Interview on ABC News, Afternoon Briefing, with Patricia Karvelas

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: COVID restrictions in SA; hotel quarantine workforce; Australia-China trade relationship.
18 November 2020

Patricia Karvelas: I spoke to South Australian Senator Simon Birmingham, who’s the Minister for Finance, Trade, Tourism and Investment a little earlier.

[Excerpt]

Minister, welcome.

Simon Birmingham: Hello Patricia. Good to be with you.

Patricia Karvelas: Is this six-day pause in South Australia the right response to deal with this outbreak?

Simon Birmingham: Look, it’s the response of South Australian health authorities and I respect the fact that they have all of the data, all of the information at their fingertips in terms of recognising the spread of this initial cluster, the way in which the virus has moved very quickly, the number of contact points that cluster has had right across different parts of the community and then, the second case of a worker in a medi-hotel who appears to have contracted the virus again. Firstly, a cleaner. This one a kitchen worker. So, a concern there about the spread and the possible relationship between contact points in those facilities and workers. So, I understand that. It is a very tough restriction to be putting in place. South Australians will obviously feel this, And you, along with all of those just been in Victoria, know what that feeling is like. But I think the hope in South Australia is that by going hard, by going early, we can see here a six to 14-day activity in shutdown that does really crush this outbreak, that does ensures that we crush these clusters that are there and that we get on top of it so that we do not end up with the many months that Victoria faced or even worse types of circumstances overseas.

Patricia Karvelas: The state faces 14 days of restrictions all up. Are Melbourne's lockdown measures the right template?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think it is always about horses for courses, and ideally, the testing, tracing, isolating description would be the model. Obviously health at authorities here have drawn the conclusion that with the pace of movement, the number of different contact points already that those individuals they’ve identified, having put thousands of people already into isolation, that short, sharp pause and slowdown is important. I hope it is short and sharp. I hope that their method does succeed and that indeed what we see in South Australia that is different from the Melbourne and Victorian experience is that this early action also pays early dividends in terms of us being able to resume a high degree of normality, relatively quickly and hopefully just in the space of a few weeks.

Patricia Karvelas: What isn’t different is that hotel quarantine is to blame and a sort of a leak out of hotel quarantine is the reason that this began. Some people in your government were very critical of the Victorian Government for allowing that to happen under their watch. Are you going to be as equally critical of the South Australian Government?

Simon Birmingham: Patricia, let's see how all the facts unfold. There were obviously suggestions in Victoria that it was a failure of security around hotel quarantine. In South Australia, there’s been no such suggestion to date. It has instead been the case that it was quite unexpected, indeed, close to unprecedented in terms of COVID spread, appears to be contact points; that a cleaner and now a kitchen worker seem to have contracted the virus. So, these are things that have seen a very quick national response in terms of the assessment of how hotel quarantine workers are handled and tested across the country.

But it does highlight there are real risks in terms of international arrivals, including what is overwhelmingly at present the return of Australians to international soil- to Australian soil and the challenges there in terms of how they are safely handled, and obviously, those risks have gone up significantly with these cases related to contact points being identified.

Patricia Karvelas: So does that mean we should perhaps pause or slow down the pace of Australians returning?

Simon Birmingham: I think we have to acknowledge that this circumstance is creating some additional difficulties. South Australia has already now paused the arrival of international flights while they deal with the extension of people in medi-hotels, who need to now stay for longer than it been the case while they use the medi-hotel for South Australians they’ve been being putting into isolation and of course while their resources are stretched in so many other ways. So, you’ve got one entry point already that is going to see fewer arrivals coming in. There’s still the question as to exactly how and when Melbourne might start to resume properly processing numbers of arrivals. We still want to see Australians, particularly those in distress circumstances, able to return to the country safely, but I think those who have been crying and claiming that there was some easy way or a rapid way to be able to bring everybody home need to recognise it’s certainly not easy. It can’t be done rapidly and that we are going to have to work very carefully to make sure that the lessons from the quarantine issues in South Australia that have seen these contact point cases emerge, are learned and that we have even further strengthening of the quarantine in all of cities where it’s underway.

Patricia Karvelas: Well, let’s talk about a strengthening. Are you concerned that workers in hotel quarantine were working multiple jobs, which has clearly has led to what we have seen here? I mean, because these are low-paid jobs, some of these people have to work second jobs. Is there something the Federal Government can do to step in to supplement wages, to do something to ensure they don't work anywhere else other than in hotel quarantine?

