Transcript - ABC Radio National

CATHY VAN EXTEL

Tougher quarantine arrangements for international airline crews begin today in New South Wales to prevent COVID transmission to Australians. It will mean crews will have to isolate in specific airport hotels guarded by police and monitored by the Health Department. Similar measures are in place in a number of states but there's no nationally consistent approach and there are concerns that tighter restrictions could mean air crews refuse to fly to states with the most onerous measures.

Michael McCormack is the Deputy Prime Minister and Transport Minister. He joins us this morning. Welcome back to Breakfast.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Thanks, Cathy.

CATHY VAN EXTEL

Thousands of international crew of course have avoided hotel quarantine and have been trusted to isolate at a hotel either chosen by their airline or at home in the case of the Qantas air crew. Wasn't this always a risk and why, as the Transport Minister, haven’t you tried to close this loophole?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, currently 34 foreign airlines operate into Australia every week and any given week there are more than 3,000 crews – pilots, cabin crew – in Australia assisting with bringing Australians home. Now, we know that 430,000 Australians have returned since March since they were asked to do so or advised to do so. Of course, states and territories, they'll continue to review their quarantine systems to ensure the health and safety of Australians is balanced with the task and that important task of bringing Australians home and enabling the economy to continue operate. Look, these are difficult times, there's absolutely no question, but we are relying on the best medical advice. We've done that all the way through and by any measure what we've been able to achieve in Australia compared to any other nation you like to look at or name, it's been very, very good –

CATHY VAN EXTEL

[Interrupts] Well, it's clearly been identified though, as a risk. I mean a number of the States are now acting, including New South Wales as of tonight. We don't have a consistent approach across the country though, why not, given that we're now accepting that this is a risk?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Again, we take the best medical advice and implement it accordingly to make sure that Australians are kept safe when they're travelling and I established a COVID-safe aviation –

CATHY VAN EXTEL

[Interrupts] But we're talking about consistency. Surely when we're talking about medical advice, if the advice is that it's a risk and New South Wales is acting on that, why aren't we talking about the rest of the country similarly acting?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well again, we take the best possible advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, we've done that all the way through and we are going to –

CATHY VAN EXTEL

[Interrupts] And so, what does that say? Are you saying that it's not a risk?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, everything is a risk and you only need to have one person who either flouts the rules or doesn't get detected or leaves home isolation. We saw that in Victoria, we've seen it elsewhere where we are going to get these little clusters and Paul Kelly, who is of course the Chief Medical Officer of the nation, indeed our state Chief Medical Officers have said that we will get, from time to time, these outbreaks. But again, so long as we've got the tracking and tracing and we've been able to do that, that contact tracking and tracing, we need Australians to be their very best selves. Yes, we'll look at all these things but again, we act on the best possible and latest advice from that AHPPC. That's what we've done all the way through. The Northern Beaches outbreak, very, very unfortunate of course. And I know that State Premiers and certainly Gladys Berejiklian and elsewhere, we're trying to as best we can keep that to just the Northern Beaches. It's a very difficult situation.

CATHY VAN EXTEL

The tourism sector certainly is thinking that this Northern Beaches outbreak is a little bit more than unfortunate. We heard from them yesterday complaining that there's no nationally consistent approach to outbreaks and they're calling on National Cabinet to deal with these issues. Queensland is certainly pushing for another urgent meeting. Is that on the agenda?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, Queensland also – I mean Melbourne is closer to Brisbane than indeed Cairns and Cairns was absolutely shut down and their entire tourism industry when it had hardly if any around that whole North Queensland area, a coronavirus case –

CATHY VAN EXTEL

[Interrupts] But it's the tourism industry asking for a nationally consistent approach –

MICHAEL McCORMACK

I appreciate that. I appreciate that and that's why National Cabinet has been successful, that's why National Cabinet has indeed worked very hard and very successfully might I add –

CATHY VAN EXTEL

[Interrupts] But the tourism sector is saying this now, they're saying that we want more action, we want that national consistent approach.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, the tourism sector is very important, it's a very important part of the economy and that's why it has been discussed at National Cabinet level. But until you get every Premier and the two Chief Ministers and the Prime Minister agreeing on everything, these are largely the remit – the rules are made by the states. The rules are made by the states and they put in place the rules in their own jurisdictions and the Commonwealth appreciates that, that's how our Federation model was set up in 1901. But again, I say we've done very, very well. We've only had one death since the 28th of October and whilst of course there are going to be 908 families missing a loved one this Christmas, that is very, very sad and very, very unfortunate. When you look at Australia's record in this – and I say again, thank you to all the Australians for doing what they've done to largely keep COVID-19 to the minimum number of cases and minimum number of deaths that we have compared to other countries elsewhere.

