelaide, Simon Birmingham joins us live. Minister, good to see you. Thanks for your time this morning. Now National Cabinet today. Prime Minister wants states to abandon those daily rapid tests to help ease those supply chain logjams. There aren't enough of them, so we've effectively got the situation where we've got to ration what's left. That is a sorry state to be in, isn't it?
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Pete. Look, testing first and most importantly, remains free for Australians if they have COVID symptoms, remains free for those who are close contacts and they should seek an access, all of those different opportunities. In relation then to screening testing that might be undertaken it's important as we are doing and supplying millions of kits into the aged care sector, for example, to make sure that kits are available for that type of screening. And we continue then to work with other sectors where it is appropriate, necessary for them to undertake some screening, but particularly where that screening can enable, for example, close contacts to be able to come back to work. They have no symptoms if they're showing negative results, and these are the ways we can make sure that we address, what is perhaps the biggest global challenge, being caused by Omicron and particularly being felt here in Australia. And they are the labour market challenges. There's a global shortage of rapid antigen tests. It's not unique to Australia. There are global pressures in terms of the huge transmissibility and spread of Omicron, and we're feeling those in Australia. But the good news has been that Omicron is around 70 per cent less impactful in terms of severe illness or disease on individuals, and that's enabled us to follow health advice to make the types of changes we have to close contact rules to isolation requirements and to make this more effective use of rapid antigen tests to help make sure people can stay at work or get back to work.
Peter Stefanovic: You did isolate some sectors there and that is worthy, but across the board, this could have been done a whole lot better and a whole lot earlier, could it not? Business leaders called for it the middle of last year. Some Australian companies asked for orders in the middle of last year, too, but were turned away. So do you concede that errors were made?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Pete, we worked very closely with the health advice and that was a desire by health officials to see us as stick with PCR testing due to its high levels of accuracy and effectiveness. Australia has managed to maintain one of the highest testing rates per capita in the world right through this process. So whilst I know there's been angst about some of the queues for wait times or the availability of tests for non-essential purposes, Australia's testing rates have held up far above many European countries, many other parts of the world in terms of the tests that are undertaken here in Australia. As I said before, rapid antigen tests themselves are in short supply in the UK, in the US, in Canada. This is a global pressure point caused by the fact that Omicron has proven to be so much more transmissible and has created these issues around the world. We've been able to supply millions not only to aged care, we've supplied millions to the states and territories. We have actually been able to meet the essential needs in Australia, and we have many millions more on order and coming into the country regularly.
Peter Stefanovic: Sure. But by putting those orders in place much earlier, you may well have avoided those huge supply chain logjams and those huge testing queues that we saw over the Christmas break.
Simon Birmingham: We would all wish that we could have seen Omicron coming and the huge surge that it generated in terms of demand for testing and the very dramatically changed circumstances compared with what had been carefully modelled for the Delta variant, Australia was one of the few countries in the world that was able to model out how we were going to reopen against the impacts of Delta. But unfortunately, Omicron struck and changed a lot of those impacts. As I said, the upside is it's not driving people into hospitals at the same rate per case as Delta or previous variants of COVID-19 would have. But the challenging side is that it is so much more transmissible. That's not a challenge unique to Australia it is a fact right around the world.
Peter Stefanovic: Right, you want to open up the door to migrants after shutting them out for two years. Are you expecting many to take up that offer or has the damage been done? And is it more of a problem now that you've got the US and the EU telling people that they shouldn't come here?
Simon Birmingham: Look, around 320,000 students have come to Australia since initial decisions were made or have stayed in Australia during that time. So, we know that we remain incredibly popular with international students. The decisions made yesterday build upon the type of changes we've made to close contact rules to isolation rules in response to the changed health advice and circumstances of Omicron. And this is about trying to say to around 170,000 working holiday makers and international students who have visas already to come to Australia, that there's an incentive to come a little sooner, to come a little faster because these individuals contribute to our economy in many different ways, and they contribute as students by paying fees, by living here, they contribute as working holidaymakers, by spending almost every cent they earn here in Australia, travelling around the country. But they also, we know historically feel some key jobs in Australia right now and we're putting the incentive there to say come a bit faster-
Peter Stefanovic: Should the Americans, though, just sorry to interrupt, but should the Americans should the Americans and Europeans ignore those warnings from their own governments?
Simon Birmingham: Look, Omicron is rife right around the world, and it's rife across the US, it's rife across Europe, there is no particular additional challenge in Australia. What we can say is that we have some of the highest testing rates in the world higher than many of those European or other nations. That we have a health care system that though health care workers are having to work incredibly hard in challenging circumstances, it is managing its way through these difficult times and that we are maintaining a situation that produces some of the best health outcomes in the world. We still have one of the lowest mortality rates in the world compared with many of those other countries in different regions. And of course, we've seen some of the strongest economic outcomes, which is what is driving, partly these labour market shortages, along with the challenges of Omicron in terms of individuals being stood down and having to undertake those isolation periods.
Peter Stefanovic: Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, as always, appreciate your time this morning. Thanks for joining us. Talk to you, sir.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Pete. My pleasure.