Interview with Fran Kelly, Radio National, Breakfast

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Vaccine diplomacy and rollout, free trade agreements with the EU and UK, international border.
14 April 2021

Fran Kelly: The Minister joins us now. Dan Tehan, welcome back to Breakfast.

Dan Tehan: Pleasure to be with you again, Fran.

Kelly: National Cabinet will meet twice a week from Monday, that's up from once a month currently. Is that a concession that the Commonwealth, the Federal Government, can't fix this mess, only the states can really put this right?

Tehan: No. What it means is that, and this has been the case right throughout this pandemic, that we're going to get the best outcomes when the state and territory governments and the Commonwealth Government work cooperatively together. And, so what this is a way of making sure that this is happening. We've had changes which have occurred to the vaccine rollout, obviously, the decision last week around AstraZeneca has brought about changes to it. And we've got to make sure now that we get the rollout as seamless as we possibly can and that will require states and territories and the Commonwealth working as closely together as they possibly can.

Kelly: But if, as you say, we've known that for a long time, to get the best outcomes we need to work together, why hasn't that been the case? Because without it being the case— currently the Commonwealth is responsible for much of the rollout—things have veered badly off track over the last four or five weeks. Deadlines, significant deadlines have been missed. Is this an acknowledgement that the- that- of the failure of the Commonwealth, really?

Tehan: No. What it is an acknowledgement of is that we really need to work closely together. We have been working closely together but obviously, the changes, and especially those which occurred last week with regards to AstraZeneca and now only being advised that we should use it for those over 50, means we've got to make some changes to the vaccine rollout. It means, also, that we're heavily reliant now for the under 50s on Pfizer and, as we know, the majority of those vaccines will come in the second part of the year. So, we've got to make sure that we're getting all that planning right so that we can be administering as many vaccines to as many people as quickly as we possibly can.

Kelly: Yeah, but I mean, supply has been a major reason for missing the end of March deadline, for instance, the 4 million doses administered, that had nothing to do with the change to the AstraZeneca advice. And that's not the only problem. The states have been saying publicly, quite publicly, that it's an erratic Commonwealth rollout, that they're getting more vaccines delivered some weeks than they expect, some weeks they get less than they expect. It comes on different days than they expect it. So it's clearly been a problem with the Commonwealth management of this.

Tehan: So, the first issue was when we had the non-delivery of more than 3 million vaccine doses and that was obviously something that we had banked on—now, the export restrictions that were put in place by the EU was not something that was planned for early on. So, we obviously had to adapt to that. And then we've had the more recent advice around using AstraZeneca only for those over 50. So we have to remember that we're dealing with a pandemic. We're also dealing with a situation where other countries overseas are still in the midst of lockdowns, are still dealing with the pandemic and the spread of the pandemic, and so they've obviously had to take decisions—now some of those we don't agree with, but they've impacted on the flow of the vaccine here in Australia and how then we’ve had to deal with our own rollout. So that is why ...

Kelly: [Interrupts] As I say, the states are saying it's not just that, there's erratic communication and delivery. But just to go on to the way forward, some suggestions- some states are already geared up for mass vaccination centres like sporting stadiums. Is the Commonwealth going to sign off on that approach or is that going to be a problem, given the Pfizer vaccine, which we're reliant on now for half the population, is only going to come in essentially small doses until the end of the- small shipments until the end of the year? We won't have mass vaccine to rollout at mass vaccination centres.

Tehan: Well, that's one of the reasons that the Prime Minister has recalled National Cabinet and for it to meet twice a week, is so all this planning can be done. Obviously, there has been changes, there will be a need to change the approach that we're now going to take. And that's going to have to be done collectively with state and territory governments and, as we’ve shown in dealing with the pandemic, when National Cabinet, when states and territories and the Commonwealth work closely together, we can achieve what we want to achieve—and that’s why National Cabinet will be incredibly important in doing this planning.

Kelly: Okay. 1.2 million Australians have now had their first shot but that’s fewer than five per cent of the population. By comparison, the US is at 56 per cent, in the UK we heard this morning, everyone over 50 has had their first shot. So we are behind and now we’ve scrapped targets or timelines but on the weekend, you nominated the end of the year for everyone to have their first shot. The Prime Minister came out and later said there’s no target anymore. Do you still believe all of us will be administered the first shot if we want it by December?