CATHY VAN EXTEL

Could I just ask, as you say it is up to the States to make these decisions and in terms of mandatory hotel quarantine some of them are now acting. Now are you worried that by making it tougher for the air crew or making it more restrictive for the air crew that airlines will pull the pin and refuse to fly to Australia, is that a risk?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, that will be up to the airlines, the States and Territories, as you say, will continue to review their quarantine systems to ensure the health and safety of Australians is balanced with the task of bringing those Australians home. They'll continue to do that. I'm sure that airlines given the protocols that they have in place and given the fact that there haven't been, you know, the instance of actually acquiring COVID on a flight is very, very low. I'm sure that they will continue to fly into Australia, I'm sure that states will continue to balance that and make sure that they've got the right quarantine measures in place.

The Commonwealth Government is very much there ready to help and assist in any way, as we've done with Defence personnel, et cetera and I'm sure the Police will continue to do the fine job that they've at a state level to make sure that the quarantining is as what it should be as far as security is concerned.

CATHY VAN EXTEL

Michael McCormack, could we go to the vaccine. Many countries are already vaccinating their citizens. We're going to wait until March at least at this stage. Why aren't we speeding up the approval process given that this Avalon cluster shows that we are still vulnerable?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

We're going to do it in the best proper way that we can do it. We're going to make sure that we roll out the vaccine. Of course, there's still all the Stage 4 testing going on and I know the media were very interested in the fact that a couple of people who had taken the vaccine showed some reaction to it, so we'll monitor the situation, what they're doing in Canada, what they're doing in the UK. We've said that as soon as all the proper testing is done and as soon as it becomes available and as soon as we've got the right number of vaccines, we'll roll it out. We've said that all the way through –

CATHY VAN EXTEL

[Interrupts] We do have a particularly infectious variant that's emerged in the UK. Other countries are very concerned, 50 countries have so far banned travellers from the UK. I think at this stage the Australian Government is saying that that's not going to happen here. Are we looking at stopping flights from the UK at all, is this on the agenda?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, Paul Kelly, the Chief Medical Officer, has said that that's not necessary at this stage but again with the vaccine, with flights from the UK and with other matters, we will take Paul Kelly's advice, we will take the advice of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, as we've done all the way through, and it's worked very successfully so far.

CATHY VAN EXTEL

Is it on the agenda that we may stop flights from the UK, is it being considered?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

As with everything we continue to review all of these arrangements, all of these matters. We're having a daily meeting between all the health experts, with the Prime Minister, with the Health Minister, Greg Hunt. We're doing that each and every day and we continue to monitor these and act accordingly.

CATHY VAN EXTEL

So we've got two people currently in Sydney hotel quarantine with this variant. Is that cause for concern? Is that likely to lead us now to make a decision around stopping flights from the UK?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, again, we will monitor the situation and of course it is a concern, those two people with that apparent variant of COVID-19, it is a concern. It's not just a concern for Australia, it's a concern worldwide. I mean there's a vaccine now available. Yes, it is being rolled out in the UK. Yes, we are monitoring that. We will be providing it free to each and every Australian as soon as we're able to do so and of course we'll also be providing it to our friends in the Pacific, because that's what good neighbours do, that's what good countries do and that's what we will be doing. And we'll be certainly making sure that it is available to all those Pacific Island nations as well. But we'll do it in the best and most responsible way as according to what Paul Kelly and the other experts have told us and we've followed that advice through Brendan Murphy, we've followed that advice through the State Chief Medical Officers, all the way through. I say again, whilst it's very sad for those families who won't be having a loved one around the Christmas table this year, what we have done compared to other countries has been very, very good and Australians can be –

CATHY VAN EXTEL

[Interrupts] Can I ask you about Regional New South Wales with this Northern Beaches outbreak in Sydney? There's nothing stopping Sydneysiders of course from going to Wagga, where you live. Do you think that regional travel should continue over the holiday period, which is considered, you know, a ticking time bomb?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

It would be a terrible shame if those people from the Northern Beaches who were worried about whether or not they had COVID and decided to come regionally, yes, of course and we'd like them to stay at home. The Premier has urged and encouraged them to do so, they need to be able to get tested and that's why tens of thousands of people are getting tested across the nation every day and we need to make sure that they continue to do that and people in the Northern Beaches should certainly do it. We don't want them coming to regional areas and infecting people who have largely kept COVID free. These communities have maintained their COVID-free status for almost, many of them, right throughout the whole situation and many of them have had only a handful of cases at worst and so we need people to do the right thing, to continue to do the right thing. And of course the Premier is standing up every day and I know the Health Minister, Brad Hazzard, is making the advice according to the Chief Medical Officer Chant in New South Wales and so we'll continue to do that.

CATHY VAN EXTEL

We're about to speak to the Minister. Thank you, Deputy Prime Minister, for your time this morning.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Any time at all, thanks so much.

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