Interview on Sky News Live, Afternoon Agenda with Kieran Gilbert

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: South Australian lockdown; Australia-China trade relations
18 November 2020

Kieran Gilbert: Let's go live to the Minister for Finance and Minister for Trade, of course from Adelaide, Senator Simon Birmingham. First of all, your reaction to this lockdown. Is it too much too quickly given we're talking about a cluster of just over 20?

Simon Birmingham: These are obviously very troubling times for South Australians, and they are some challenging days ahead. I think we do have to acknowledge that South Australia's decision is based on the full advice and information they have, and based very much on a desire to go hard, go early, and to avoid the need for any type of long or protracted lockdowns and restrictions, the likes of which we've seen interstate or overseas. So in that regard, yes, it seems hard and tough right now. But if it avoids many months of pain down the track, then it will be a week or two of difficulty that is worthwhile in its understanding. So, I encourage my fellow South Australians to do as I'll be doing, and that is to pack yourself up at home, to work from home, to live from home, to stay at home, to respect the guidance that is being outlined, and to make sure that we crush this cluster as quickly as we can, as decisively as we can, so that we can, within the space of a couple of weeks, hopefully get back to a higher degree of normality.

Kieran Gilbert: Yeah, and that word you use, crush, is appropriate, because it does look like that's exactly what the South Australian Government is trying to do. So, should governments, including the Federal Government, be upfront now and say: look, this is not suppression, this is an elimination strategy.

Simon Birmingham: Well, we certainly want to eliminate community spread. At present, this has all been a series of identified cases but they have moved very quickly. And what the Government has identified is that there are a range of different transmission points and contact points that the cases have been at. And so, in that regard, they've put thousands of people into isolation. By upping it to the entire community, yes, it is essentially seeking to crush, to eliminate, if you like, this cluster. It's a recognition that we're never going to eliminate the virus. A mere fact that just from the contact point or the like, a cleaner has contracted the virus and it has then spread through so many people so quickly is a reminder that the risks are ever present for everybody, that the risks of bringing Australians home from overseas are real and genuine, and that this is part of the price unfortunately we're having paid for those repatriation efforts.

Kieran Gilbert: Is it acceptable for some people having to wait 10 hours for a test?

Simon Birmingham: Look, it's a reality that in terms of scaling up to record volumes, there are limitations in terms of the number of staff. Federal Government is providing additional Defence Force personnel and we will respond as we have to all of the different requests that might come from South Australia. What we are doing in terms of contact tracing is having stood up the national emergency centre to coordinate and assist contact tracing that's happening. Not only through that, out of Canberra, but also assistance from New South Wales, Western Australia. And that's a recognition, that is one of the activities that can be done remotely to assist the spread of the load in a place like SA.

However, testing of course has to be done physically in person, and there are limits on the number of qualified people who can do so. So again, to fellow South Australians, I urge people to exercise some patience, acknowledge the fact that testing hours are being extended late into the night in different places. Get in touch with your GP if you have a regular one to see whether they can do the test for you, because there are different ways that we can support that testing taking place. And again, the Commonwealth in terms of specialist respiratory clinics has also stood up additional testing capability to help to ensure that the enormous record volumes of people seeking to be tested get done, and get done as quickly as possible.

Kieran Gilbert: It's a different approach from the Marshall Government to what we've seen from the Berejiklian Government where clusters have emerged. They've been able to suppress through testing and tracing. This is a total lockdown. It is in part because Adelaide is a smaller city that it can be done a bit more effectively given its size? Is it able to do this more easily or why do you see this discrepancy between the two jurisdictions?

Simon Birmingham: Look, each jurisdiction has to speak for itself and it's not for me to judge in that sense. The testing, tracing, isolating practices have been successfully deployed in New South Wales to great credit, as they have previously in SA, as they have in Queensland, that different clusters have been able to be suppressed. I think from listening to South Australia's Chief Medical Officer, the two discerning elements of difference in this regard are firstly the speed with which this appears to have been transmitted through a reasonable number of people very quickly, and that she is expressing concern there that this particular cluster seems to have the capacity and capability to spread very, very quickly. And the other is the recent news that it seems to have been again, a worker associated with the second Medihotel facing an infection and so a further concern that it could now be two separate clusters that could eventuate, and just what that means given the number of different contact points that these individuals have had. So we have to work to this advice as I said at the outset. If it can crush this cluster quickly and get us all back to normality in the short space of a couple of weeks, then I think everyone will understand that acting hard, acting early gave all of the authorities, all of the officials the space, the time and the capacity to ensure that we succeed in this regard.

Kieran Gilbert: Before you go quickly, only a minute left, but tell us, was today's speech by Josh Frydenberg a deliberate shift in tone from the Federal Government when it comes to China? To say look, we are reopen to starting dialogue again. Was that a deliberate shift in the language used?

Simon Birmingham: Josh in many ways in reinforcing the same points that I, the Prime Minister and others have made time and again, frankly, through the course of much of the commentary this year. Our position in relation to China is a consistent one. Consistent in terms of our desire to have mutually beneficial relations and engagement, and to be able to engage in dialogue in those areas of common ground and mutual interest. We acknowledge as we always have, we won't agree on everything, we're two very different systems. But we have certainly extended the willingness to sit down, to talk, to engage. And what Josh has done today is reinforce that fact. The door is open from Australia's perspective to work through the issues where we can at mutual benefit and engagement, and to do that as calmly and effectively as possible. And the ball is very much in China's court in terms of responding to that.

Kieran Gilbert: Yeah, well we certainly hope that there's a positive response. Senator, Simon Birmingham, Minister for Finance and Trade, appreciate your time, a busy day for you. Thanks.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Kieran, cheers.

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