Simon Birmingham: So, there’s a couple of things. There is clearly the additional testing types of regimes that are now being put in place and that is one part of the response. Here in SA, a decision had been made some time ago in relation to aged care workers to prevent people working across multiple sites. That's a key protection now as we face the type of circumstances we do in SA, but it is also the type of approach that you’re outlining there. I think these are questions that the health authorities will have to look at in terms of workers in these hotels. And these are Australians who have families to go home to and homes to go home to, and they are doing an incredible community service in terms of fronting up and working in these environments, where as a result of what’s happened here, many people will be more concerned, more cautious about undertaking those jobs. So I think we do need to carefully work through how we ensure they are appropriately supported and with minimal risk to the community.

Patricia Karvelas: Do you think that’s a federal responsibility? Is that something that should be dealt with by National Cabinet – these workers working additional jobs which clearly allows this possibility that it could spread further?

Simon Birmingham: We have responded at every instance in this pandemic in terms of whether it was creating JobKeeper, creating the JobSeeker supplement, or just creating the pandemic payment for those who have to go into isolation, and doing that under the emergency management powers in conjunction with the states and their declarations of emergencies. So, I think that these questions are well worth consideration of the AHPPC. I’ve got no doubt that they will be looking very carefully at what the best health advice or the ongoing management of hotel quarantine is. And as we have done right through this pandemic, we will continue to act on that best health advice.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. So you are concerned that some of these workers are working additional jobs?

Simon Birmingham: I think there is a question there to be assessed and to work out the scale of risk and how that is handled. We’ve got to be always mindful here that we are dealing with risk management and that risk management means there are not always absolutely certain answers to every equation and that you can't always eliminate every risk. But we ought to have a look at them, assess them, act on the health advice where it is clear, and that’s what we have done to date, and I’m sure that these things will be considered by AHPPC.

Patricia Karvelas: These things have to happen immediately though, don't they? You just mentioned the Victorian pause of international arrivals, now South Australia is not taking international arrivals. The other states have a lot of pressure on them. We don't want to see this happen somewhere else, do we, Minister, so this is fairly urgent.

Simon Birmingham: Well we don't want to see this happen somewhere else, but nor, I’m sure, do we want to see such significant workforce disruptions that you had other problems caused too. So you’ve got to be very mindful as to how you go about assessing these things, act on the evidence and then how you go about implementing it as well. So, I’m not saying that it’s not something to be looked at. Of course it is. It’s something that shouldn’t be a matter of a politician making a quick judgement in an interview. It’s something where we should look at what the advice from the health experts is. They have shown a capacity to act quickly, and they’ve already done so in terms of the recommendations about the testing regimes that need to be in place. I’m sure they will look at all of these other issues too.

Patricia Karvelas: Yeah. But what you’re saying to me is that you think it’s worth exploring because you are concerned about the occurrence of this virus spreading because of the casualisation and the workers having to take on additional roles?

Simon Birmingham: I certainly don’t want to prejudge the advice of the health officials, I encourage them, as I have absolutely every faith in them doing, to look at all of the circumstances and risks that present themselves in terms of the operation of the medi-hotels, and to make sure that whatever is necessary to ensure the safety of people, and the minimisation of risk is undertaken, and that we obviously will then, as I say, act as we always have in relation to that health advice.

Patricia Karvelas: So Minister, what will the economic impact of the two-week shutdown in South Australia be?

Simon Birmingham: Well, to many businesses it’s going to be very significant, indeed. The shutdown’s going to take- have effective course dramatically on those businesses in South Australia, and those are businesses that thought, and they were well and truly back to a state of normality. And the type of progress that had been made in South Australia’s successful management of COVID to date, it had given that high degree of confidence. It also means that we’re going to see a devastating impact, I suspect, on confidence to travel and to move across the country, that the significant disruptions to people’s plans, and to bookings, just as that confidence was reemerging is a real run, and that will hurt more broadly, our tourism and travel sector, and I suspect slow their recovery, not just in SA, but across the country.

