Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Monday, 24 January 2022
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, the Federal Finance Minister, has called us. Good morning, Simon Birmingham.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David Bevan. Good to speak with you again.
David Bevan: And we were talking earlier today about a bunch of very angry workers and their union gathering outside your office on Sir Donald Bradman Drive.
Simon Birmingham: Well, David, you can tell that there are state and federal elections imminent when the Labor Party affiliated unions decide to step up their campaign activity. And I'm not sure there are too many workers that are turning out to these events, but they're certainly union reps. I just wanted to respond because the impression was created that that no support has been given to the aged care sector, and it's important for people and listeners to be reassured that there have been some seven million rapid antigen tests provided across aged care in Australia, that there's around 10 million lots of personal protection equipment that's been going out the door to support aged care workers, that we've made retention payments for registered nurses working in aged care of up to $3700, the amount for full time workers and then pro-rata for part time and casual nurses. There's been a lot of effort there to try to support the aged care workforce in terms of keeping them safe and providing financial support and additional financial support to aged care businesses and providers for them to deal with some of the additional costs coming through. So I in no way underestimate the challenge of those working in aged care during a global pandemic like COVID-19. But the impression the union reps gave when talking to you that there was somehow no PPE or no equipment or no support is just blatantly false compared with what has been provided.
David Bevan: Well, the union did say they did a survey of their workers. Something like 58 per cent of their workers of workers surveyed by the union say they are frequently asked to do double shifts. 24 per cent of workers said that they had had leave cancelled. 80 per cent of workers reported on the impact of COVID in their facility. The union's within its rights to raise these concerns, surely?
Simon Birmingham: It's the way they go about raising concerns, David. And yes, right across Australia at present, there are people working extra shifts as other Australians are having to isolate due to COVID that's happening right around the country. There are extra pressures in aged care, and it's why at the very earliest stages of the pandemic, we recognised that by providing additional payments to the aged care sector and those types of retention payments to recognise aged care workers, especially nurses, to ensure that they're getting some extra support and to keep that workforce capability there. But as we all know, and I think listeners appreciate across the health care sector, there's huge demands on that workforce overall right now to provide vaccinations, to undertake tests to care for individuals, be they in hospitals, in aged care facilities or elsewhere. And so of course, the pressures are real. But that's why we've made extra payments to providers thousands of dollars per person and extra payments to nurses and provided all that gear and equipment to help-
David Bevan: Including you say rapid antigen test. But there were reports last week of governments getting hold of rapid antigen tests at the expense of private providers. Now there was, I don't think any evidence has been produced of government requisitioning this stuff, saying - no, we are taking your property. It's now ours. But we just heard from Sam Maiden that there is evidence of suppliers saying to people who had contracts - sorry, that's now been redirected to the government. So it's not clear cut. But certainly it looks as though the government is taking, is distorting the market.
Simon Birmingham: David, there's a global shortage of rapid antigen tests. There aren't enough in the UK or the US or Canada. This is a challenge right around the world. So yes, we're in the marketplace buying them for aged care services, for other public health needs, and we're continuing to ensure that there is free testing available for anybody who has a COVID symptom to go and get a free PCR test. For anybody who is a close contact of somebody with COVID to go and get a free rapid antigen test. And the states and South Australian government have stood up clinics here for those purposes as they have right around the country. It's about making sure that testing is freely available where it is genuinely needed, and that's precisely why we've been for months now providing the type of testing and then for really years now, providing the type of personal protective equipment into the aged care sector, as we were talking about, but into all other aspects of health care as well with the protective equipment and the like going in. But I think whilst it's nice to be able to and we want to ensure and it's why there are tens and even hundreds of millions of additional kits on order coming into the country that will help to provide additional support and availability where people choose and want to get them for their own purposes. There's a priority there and that is to make sure that that free testing is available for those who have symptoms who are close contacts or where we're dealing with vulnerable populations in our aged care or healthcare sectors.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, thank you for your time, Minister for Finance.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, David. My pleasure.
David Bevan: Responding to a story we heard earlier in the morning with United Workers Union staging a protest out the front of his office.