Transcript - Interview on RN Breakfast with Sally Sara

SALLY SARA

Well, Greater Brisbane could be on track to end its snap lockdown this evening after Queensland recorded no locally acquired COVID cases over the weekend. The news was similarly good in Victoria where there’s been no community transmission for several days, while the number of cases in New South Wales has been driven down to just a handful. Despite the virus being seemingly under control, state borders remain shut in many parts of the country while state leaders are squabbling over the best response to the outbreaks. The search for a nationally consistent approach to corona hot spots remains elusive.

Michael McCormack is the Acting Prime Minister. Mr McCormack, welcome to RN Breakfast.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Good morning, Sally.

SALLY SARA

We’re now one year into the pandemic. Why are there still no nationally consistent protocols on borders and hot spots that all of the states can actually agree to?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, because state premiers have responsibilities and state governments have responsibility, jurisdictional responsibility, for public health and of course, they’ve got different means and methods of being able to keep their people safe and the Commonwealth Government respects that. That is something that was enshrined in constitutional law way, way back in 1901. But when you look at what we’ve been able achieve as a nation and compare it to any other country in the world we’ve done a great job. And I say thanks to all those Australians, particularly regional Australians, for making sure that we’ve kept Australia as COVID-free as we possibly can.

And yes, 909 deaths was very sad for those families and, of course, not having a loved one around the Christmas table during the festive season would have been absolutely heart wrenching and heart breaking, but when you compare what we’ve been able to achieve and – yes, there have been a few hiccups along the way; everybody acknowledges that – but largely we’ve kept Australia as COVID-free as possible and we’ve had a very good record of health as far as that’s concerned.

SALLY SARA

Michael McCormack, why hasn’t the Prime Minister used National Cabinet to come up with a set of agreed lockdown rules?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, we have used National Cabinet for that very aspect as far as the national freight code is concerned, as far as many aspects –

SALLY SARA

But for lockdowns.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, lockdowns are a matter for the state premiers. And we don’t override the States’ responsibility in that regard. We’ve given that responsibility, of course. We’ve left that to the States because that is their responsibility. And yes, whilst I understand and appreciate that border lockdowns have had an impact on people’s lives and livelihoods, what we’ve actually been able to see is Australia remain as largely COVID-free as possible. And with the vaccine coming on board in the early parts of this year, I think that will be another step in the right direction as far as getting into a more normal and back-to-normal existence we enjoyed, of course, before COVID.

SALLY SARA

Are the numbers low enough now to open the borders to get things moving? You know you’re in contact with a lot of industries that are heavily affected by these closures.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Certainly in agriculture yes and I’ve spoken to any number of growers and industry representatives. That is difficult and I know that a number of fruit growers are crying out for seasonal workers, so any person who is that way inclined in a capital city perhaps listening to this program this morning who wants a new adventure, then there are plenty of jobs in regional Australia and not just picking fruit and not just in those sorts of industries that people often go to as backpackers or in their gap year or whatever the case might be. There are plenty of good, well-paying jobs in regional Australia where largely we are COVID-free. And there’s people not wearing masks and people able to, you know, with social distance rules in place, largely live their lives as they would otherwise normally.

But, yes, of course, it is a restrictive thing when you have border shutdowns and people aren’t able to – particularly in those border communities. I appreciate there are bubbles in place, but it is difficult particularly for farmers to get the number of workers they need at this time.

SALLY SARA

The New South Wales Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has expressed some of her frustration at Victoria. She says that they moved too quickly in closing the border after the outbreak on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. How long should a state be given to show that it can manage a case load?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

It’s probably the number of cases and it’s probably in a matter of days, not weeks. But, look, you know, I appreciate that there has been some argy bargy between states. I appreciate that, you know, not every premier has agreed with other states and their approach to what they’ve done. But, again, I say we’ve largely left that to the premiers and to the state governments to make those calls. I have to say that Brendan Murphy and in more recent times, of course, Paul Kelly, have done a great job leading the – as the Chief Medical Officers of this country – leading the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee. And of course, the state CMOs too, they’ve done their role. The territory and state CMOs have also led from the front. And premiers and of course, the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, have largely taken that advice that has been given to them by those medical experts.

SALLY SARA

And what about in Queensland? The premier there, Annastacia Palaszczuk, ordered the shutdown after the discovery of the highly infectious UK strain that had escaped into the community. Was that a proportionate response to the risk?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, there would be a lot of people with a lot of opinions about this, but I spoke to Annastacia Palaszczuk on Saturday. I understand the reason why she made that call and it was for only three days. They have actually had a good record in recent days as far as keeping the case rates to nil. And that viral strain is a worry. It is highly infectious and I appreciate and understand why she made that very tough call given the fact that it was only for three days. I understand the business community was not all that enamoured with the decision. I get that holiday-makers were affected and I appreciate that it was a bit of a letdown for many people who had travelled to Greater Brisbane then not being able to continue their onward tourism or travel to other places of Australia. But she made the call because she felt that that was necessary, again taking the best medical advice.

SALLY SARA

On Friday National Cabinet responded to the emergence of this highly virulent strain by cutting the number of hotel quarantine places. There’ll be an offset with a small extent by a slight increase in capacity at Howard Springs, but there are still close to 40,000 Australians stranded overseas. Can they now forget about coming home in the foreseeable future?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Absolutely not. If you look at the returning Australians, the total registered to return, there’s more than 37,000. That’s a lot of people. But the total number of Australians who’ve returned since 18th of September is more than 71,000 and the total number of Australians who’ve returned since the 13th of March when the Prime Minister asked Australians to come home is 443,000.

Now I appreciate that Australian passengers and air crew must be masked on any international flights or international and overseas airports. We made that call at the National Cabinet. Air crews, international air crews, have to undergo a COVID test in Australia every seven days. We’ve placed new requirements and regulations on that. We want to get as many Australians home as possible. We’re placing an emphasis on that, but the caps, there’s still 1,505 travellers coming into New South Wales, coming into Sydney, each week. Western Australia, 512; Queensland 500. So, yes, it is going to be restricted for a while, but given the fact that there are new strains of the virus and given the fact that we do want to have our states to be able to have the sufficient quarantine capacity to cope that’s why that change was made at National Cabinet level.

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