Patricia Karvelas: Yeah, I was going to make you put your Tourism Minister hat on to help me out on this, because the Morrison Government- federally you’ve been saying that you want states to open up their borders, we know some states have closed their borders to South Australians, or people from Adelaide. Melbourne and New South Wales have taken a different approach. Are you sympathetic now, given there is a two-week lockdown, people are being asked not to leave their homes even for exercise, that a state like WA or Queensland would say that they don’t want people from South Australia to come?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I can understand the perspective of those states, and I think there’s always- the border controls though, need to be done in a proportionate way. South Australian health officials are now advising South Australians to stay at home, and to avoid all unnecessary and non-essential travel. So, that of course is a message now clearly to South Australians, and I would expect that other states would want to see South Australians applying that in terms of our movement and where we spread across the country. But I also hope that we see common sense when it comes to how long these restrictions are in place, and that in time, particularly if SA does manage to crush this quickly, and this this cluster is ultimately shown to have been a relatively small cluster, contained relatively quickly, and that it proves to be nothing like the experience lived in Victoria. And that’s what we’re all hoping for at this stage, then I hope that in time, we can have further discussion about how we apply common definitions of hotspots, in what way restrictions on borders are reintroduced, because the ad-hoc manner, the extreme approaches in some cases that have disrupted people mid-flight, that have caused great hardship in different circumstances, only served to heighten, I guess, that fear and anxiety people have. As Tourism Minister, I want a circumstance where people may not be able to be 100 per cent confident that their travel might not be cancelled, but at least have some confidence that they can avoid getting on the plane without it being potentially turned around or stopped at the airport and sent back in the other direction.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, the plan was to have borders open, with the exception of WA, by Christmas, is that now off the cards?

Simon Birmingham: Not completely, I think it is not beyond the realms of possibility that South Australia in a couple of weeks’ time, will have shown that it has completely contained and controlled these clusters. Now, we don't know that, but what I do know from listening to the Premier and the health officials is that they have acted early and strongly because that is their intention and their aspiration, to be able to contain it rapidly, so that South Australia ultimately only has a few weeks of extreme restrictions compared to the few months that Victoria had, and the virtually whole year spreading into another year that some other countries are facing, so if they can achieve that objective, well, then we are looking at early December and we may well be in a circumstance where there is no reason for those borders to be in place.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. But if you can’t get on top of it within the next two weeks, and you’re a South Australian Senator, will your Government federally support the State Government if it needs to go into a further period- longer period of lockdown?

Simon Birmingham: Look, if South Australia deteriorates significantly, then just as we supported the full quarantining of Victoria and deployed the Australian Defence Force to help New South Wales and South Australia with those border operations, the same thing would have to occur in relation to SA if we got to that point. But I think here, the action is being taken earlier, more decisively, in a manner to try to avoid getting to that stage.

Patricia Karvelas: Look, Minister, just before I let you go, it seems extraordinary to me, you mentioned this, but it has taken this long into the COVID pandemic that we have only now agreed to have all states and territories have a mandatory weekly testing regime for all staff working in these hotels. Help me out here - why did it take so long?

Simon Birmingham: Look here, the answer, and it's a question- you’re not the first one to ask that question this week, Patricia. The answer the health authorities have given, is that their view was that with the staff in these facilities, it was better to continuously reinforce to them that with the slightest symptom they should get themselves tested, then to potentially have them in a circumstance where they think, oh, my next test is due for a few days, so I’ll worry about it then. So, this was apparently debated by our health experts, they made the decision early on that it was better to have that expectation of getting tested if there was any reason to be tested, rather than to set up a regular testing routine that may lull people into false sense of security, now as it turns out, you need both. You need the regular testing regime and you still need to reinforce that message. That is obviously what has to occur into the future.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, were the Treasurer’s comments on China today an effort to offer a circuit-breaker in the relationship?

Simon Birmingham: The Treasurer's comments are reinforcing what I’ve said, what the Prime Minister has said, the Foreign Minister and others continuously, and I welcome those comments. I hope that China views them in the manner which they are intended, just the same as all of our other previous comments, have been delivered in a way which is designed to reinforce that we are open for dialogue, we are willing to sit down and talk and we of course will stay true to our values, to protecting our system of government and our security interests, but that doesn't mean that we don't want to continue with the type of mutually beneficial relationship that we have built with China in a range of spheres, including the economic and trade over recent years. We do, we have said that continuously during the course of this year and prior to that, and we have reinforced continuously that we are open for dialogue and discussion, and it is up to China, really, to choose to come to the table for that dialogue and discussion to work through some of the difficulties that have arisen.

Patricia Karvelas: Well Minister, you are in South Australia, so I wish you the very best of luck with the lockdown. I have endured it, not quite the most fun period of my life, but I’m sure you’re going to be okay, thanks so much.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you Patricia. Thanks for your thoughts, and indeed all South Australians appreciate that too.

Patricia Karvelas: That’s South Australian Senator Simon Birmingham, who is the Minister for Finance, Trade, Tourism and Investment.

[End of excerpt]

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