Interview with Edwina Bartholomew, Seven Network, Sunrise

EDWINA BARTHOLOMEW: New South Wales is in uncharted territory as COVID cases increase at record rates. Premier Dominic Perrottet has called for calm amid growing concern over the rapid spread of the virus. Yesterday, the state reported more than two and a half thousand new cases with Omicron thought to account for the majority of those infections. There are 227 people in hospital, 28 of those in ICU. But the AMA has warned that hospitalisations often lag behind infections and now is the time to introduce more restrictions. For their take, we’re joined by Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who’s out of the microwave and on to the rooftop in Washington, and Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon. Good morning to you both.

Barnaby, you’ve been given the COVID all clear after doing your 10 days in hotel quarantine. You had to cancel all your diplomatic meetings. How would you sum up your trip and can you confirm you will be home for Christmas?

BARNABY JOYCE: I will be home for Christmas and I’d sum up the trip as could have been better. Obviously, arriving here and being locked up in a hotel is not the ideal venue for trying to meet people. The English part was good, but I seem to have managed to put half their Cabinet into quarantine as well. So all in all, about three out of 10.

EDWINA BARTHOLOMEW: Barnaby, there’s increasing anxiety back home about Omicron – 75,000 cases per day where you are in the US. What is the feeling there about this new variant?

BARNABY JOYCE: People are cautious, wearing masks, but people are getting on with their lives basically. I don’t think you can just keep shutting the place down. Australia’s vastly better prepared than the United States of America. A lot more people have been double vaccinated. I got Omicron and I was double vaccinated. But, really, it was pretty mild. It was a couple of days and then the rest of the time you had the virus, they could find the virus on you, but you didn’t feel sick and that’s one of the frustrations. Let’s make sure people get vaccinated and then let’s get on with our lives, because that’s the only alternative. Otherwise, the economy just can’t work. You can’t just keep shutting things down, you’ll go broke.

EDWINA BARTHOLOMEW: So more than 10,000 people have been infected in New South Wales in the past five days, in the last 24 hours, with the new case numbers to come today, 712 of those were in your area, Joel, of Newcastle and the Hunter. Do you think the New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet is perhaps being a bit too calm?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: No, we want him to be calm, Edwina, but we want him to be sensible as well. It wasn’t that long ago Australians were looking at places like the United Kingdom with envy. We were locked down and they seemed to be free, but Australians have now earned this freedom. They’ve got out there and got themselves vaccinated. They’re now lining up to get their booster shots, at least those who are eligible. I think we just need to – I agree with Barnaby – we need to live now with this virus. We cannot keep locking our economy down. We cannot keep locking people up. We need to live with it. We obviously have to monitor what’s happening within the hospital system, but while ever there’s capacity there we should be allowed to roam free.

EDWINA BARTHOLOMEW: Well let’s talk about the booster shots, because countries like Israel and Ireland have reduced the time limit to wait until three months. Is that something, Barnaby, we should look at now? Because due to slow rollout initially of our vaccine program it means that many people aren’t eligible yet for a booster shot even though they so desperately want one.

BARNABY JOYCE: We do have about 1.3 million booster shots in Australia of an eligible population of around about 3 million. I imagine the total again will be somewhere in excess of 20. Look, I’m not going to profess to be a doctor. I think that’s a big mistake people make. If the experts in this field say that you can take the time down to a booster shot, then I’m prepared to do that. But just make sure you get your two shots and I genuinely would say that if you’re going to judge how Omicron works, it’s how many people are ending up in ICU and how many people tragically die – and there will be a few that will die and there will be a few people in ICU. But if we just start counting the numbers of the people who’ve got it, I don’t think that’s really now the issue because there are so many people vaccinated. It’s like saying how many people have got the flu. You’ve really got to focus on where the problem is, and that’s people going to ICU and obviously tragically people dying. They’re the numbers you’ve got to worry about.

EDWINA BARTHOLOMEW: There’s perhaps nothing we can do about people being eligible for booster shots yet, Joel. What do you think about rapid antigen tests? Is that something that the government should be funding, something they can do about? In the UK they give them away for free. I know in lots of pharmacies and lots of supermarkets they’re already sold out here.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: That’s right, Edwina. A lot of people in my own region are buying rapid antigen tests. They’ve been doing so for the last week. They are concerned about their family Christmas gatherings. But you made the point – there are so few people eligible for the booster shot because the Prime Minister once said this is not a race. Well, it was a race and still is a race. And not only are people not eligible, but in the regions people can’t get access to the booster vaccine at the moment. So we are still paying a price for the mistakes that were made earlier on by government. But I know that people will get out there and get their booster shots as quickly as they are eligible and as quickly as they can access them. And let’s hope that’s sooner rather than later.

EDWINA BARTHOLOMEW: Yeah, we can’t go back in time but hopefully we can move on from here. Joel, have a very happy Christmas. And to you Barnaby, put your hazmat suit on, get on that plane and return to your family safely, won’t you.

BARNABY JOYCE: I want to go home. Send me home. Send me home, big bird.

EDWINA BARTHOLOMEW: Thank you so much, gents, and thank you for all of your work this year. We’ll see you – well, perhaps next week but in the new year.