Black and white head shot of Simon Birmingham, former Minister for Finance.

Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham

Minister for Finance

30 October 2020 to 23 May 2022

CH 9 - Weekend Today

Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia

Restrictions; COVID response; Vaccination; Novak Djokovic;

Jayne Azzopardi:  This is not exactly what we thought living with COVID would look like.

Richard Wilkins: A happy new year, one and all. So where do we go from here and how did we get here in the first place? Let's discuss the week plus with Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, and New South Wales opposition leader Chris Minns. Good morning, gentlemen. Thanks for coming on the show. Simon, let's start with you. Is everything really kind of, you know, steady as she goes under control? Or do we need more restrictions?

Simon Birmingham: Richard, there's no doubt that Omicron has thrown a real curveball here in Australia and right around the world, the challenges we're facing are not unusual ones. If you look at testing shortages that have been evident in the United Kingdom, US or many other parts of the world. These are real challenges. As Omicron on the upside is proving to have lower health impacts and that people are around 70 per cent less likely to suffer severe illness from Omicron. But of course, it is proven to be so much more transmissible, and that is meaning huge additional case numbers. And that's why we've had to change some of the things along the way, change the way testing is undertaken, change some of the definitions around close contacts, to respond to what are fundamentally changed circumstances. Now, Australians have shown great resilience through the last two years, and they're continuing to do so right now through these challenging times. But the thing on our side are vaccinations. The high vaccination rates we have in Australia, which are higher than in so many other parts of the world, higher than in the US or New Zealand or many different parts of Europe. And the booster program that is there and the fact that we're now getting on with ensuring children everyone over the age of five has that access to a vaccine. That's what we continue to provide us with the additional protections that we need to stay safe.

Jayne Azzopardi: Chris, we're two years into this pandemic. Do you think we've planned well enough for where we are now?

Chris Minns: No, Jayne, absolutely not. I mean, if you look at the situation in New South Wales, you're looking at a complete strain on the public hospital system right across the state, seeing unprecedented number of people who have been infected with the disease. And worst of all, the New South Wales government and the Commonwealth government that were warned repeatedly that a lift in the rate of the number of people who would be infected with the disease would put serious pressure on the testing regime and centres across the state and the country, as well as our public hospital system. Both of them are under severe strain at the moment. Living with COVID doesn't mean that you are in a situation where you don't know whether you've got COVID or not. At the end of the day, the minimum responsibility of the New South Wales and the Commonwealth government is allowing people to understand whether they've been infected with the disease or not. And with rapid antigen tests not being available, the PCR regime being wound back, it's been very, very difficult for the families of this state.

Richard Wilkins: Simon, these numbers are through the roof, the last - well through the roof full stop, hospitals have got to be close to be at breaking point. I know this Omicron isn't as infectious, but boy oh boy, they're getting full, are they?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Richard, to the point you make, there is right that that if you catch Omicron, you're around 70 per cent less likely to suffer severe illness than previous versions of COVID-19. But many more people are catching it because it is so much more transmissible. So that has put pressure on hard working staff. And of course, with isolation numbers, that puts additional pressure. It's why the billions of dollars in additional funding we've provided to the states and territories for the health systems, coupled with the agreements we put in place to be able to access private hospital places, private hospitals staff to provide for that surge capacity are proving to be so important right around different parts of the country at present. That's how we make sure we get through this by leveraging all the different staff opportunities that are there, leveraging the additional bed places that are there, making sure that they are there for Australians to access when and where that's necessary. And my thanks goes out to all of those hard working public health professionals who are on the front line having to respond. But they've got extra resources, extra places that we're deploying to help them get through this.

Jayne Azzopardi: I mean, we've been thanking our frontline workers for two years now, and yet they're not really getting any reprieve. They're just getting- having to work harder and harder and getting sick themselves. Chris, what do you think needs to be done now?

Chris Minns: You look at the end of the day, you look at our front line workers, who in many cases are working six and a half shifts a week after working for the last two years, solid being the heroes of the pandemic, fronting up day after day to keep us safe in the early stages of the pandemic. They didn't know what the effects or the long term effects of COVID would be on the central nervous system or the lungs, and they went to work in any event. So we owe them a huge debt of gratitude. But for people who need elective surgery or urgent drug, blood transfusions or our frontline workers, it's too late for many of them. And many people in this state are wondering why those modest restrictions, like mask mandates were removed in New South Wales on December 15, which would have at least slowed the progression of the disease. Simon is right Omicron, is less deadly and less dangerous than other variants, but that's more good fortune than good planning. We need to make sure we do the right things going forward to protect our public hospital system.

Richard Wilkins: Yeah, Simon, is this what you thought living with COVID might look like?

Simon Birmingham: Richard, as I said at the outset, Omicron has thrown a big curveball right around the world in terms of changing the perspective, some for the better in terms of it being less severe in the health impacts. Some for the worse in terms of the higher rates of transmissibility. And now we're always going to have to respond to the unknowns in our system is showing great resilience despite the pressure points that are there right now. I know that we can continue to get through it and crucially, those vaccination numbers are the key and for people who are still yet to get their booster shot. Please keep persevering as different doctors surgeries and others come back from, some of them holiday breaks, you're going to see more places online. There are more than 10,000 different distribution points for people to get a booster shot or get a childhood vaccination across Australia. And so please make sure that you test and get out there and get those boosters and get those childhood vaccines. We're going to have five to 11 year olds coming on stream this week, and there's around three million doses available by the end of January to ensure that every single one of the 2.3 million Australian children between five and 11 have a chance to get their first dose before school is scheduled to go back this year. So please make the effort to do that and reach into the different distribution points to find one who can fit you in.

Jayne Azzopardi: Simon, just quickly on another issue did the Department of Home Affairs really stuff up, granting the visa to Novak Djokovic in the first place?

Simon Birmingham: No, I think there's a clear difference between visas and entry requirements. So visas are issued as part of a course and process. The entry requirements into Australia, though, where we have in response to COVID-19 at different points, banned all entry or put additional requirements to sit over and above the visa conditions. And one of those requirements, very clearly is that you need to be double dose vaccinated if you're not an Australian citizen to come into Australia. That's been a very clear entry requirement is very clearly communicated to Tennis Australia as well.

Richard Wilkins: Okay. All right, gentlemen. Thank you for your time this morning. We wish you well. Enjoy the cricket today.