Interview with Tom Connell, Sky News
Tom Connell: Well, the likely delay in the vaccine rollout in Australia, does that mean also a likely delay- when will we be able to travel around the world or indeed, welcome visitors here in Australia? I put that earlier to the Trade and Tourism Minister, Dan Tehan.
Dan Tehan: We'll just have to continue to keep monitoring the situation, Tom. We've had the bubble announced with New Zealand. It comes into place on the 19th of this month, which is great news and we'll continue to monitor how other countries are going and then, if we can, create further bubbles—then that would be a really good thing, but we'll just have to wait and see. We're dealing with a pandemic. You know, some countries are going into third lockdowns because of third waves. Here in Australia, through the management of it, we've managed to be in a position where we've got our first bubble about to start and hopefully there'll be more to come as we continue the vaccine rollout.
Connell: But we know the sort of broader opening of borders was always dependent on vaccination. The vaccination comes later. The opening has [audio skip] as well, doesn't it?
Tehan: Well, we've always sort of envisaged a staged approach to how we would open the international border. So we'll obviously have to wait and see and continue to monitor the situation.
Connell: But that logic does hold, doesn't it? Staged approach, whatever it is, whenever that starts, all the stages, everything gets pushed back.
Tehan: Well, obviously, we're ramping up the vaccine at the moment. CSL, through their domestic production, are ramping that up. So we'll continue—nearly be a million Australians are vaccinated as of today or there probably will be a million. So we're starting to ramp that up; so we'll continue to see how that domestic production goes. Obviously, now we need Pfizer for those under 50s so we'll continue to monitor the situation, see how other countries are progressing. But the most important thing is that we keep Australians safe, we keep Australians secure, and that's been our strategy right along and that will inform first and foremost the decisions that we take.
Connell: So the principle on opening borders, what is the principle? Is it until, for example, everyone in the country has been offered a vaccine, the borders wouldn't be open?
Tehan: Well, I mean, we can look at what has happened here in Australia and how many people have been vaccinated here, but it also is very much dependent on what's happening globally as well. I mean, one of the things we will have to monitor for is new strains. So it's very hard in a pandemic to set down pure policy and pure procedures. What we've got to do is continue to take the medical advice and then work with other countries to how they're going, where their vaccine rollout is. And it might be that you would look at various parts of your economy that you would look to maybe open up. So whether you might-
Connell:[Interrupts] Students [indistinct]…
Tehan: Well, international students, obviously, business travel becomes important, too. So there is those aspects too that you would also assess.
Connell: So someone wanting a holiday might be last in the queue under the principle of who can get into the country, for example.
Tehan: Well, that very much could be the case. I mean, we've obviously got to prioritise what's best for our nation, both economically and, most importantly, on that health front. That will continue to be what informs us—so protecting lives and livelihoods.
Connell: Yeah. That would worry people in tourism, that- understand you've got to have priorities, but students and business trips and so on, then tourism essentially last.
Tehan: Well, I mean, obviously, tourism is important to our economy, but you also have to remember that domestic tourism can help fill the gap when it comes to international tourism, especially if we can get Australians spending when they're taking their trips like they spend when they're overseas. And that's one of the things we've been encouraging with our half price airfares is what you save on your airfare, make sure you spend on an attraction or going out to dinner at a restaurant or a pub—and that's the message we'll continue to send. And you've got to remember, you know, we're a net exporter of tourism, so Australia is the only place they can go at the moment, or will be New Zealand without quarantining. So what we're going to see is more and more money being spent here domestically in tourism.
Connell: Right. I mean, it always depends where the Australians go to the same places as international tourists. So looking ahead, when you spoke about it, it depends not just about our country, but other countries. Is there a situation, putting the bubbles aside – they're sort of very bespoke arrangements – that we might be open to 50, 60, 70 countries, a big list that are okay, and then a whole lot of lists that are sort of not great and you've got to quarantine and then others you just can't go to? Is that what you're envisaging, a bit of a traffic light system down the track?
Tehan: Well, look, all this is obviously under consideration [indistinct]…
Connell:[Talks over] But is that the type of thing…
Tehan: Well, I mean, at the moment, what we're looking at, it's a very much a ‘one step at a time' approach. So we've got a two-way bubble with New Zealand, which still hasn't commenced, it will commence on the 19th. So that's the first step. Let's see how that goes then we've got some other countries who are keen to talk to us about having bubbles, and Singapore is one of those. So I think then let's assess as to what arrangement you might be able to put in place there.
Connell: But, these sorts of ideas– I mean, you must be already trying to plan ahead for different ways to do this?
