Interview with Hamish MacDonald, RN Breakfast

  • Transcript
Subjects: NZ travel bubble, vaccines
07 April 2021

Hamish MacDonald: Airline passengers are being warned, but there's an element of flyer beware with the long awaited New Zealand travel bubble. Airlines are shouldering hundreds of extra scheduling- rather hundreds of extra flights to accommodate the expected demand for seats from April 19, when Australians will be able to fly across the Tasman quarantine free. But the travel corridor could be suspended at very short notice in the event of a COVID outbreak, leaving travellers stranded overseas.

Dan Tehan is the Minister for Trade and Tourism. Good morning to you.

Dan Tehan: Morning Hamish, it's great to be with you again.

MacDonald: There is a fair amount of uncertainty in all of this. If you had a few days off, would you be going to New Zealand? You couldn't guarantee that you'd get back, could you?

Tehan: Hamish, I'd love to be going to New Zealand but, more importantly, as Australia's Tourism Minister, I want as many New Zealanders to come here to Australia. There is 1.4 million New Zealanders that usually visit Australia each year, and they spend $1.6 billion. Now, we know that our Kiwi cousins have got nowhere else to go, so I'm hoping we can build on that 1.4 million and, in particular, build on that $1.6 billion that they spend each year, because that'd be great for jobs here.

MacDonald: Yeah, there's no doubt about the tourism upside. There is just a question about the practicalities of this. With border closures within Australia all the time, clearly that's going to impact what might be possible between Australia and New Zealand. You'd be aware that for many Australians just booking a ticket to go there and vice versa might be too risky currently.

Tehan: Well, what we've seen here in Australia through our discount airfares is confidence return to our travel industry. We saw one airline, in particular, have record bookings in its history in a 24-hour period. So, I think, we are starting to see confidence return and, I think, this will be another step in that confidence boost for Australians to know that they can travel. But, as importantly, you've got to remember that our medical experts here in Australia, the AHPPC, and their counterparts in New Zealand are meeting regularly — almost once a week as I understand it — and so the decision to open this bubble is not one that hasn't been taken without proper medical expert advice as well. Now, our hope is-

MacDonald: [Interrupts] But what happens if you go to New Zealand, though, and there's a small, isolated outbreak? Do you then have to quarantine on your way back? Just- Can you be clear with us about what the rules will be?

Tehan: Well, obviously, like with everything, it would depend on the severity of the outbreak, and it would — and ultimately, in the end, we would have to take the advice of the medical experts as to what they think needs to be done to make sure that we don't get a spread of COVID-19 that would then ultimately hurt not only the health situation here in Australia, but our- the economy as well. So we would take the expert medical advice on that.

But what we've seen just here domestically in Australia over recent weeks, and especially now we've got the vaccine being rolled out, is that states and territories, more and more, are understanding that they should use border closures, in particular, as a last resort and trust the contact tracing and the testing regimes that are in place.

MacDonald: But- So that-

Tehan: And that's very much the situation that New Zealand is taking at the moment as well.

But we're in a pandemic. Can we ever guarantee that we won't need to make some decisions to protect the health both of Australians and, in New Zealand's case, New Zealanders? No, we can't. But I think what we can do is very much have a look at what's occurring currently here in Australia domestically, and we're seeing more and more confidence coming back for people's ability to be able to travel and that's why we've got this two-way bubble going and, I think, people can have confidence to book and enjoy a holiday, if you're a New Zealander here in Australia, and if you're Australian in New Zealand.

MacDonald: But, given that it is about confidence, just so we all understand, is it up to the Federal Government to decide what happens if there's a small, isolated outbreak in New Zealand? Or is it the states that will decide whether you can come back?

Tehan: Well, ultimately, in the end it's the- it would be the medical expert panel, the AHPPC and, as you know, that is made up of representatives from state and territory governments and the Commonwealth Government — so, it would be that medical expert panel which would give the advice to governments, and obviously the chief medical officers from each state and territory who sit on that on that panel give the advice to state and territory governments. So-

MacDonald: So there'd be one national rule. If there's an outbreak in Auckland and you're over there, there'd be a Federal Government decision would there, about whether you have to quarantine on return? Or the state health authorities would be making those decisions? I'm just trying to really understand what the risks are for people.

Tehan: No, that's good, Hamish and it's very good to be able to provide people with the details as to how it works. So we have an organisation called the AHPPC here in Australia, and it has the Australian Chief Medical Officer on it and it has the state and territory chief medical officers that sit on it as well, and they come together and they then decide what measures need to be put in place if there is, if there is an outbreak.

Now, obviously, also those chief medical officers from state and territory governments, not only do they have input into what we do at the national level through the AHPPC but they individually also provide advice to state and territory governments. So, what you would get is the AHPPC would make a decision as to what we should do nationally, but the chief medical officers at the state and territory level would also advise their state and territory governments as to whether there would need to be additional measures, or whether they might take additional steps, that they would deem necessary for their state or their territory and that might depend on the number of flights that are coming in from that location, say, from Auckland into Melbourne, as an example. So, they might decide whether they might need to put further steps in place.