Tehan: Well, this is something that National Cabinet will be looking at. National Cabinet will be doing everything they can to make sure that we can advance the vaccine rollout as quickly as possible. But you have to remember Fran, in the US and the UK, obviously for the approvals for the vaccine rollouts there, were taken in very quick time whereas here in Australia, we made the conscious decision, backed by our medical experts, that we would make sure that all the vaccines went through the appropriate approval processes, as they would per any normal vaccine. So, we’ve always taken the expert medical advice and that’s what we did and that’s why, in terms of commencing our vaccine rollout, we were behind the US and the UK but that was a deliberate decision that was taken to make sure that the Therapeutic Goods Administration could look at the safety of the vaccine. And also, you’ve got to remember, we also took the decision to stand up our own domestic manufacturing of the vaccine which was another key decision which will mean that we—destiny’s in our own hands when it comes to production of the AstraZeneca…

Kelly:   [Interrupts] Well, yeah.

Tehan: … and especially for the administration of- for those that are over 50.

Kelly: Yeah. No, that’s hit a big disappointing speed hump, obviously. You head off tomorrow for talks in Europe and London. The EU has imposed those export controls on vaccines, it’s effected those 3 million doses we missed out on. Is this your first job to make sure we can actually get the vaccines we're contracted for? And what new commitments are you going to be seeking from Germany, France and Belgium? Are you speaking to those governments about extra supplies and guarantees?

Tehan: Well look, it's a key part of the trip, along with trying to advance the negotiations on free trade agreements with the European Union and the United Kingdom. I had a call from my New Zealand counterpart yesterday. He's also keen, when I raised the issue of export controls on vaccines, to lend New Zealand’s support to the advocacy, because they also are very concerned about export restrictions being used or vaccine nationalism, as it's being called. So, I'll be making the point that this is not the way to go. We should be working collectively to increase production and I'll also be meeting with the Director-General of the World Trade Organization, who also has been outspoken against export controls and talking to her about what other alternatives we've got to increase production globally.

Kelly: And what does that mean? I mean, is- are vaccines a matter for the WTO when it comes to lifting export bans? Or should, you know, the principles of free trade be applied to vaccines? Or should it be settled by, you know, who needs it the most? Which at the moment is Europe, not Australia I guess you could say.

Tehan: Well- yes, but you have to remember that one of the key reasons why we're keen to ensure that the contracts are honoured by AstraZeneca is that we want to get doses to Papua New Guinea, where the situation is fraught at the moment with regards to COVID-19. And all countries want to make sure that they know when they enter into contracts that there is a certainty that that supply will be honoured. So, it is not a matter where we're going to be able to get immediate action with regards to the WTO but it is—the organization playing its role—can bring countries together to find a way through this, where it is increasing supply that becomes the focus rather than restricting current supply.

Kelly: And does increasing supply also mean increasing production? Are you talking to countries about some kind of national- international effort, global effort to increase production and how- what would be involved in that? Greater investment from governments, would governments from other countries be involved in somehow subsidising production in those places where it is being produced? What do you see here?

Tehan: Well, they're all things that I think are on the table currently. Now, how you make that work and whether that is, in the end, the right way to go, obviously, that’ll be a key part of the discussion.

Kelly: Do you have any ideas? Are you bringing an idea to the table?

Tehan: Well, I think very much the first idea I'll be bringing to the table is that export restrictions aren't the way to go. That they, all they do is enable countries who have—well sorry—all they do is prevent countries who have entered into contracts, legally binding contracts, from not being able to properly plan their rollouts and the rollouts in their immediate region, like Australia in this instance—so we have to be looking at alternative pathways. Now, what those alternative pathways are at this stage is not 100 per cent clear, but that's the reason why I want to sit down with the Director-General of the World Trade Organization. That's why I want to sit down with my German counterpart, my European Union counterpart and my French counterpart, to see whether there's a better way forward on this.

Kelly: Just finally and briefly, if you will, Minister, as Tourism Minister too, the Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt, has so far not guaranteeing international borders will reopen, even when we are vaccinated. He says you couldn't just open the borders; vaccination alone is no guarantee you can open up. Is the Minister saying the entire world needs to be vaccinated, COVID needs to be eradicated before we open borders? What's the thinking here?

Tehan: Well, the first point to make here is that, once again, we'll obviously take the expert medical advice, but we've already opened up with New Zealand. We've got a bubble with New Zealand. And the logical next steps would be to look and see where it's safe to do so, is to expand those bubbles. And Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam have all been mentioned as potentials in that area and, I think, that is likely to be the systematic approach that we take.

Kelly: Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

Tehan: Pleasure, Fran.

Kelly: Dan Tehan is the Minister for Trade and Tourism.

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