Tehan: There's planning taking place but I go back to that first point that I made, we're in a pandemic. This is very unusual times. As we've seen, there are countries who you would have thought you might enter into some sort of arrangement with who are now going into a third lockdown…
Tehan:… and dealing with a third wave. So, you've got to remember that you're continually assessing, reassessing and looking at what you can do and, I think, the most important thing at this stage is small steps, and make sure that they work, and then let's see how we can build on those.
Connell: And those other steps with other countries, even if we don't have so-called bubbles, again, looking ahead where you're wanting a broader policy, is the 14-day quarantine being looked at closely? It's such an impediment for anyone coming all the way to Australia that, you know, there might be a country that isn't zero risk, but they can come here, get a negative test and then, a day later, get out and spend some money.
Tehan: So, once again, we'd take the expert medical advice on that. But, if that expert medical advice said that if you're vaccinated, and if a test was held in the first 24 hours and that became a fairly reliable indicator that you're not going to be spreading the virus when you're here in Australia, well then, yeah, absolutely we will look at those.
Connell: [Talks over] It's not zero risk, is it? And that's the thing. Are we going to get away from this sort of, zero risk to we've got a certain proportion of the population vaccinated, it's not a [audio cut] country; we're willing to wear risk on this?
Tehan: It won't be zero risk, because as you've seen from returning Australians, there's no zero risk. People will come—are coming back to Australia…
Tehan:… with COVID-19 and we've got to be able to deal with this and that's why we've always said, especially, how important it is when it comes to your contact tracing and your testing to be able to deal with those situations because you can't have zero risk.
Connell: [Talks over] Okay. The next vaccine we could get is Novavax. My understanding is we get that from Europe. Could that be blocked the same way AstraZeneca has been?
Tehan: Well, the European Union have put in an export restriction mechanism and so there is the ability, now that they've got that mechanism in place, for them to be able to block vaccines.
Connell: [Talks over] So, Novavax as well?
Tehan: Well, our hope would be that the EU don't use export restrictions anymore. And one of the positive signs during the week was there seemed to be an indication from the European Union that they are going to move away from using export restrictions. Now [indistinct]-
Connell: [Interrupts] But, that threat's, that threat's there for Novavax in the same way?
Tehan: It's there for vaccines that are produced in Europe.
Connell: [Talks over] What about Pfizer? Did we get any Pfizer from Europe?
Tehan: So, we can get Pfizer from Europe. So, one of the things that the European Union have said is, where companies are honouring all their contractual arrangements within Europe—so, meeting all the supply needs there…
Connell: [Talks over]Right, because AZ's falling behind and that's the reason [indistinct]…
Tehan: So, that seems to be one of the reasons that they're putting forward.
Connell: [Talks over] Then we do get some Pfizer from Europe? Is that happening at the moment?
Tehan: Yes. So, we do get some Pfizer from Europe. But because-
Connell: [Interrupts] So, if they fall behind, that could be another issue?
Tehan: Well, I mean, it's—you know, this is why the Government's decision to produce here in Australia was so important…
Connell: [Interrupts] And the- that vaccine, right now, can't be used for half the population?
Tehan: Well–but, it can be used for over 50s. And [audio skip] experts have quite clearly told us that's the part of our population that we want to protect in the first instance and that's why we've rolled out the vaccine for that part of the population.
Connell: Just finally and briefly on China. So, Australia essentially believes that Uighur Muslims are being incarcerated unfairly; that there are forced contraception and sterilisation; mosques are being destroyed; perhaps something even verging on concentration camps. If this were any other country, we'd be having sanctions on China or Chinese officials, wouldn't we?
Tehan: Well, we've made it very clear that we think that these human rights abuses are completely unacceptable, and we'll continue to make that that point and make it with absolute clarity. So, you know, that is the way that we deal with these issues. We're very up front about it.
Connell: [Talks over] [Indistinct]
Tehan: Well, we will use sanctions on—in some instances..
Connell: [Talks over] Why not this one?
Tehan: Well, because what we're doing is we're dealing with the mechanisms that we have in place to be able to deal with it. And we've made it very clear-
Connell: [Interrupts] They're not working though, are they?
Tehan: Well, I mean, you know, you can use various things, but ultimately, in the end, it's up to the country where the human rights abuses are taking place that—to take the action. And that's why we've, you know, made the representations to the Chinese government that we think that they need to stop the human rights abuses that are taking place.
Connell: Minister Dan Tehan, appreciate your time today. Thank you.
Tehan: Thanks, Tom.
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