MacDonald: Okay.

Tehan: So, that's – you know, what I think, you know, I'd be saying to Australians is in a short way, of having sort of detailed that process — is you should have a lot of confidence in how we have reached the decision to have this bubble. And also, what you should look at as well is that the Australian Government is now going to spend $3 million in a tourism advertising campaign in New Zealand, which will start later this week to encourage 1.4 million New Zealanders or more to come here and spend, hopefully, more than $1.6 billion to help support the 600,000 jobs we have here in our tourism industry.

MacDonald: We'll look forward to seeing them. I need to ask you about the vaccine and the claim that the Prime Minister has been making about three million doses of the vaccine being blocked by Europe. Is that true?

Tehan: What we have seen is that the EU has put in export control measures to prevent vaccines being exported from the European Union to countries, and that has stopped or prevented AstraZeneca, for instance, in putting in applications to be able to send the vaccine here to Australia. Now-

MacDonald: [Interrupts] So, that's slightly different, though. It doesn't mean that Europe has actually blocked three million doses from coming to Australia, does it?

Tehan: Well, what it, what it means is that they have said that if AstraZeneca puts in applications to export to Australia, or to other countries, that they will be restricted from being able to do this. Now, the really important thing about what [indistinct]-

MacDonald: [Interrupts] So, just so our listeners understand. Those applications have not gone? And Australia has not requested three million doses that haven't been- that have been then blocked by Europe?

Tehan: Well, we had contracted three million doses with AstraZeneca and if the export controls hadn't been put in place in Europe then AstraZeneca would have been able to, as I'm advised, be able to meet those vaccines that they had contracted with the Australian Government to provide to us. Now, as a result of the export controls being put in place they haven't been able to do it. Now, the really welcome news here-

MacDonald: [Interrupts] But, this is not the reason though that- this is not the reason though for the slow roll out in Australia, is it? Because there are currently 2.5 million doses in CSL's cold storage awaiting batch testing by the TGA in Australia right now?

Tehan: So, the plan that the Australian Government put in place was, while we were ramping up our domestic production — and one of the most important decisions that was taken by the Government last year was to put in place our own domestic production because we always had in the back of mind concerns about what would happen if there were restrictions on supply from overseas, but we've stood that up. And in- what we also planned to do was, while we were standing that up and ramping it up, we would contract vaccines from overseas to fill the gap while we're doing that. Now, obviously-

MacDonald: [Interrupts] I think everyone's aware of that. I'm just wondering why the Federal Government doesn't accept that there are some problems with the roll out? Given that these excuses about Europe blocking the vaccine, clearly, are not the reason why it's not getting out to GP clinics, it's not in shopping centres or sports stadiums. I mean, these are decisions that have been made by the Australian Government.

Tehan: Well, obviously, if we had three mill- over three million doses here from overseas we would be able to roll those out right across Australia and work cooperatively with the states and territories, to be able to make sure that that is occurring but those vaccines didn't arrive. But, the really welcome news, and I hope this is what we're hearing from the European Union overnight, is that they're no longer going to have these export controls in place so, for instance, the one million doses of the vaccine that we have put in a request to go to PNG, where it's much needed — my hope is now, what we're going to hear from the EU is that they accept that request and those vaccines are on their, on their on their way. We still haven't heard from them, but my hope is-

MacDonald: [Interrupts] When will the 2.5 million that are in Australia already, in CSL's cold storage, when will they be rolled out?

Tehan: Well, that's being ramped up as we speak and we- our anticipation is that what we will be seeing, sooner rather than later, is nearly a million doses a week being produced by CSL that can be rolled out. But we always knew that it would take time to ramp up the vaccine making here in Australia and that is why we went overseas and we had contracted with AstraZeneca and with Pfizer for those-

MacDonald: [Interrupts] I can't hear the answer as to when, I can't hear the answer as to when they'll be rolled out in Australia? These doses that are here already, waiting for TGA approval?

Tehan: Well, well, they're being rolled out as we speak, and the TGA is approving them as we speak. But, you've got to remember, Hamish, one of the things that- the key responsibilities of Government is to keep Australians safe and that means, as we roll the vaccine out here, we've got to make sure that we are going through all the proper procedures, that we're going through the processes that the TGA put in place so that we know that the vaccine that is being distributed here in Australia is safe for Australians — and we will continue to do that, and we will not shy away from that responsibility of making sure that as we roll this vaccine out, that it's got all the proper approvals and has been through all the proper safety tests that are required to ensure that the vaccine not only protects people from the virus, but we know that it is, it is being- what is being administered is safe for Australians.

MacDonald: Dan Tehan, really appreciate your time this morning. Thank you very much.

Tehan: Pleasure Hamish. Thank you.

MacDonald: That's the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment.

Media enquiries