May 10, 2021

MONDAY, 10 MAY 2021

THOMAS ORITI, HOST: Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack believes airlines such as Qantas will understand why the Government's keeping international borders closed. Tomorrow’s Federal Budget figures will be based on the assumption that Australia's borders remain closed until next year and the admissions prompted criticism from the opposition. I'm joined now live on the line by the Shadow Health Minister Mark Butler. Minister, good morning.


ORITI: Not too bad thank you. Look, we're hearing now 2022 in terms of the international borders, obviously a lot of uncertainty at the moment for obvious reasons. I mean, what do you make of this timeframe?

BUTLER: At the core of all this confusion, I think is the lack of a clear plan to vaccinate Australians and a lack of a safe national quarantine system. A plan that has targets and milestones that will allow businesses to plan their recovery with confidence and allow Australians to understand what's going to happen over the next year or two. Three weeks ago, the Prime Minister said that there could be travel and home quarantine as soon as July and then yesterday morning, he gave an exclusive drop to a bunch of Sunday tabloids saying that there would be indefinite border closure. And then by yesterday afternoon he said I didn't say that. This morning, we've got some vague suggestion from the Treasurer that the budget papers will look at borders opening sometime in 2022. So the core of this is that they’ve bungled the vaccine rollout. What business has been calling for, and what Australians want is some clear answers to the questions. Very simple question, when are we going to be vaccinated? Because at the current rate of vaccination, it's going to take two years to vaccinate just the adult population.

ORITI: Okay but if you were in Government, though, are you telling me that you would actually be able to have a definitive time frame now as to when every Australian could get vaccinated. I mean, there's a lot of variables here the logistical issues, the international supply issues, we weren't anticipating the blood, the very rare blood clotting issues of the AstraZeneca vaccine. I mean, a lot of stuff has changed over time. Do you acknowledge it's not that easy?

BUTLER: Sure, and things were always going to pop up that are unforeseen. That's what happens in an emergency like that and that's why we said last year, there should be more vaccine options on the table. A number of other countries, most other countries to which we compare ourselves have got many more vaccine deals than we have. So when there were questions about the use of AstraZeneca, for under 50s for example, other countries have been able to substitute the mRNA vaccine Moderna, or the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. And we don't have deals with those companies for reasons that are still completely unclear to me. So not having a number of different backups to deal with these unforeseen circumstances has really constrained our options.

ORITI: Sorry to interrupt but isn't supply an issue? Let's say we signed a contract with Moderna, for example. That's not necessarily to say we'd have all those identical Moderna vaccines now, to solve the problem?

BUTLER: We said last year, you need five or six vaccine deals. At the moment we’ve only got two suppliers of vaccines. The other thing was that the Government was very slow in finalising their deals. For example, when the US and UK were signing their deals with just Pfizer, for example, which is a company we've got to deal with, we didn't sign our deal until November. So we've been slow in signing deals, we haven't signed enough, which is why there is a slower level of supply coming into Australia than in other countries. But we have more supply than we're currently putting into people's arms. We now have AstraZeneca rolling off the production line in Melbourne at pretty big numbers, but we just can't get those vaccine numbers up above 350,000 or so per week. We're apparently rolling a million vaccines off per week in the AstraZeneca factory, and that's without the Pfizer doses as well. So we need a clear plan. We need timeframes, we need targets, so that business and other Australians can plan the future.

ORITI: Okay, so let's look at the international borders. Given that uncertainty and I don't think anyone's denying that this is a lot of challenges here, the Prime Minister says he doesn't think there's an appetite for opening borders amongst Australians because it could mean, fair enough, having to deal with more outbreaks, lockdowns, social restrictions. Does he have a point?

BUTLER: Sure, Australians I think feel very, very proud of the fact that we've been able to manage the virus extraordinarily well in this country with strong government policy, particularly at the state level, but most importantly, all Australians buying into the need for restrictions and changes in our lifestyle, to keep ourselves away from community transmission. No one wants to see Australia go down the path tragically, we see other countries going down. That's a question of making sure that that we follow the health advice. That's what served us so well as a country over the last 12 or 14 months. But behind that there needs to be a clear plan by the Commonwealth for vaccinating the population. We're not in the top 100 nations of the world so far in terms of vaccination per head of population, and having a much more robust quarantine system than we currently have which relies far too heavily on hotels which were built for tourism, not medical quarantine which is why we continue to see these regular outbreaks of hotel quarantine.

ORITI: Let’s just look at some recent elections. State lockdowns in Queensland, WA, you could argue Tasmania as well, they proved to be vote winners for Annastacia Palaszczuk, Mark McGowan. I mean, is there a case here where international closures do resonate with the community that extending this back to 2022 is not a bad move for the Government?

BUTLER: No one is arguing for any relaxation of international borders beyond what we currently have now. We're not in a state of having vaccinated our population to deal with that we don't have started quarantine arrangements. The health advice is against opening up borders. No one, as I hear is arguing for opening up our borders anytime soon. What I think people are complaining about is that there is no strong plan, no clear plan for vaccinating the population. No safe national quarantine system. And every time the Prime Minister is asked what's going to happen to the international borders, he appears to give a different answer. Even on the same day.

ORITI: Australia's approaching 2.7 million vaccinations. I note as well a mass vaccination centre opening up in New South Wales today out in Homebush. We've been covering that on the program this morning. You're concerned as you've been saying that we're not hearing hard dates in terms of those milestones. Are you hoping to see this addressed in tomorrow's budget? What are you hoping for tomorrow night?

BUTLER: We need to see that addressed. There is some suggestion from the Treasurer this morning, that there will be some greater detail about vaccine timeframes in the budget tomorrow, and the economic impact of a much slower vaccine rollout than was assumed in the budget figures at the last budget. So we want to see that detail tomorrow. But you know, 2.7 million, we've got to remember everyone has to have two doses. So we're aiming for about 40 million just to get the adult population vaccinated. We are almost three months into the vaccine program with only 2.7 million doses. So we do need to speed this up. When the Prime Minister finally dropped his initial promise of 4 million doses by the end of March, he made a new promise that there will be 6 million vaccines delivered by the 10th of May, which as you know, Thomas is today and we're not even halfway to that number. So we expected this to ramp up. But 12 weeks in, we're still only at 350,000 doses per week at the moment. The US has been delivering 4 million in a day. Some days, well more than 4 million. We've got to get our act together. The Commonwealth has to put a plan that starts to wrap this up. Otherwise at the current rate, we're going to be two years before that country's fully vaccinated. As the Prime Minister finally considered over the weekend, we are likely to need booster shots. Everyone across the world is likely to need booster shots so potentially a third dose to deal with the fact that this virus is mutating all around the world.

ORITI: Just picking up finally Mark Butler, Qantas boss Alan Joyce, I read in the press that he's concerned Australia risks becoming a hermit state if the borders remain closed. Do you share those concerns?

BUTLER: I understand that businesses who relied to a degree on international travel or cross border travel will want the borders opened up sooner rather than later. The end of the day, though, these decisions should be guided by public health advice. So you know, once the Australian population is vaccinated having good quarantine systems, then and only then are we in a position I think to start to discuss the way in which borders might be relaxed. Given that we are 2.7 out of 40 million doses, that's a long way off.

ORITI: Okay, Mark Butler thank you very much for your time with the program.

BUTLER: Thanks Thomas.