GRAEME GOODINGS, HOST: Governments around the world are imposing restrictions on travellers from China as COVID cases there surge, following the relaxation of COVID zero rules. Australia will impose mandatory testing for travellers arriving from China and joining me now is Health Minister Mark Butler. Minister, good morning and compliments of the season to you.
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: And to you, Graeme.
GOODINGS: It's only a few days ago the Prime Minister said we wouldn't be imposing restrictions. Why the change?
BUTLER: I think this is a very fast-moving situation and we've seen, as your introduction said, countries right around the world take the decision that I have a couple of days ago. In North America you’ve got the US and Canada, England, France, Italy, Spain, here in our own region in Asia: India, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, there are others as well. They've all taken a decision to require a modest measure which is a pre-departure test - so you have to do a COVID test before you board a plane from China to our country and all of those other countries.
One of the things that I think is really important is the World Health Organisation, which had met with China on Friday, over the weekend expressed its concerns about an absence of comprehensive information about the situation in China. Now, they said that the measures that we've taken and pretty much every other country to which we usually compare ourselves has taken were “understandable” in light of that absence of information. The thing people are particularly concerned about Graeme, is that we're not seeing the genomic sequencing of COVID cases in China uploaded in real time for the rest of the world to see and share. And that genomic sequencing tells us exactly what type of COVID is circulating in a particular country. Every other country is doing that now. We do it in real-time, so that as a global community, we have a line of sight about what variants are emerging and where. And WHO and other countries besides have expressed concern that we don't have that information about a very fast evolving COVID wave in the largest country on the planet.
GOODINGS: It does seem, in light of what you're saying now, unusual to say the least that the Prime Minister was against introducing mandatory testing, saying that he was taking advice from the health experts that it wasn't necessary. And I believe the Chief Health Officer Paul Kelly still believes it's unnecessary?
BUTLER: As I said when I announced this measure, the Chief Health Officers across the country take a view that the resumption of travel between China and Australia poses no public health threat to Australians and that Australia is very well placed in the fight against COVID right now. We have high levels of vaccination, we have very good access to treatments, particularly the anti-viral medicines that all of your listeners I hope are aware of - particularly for people aged over 70 they’re very effective at reducing incidence of very severe disease from COVID. So, we’re well positioned in that fight, but as I said, really, over the weekend after the Prime Minister said the things that you just referred to, we started to see a number of countries move - England and France I think within 24 hours of my announcement just as one example. But also, as I said that WHO statement, the World Health Organisation statement about what they described as an absence of comprehensive information about the situation in China.
So, while the Chief Health Officers say, quite rightly, that there's no imminent public health threat to Australia from the resumption of travel between China and Australia. We are concerned to make sure that we can gather more information about what’s happening on the ground with China and this is one way in which we can do it. I’ve also decided to follow the very clear advice from the Chief Medical Officer about putting in place other measures. For example, we’re moving to test the wastewater that comes off aeroplanes travelling from China. That will allow us if there is COVID on that plane to determine what variant of COVID and very quickly get any indication of the emergence of a new variant.
This is really about acting out of an abundance of caution, it's a modest measure Graeme, it just requires people to take a test within 48 hours before they board a flight from China, Hong Kong, Macau. It can be a supervised rapid antigen test or a PCR test. And otherwise, we're very warmly welcoming the resumption of travel. I know that many hundreds of thousands of Australians of Chinese descent, will be relishing the chance to see their family and friends again. Whether those family and friends are travelling here from China or whether they are going back to China as well. And I know the University sector is keen to see international students return, the tourism sector keen to see tourism start up again. We're just making sure that we've got the most information we can possibly get to protect the health of Australians.
GOODINGS: There was a backlash on social media to suggest that you know what we are doing is racist: why was it directed at China and not other countries?
BUTLER: I reject that entirely. I mean, if the WHO had said over the weekend what they said about China in relation to another country, we’d be looking at the same measures. What we want to do is to make sure that we have as much information as we possibly can get about what's happening right around the world with this global pandemic. And it just so happens that the one country with whom we didn't have open travel, frankly other countries didn't have open travel either, was China. It was really the only significant country in the world that haven't still opened up. Your listeners probably know the Chinese Government took the decision last month to lift their COVID restrictions after really having a COVID zero policy with very strong restrictions around movement and largely closed borders to travel with the rest of the world. And on the 8th of January, so in a few days’ time, they will be lifting as border restrictions as well. China is in quite a unique position, it’s only now doing what pretty much the rest of the world did quite some time ago and that's why this decision is taken in relation to that country, and not to others.
GOODINGS: While this testing is all well and good, and I must say I'm all for it, there’s still the chance that people will arrive on flights from China and when they touch down in Australia they are positive, COVID-positive. What happens then?
BUTLER: If you're in Australia and you’re COVID positive, then you’re subject to all of the other arrangements that we have in place. If you have symptoms, then we encourage you very strongly to isolate until their symptoms disappear. And whether you're a traveller from anywhere overseas or whether you're an Australian who has been here for a very long time and hasn't travelled overseas, the advice is the same.
What we're particularly determined to do though is to be able to get access to information that might show whether or not a new variant is emerging. There's no evidence of that right now. And indeed, the variant that it appears to be driving the very big COVID wave in China today is a variant that has been in Australia, probably for 6 or 7 months. And it spread right through the rest of the world over the course of the last period as well. It's part of the Omicron family which your listeners will all be too familiar, given Omicron drove all the COVID in Australia over the course of last year.
But we're just concerned to make sure, as the World Health Organisation has said, if a new variant emerges in China, we have the earliest possible notice of that. And that's why I've taken this measure out of an abundance of caution, along with a range of other measures the Chief Medical Officer has recommended to me.
GOODINGS: Are you aware of a new variant that appeared in the United States?
BUTLER: Yes, and it's been it's been picked up in the UK as well, as I understand it. Again, it is part of the Omicron family. Omicron has been really creating a whole bunch of different subvariants over the course of the last 12 months. I can't remember precisely the name of this new one, I think it’s XB.1.1.1 or something like that. We are watching that one very closely.
GOODINGS: Any cause for concern in Australia?
BUTLER: Not at this stage, but certainly the American and the UK authorities are watching that very closely. And that really goes my point. The fact is, this was picked up very early in, I think, New York which is where it started to emerge first of all and then spread to some other parts of north-eastern states in the US and also in the UK. But all of us had notice of that because that data was uploaded in real-time by the American authorities. And that's really the point the World Health Organisation has been making about the situation in China right now: we want to encourage countries right across the world to share their data about exactly what is happening with this global pandemic so we can all learn from it and we can all be prepared for it.
GOODINGS: Minister, thanks for your time this morning.
BUTLER: Thanks Graeme.