Opinion pieces, speeches & transcripts

ABC News Breakfast Saturday 6 February 2021

February 06, 2021


SUBJECTS: Quarantine is a Commonwealth responsibility, vaccine rollout.

HOST: Thank you so much for taking the time to join us on weekend breakfast. Now we are hearing that New South Wales and Queensland will return to their original caps of returning travellers. South Australia and Victoria will boost their own cap numbers as well. Western Australian still in discussion about raising their caps as well. But still thousands of Australians are still stranded overseas. Katie, and I want to start with you - it's interesting, I was only on social media for a while that I saw that you were recently trolled, over the weekend, when you shared a lovely family picnic on your feed. You asked people what they were doing on the weekend and there were Australians that said: "I'm overseas, bring me back home". Someone else said: "bring us home, lift the caps, we're marking 13 months from seeing my family in Australia. Glad you're enjoying yourself." Surely, you can understand that thousands of Australians that are overseas - stuck overseas wanting to come home and they're still stuck there. What more can the government do to ensure that they're back? Quickly?

KATIE ALLEN: Thank you Fauziah. Look, I do completely understand how people stuck overseas must feel. Certainly in March last year, we called for all Australians to come home and there were a lot of repatriation flights, bringing people home, but some people decided not to come home at that time. And yes, we want to get every Australian home, I completely understand how they would want to be here. So the Australian Government is working very hard to make sure that we provide financial support where required for those who perhaps are struggling to be able to afford it. We're also making sure the quarantine caps are being increased. But all Australians want to make sure that we keep the gains that we have here in Australia. First and foremost, health has always been the number one priority - the Federal Government and also the State Government - I completely understand those people who are in places like England where it's wet and cold and the cases are going through the roof. Last week alone, there were 8000 deaths, more than 8000 deaths. We've had 900 for the whole year here in Australia. So we've done remarkably well. We do need to be patient. I completely understand how frustrating it is for people. But what I would say to those people, please reach out to your local federal member. I have been dealing with so many cases over the Christmas and holiday period and it's very important to work with your local MP with your particular circumstances.

HOST: Andrew Giles obviously you can sympathise with people who are stranded and wanting to come home. But as we've seen the leaks come from the quarantine system in WA, in Victoria, and also in Brisbane in recent weeks. Can we be sure that Australia's hotel quarantine system can cope with more arrivals?

ANDREW GILES, SHADOW MINISTER FOR CITIES AND URBAN INFRASTRUCTURE: Well, that's a really important question. But first, instead of blaming people for not coming home back in March, the Morison Government should take responsibility for getting people home. It was in September that the Prime Minister promised that everyone would be home by Christmas, we've still got 40,000 people trapped overseas, many of whom in really desperate and vulnerable circumstances and the government that's still not doing enough to get people home. I guess when it comes to quarantine, I'm deeply frustrated and indeed deeply angry that we've got a national government that's not upholding its constitutional responsibility. Just today in The Age we've got a number of prominent epidemiologists calling for a national quarantine plan to address precisely these issues. This should have happened a long time ago. And the government's got to get on with it rather than continuing to hide behind the states.

HOST: Andrew Giles, just on that point where you say that you're frustrated, frustrated that the government hasn't been doing enough to try to get Australians back home. Surely you can understand the fact that it's a fluid situation. The numbers keep going up and down. Now we have this more transmissible variant coming in as well. Would you put the Australians lives are at risk by bringing in more of this possible transmissible virus? That's one question and second question, what else then can the government do to bring more Australians home?

GILES: Firstly, we should always be acting on the basis of medical advice when it comes to getting people home safely and keeping the community safe. I think I should be clear about that. I think all of us in public life need to be clear about that. But there are so many things we could and should have been doing. The most obvious example is instead of sending a RAAF jet to fly a private citizen, Mathias Cormann around Europe, we could have been using those facilities to get stranded Australians home. There's so much more that we could and should have been done. And on the safety front, it comes down again to this issue. We need to have a national quarantine plan - it's section 51 in the constitution that makes that a responsibility of the national government. I welcome the increase in capacity of Howard Springs, but I query why that hadn't been done earlier. And indeed why other facilities that may be more suitable going to the good concerns that you've alluded to earlier, haven't been investigated earlier and haven't been part of just such a national quarantine plan.

HOST: Katie Allen, we've heard yesterday that there was this proposal about moving the quarantine more into regional areas, particularly with Toowoomba and we heard yesterday that the government is considering that proposal but as seeking more information on that. We spoke last hour to the AMA, Queensland president, and he was saying that there are concerns in regional areas, obviously, about moving these quarantine facilities into those areas and the risks to those communities. How is the government ensuring that those communities are being kept safe? If that proposal does go ahead?

ALLEN: Well, I think the first thing to say is that we've learnt a lot about hotel quarantine over the last 12 months and in fact the UK has finally rolling out its own hotel quarantining only for 11 days and they've contacted Greg Hunt to understand how to best do it. So, there's a lot of knowledge here in Australia that we've gained over the last 12 months. And as each unfortunate outbreak has occurred, each service has ramped up its responsiveness. So, we really do have a pretty fantastic hotel quarantining system that the states and the territories have been doing a wonderful job executing. I mean, if you think about the fact 210,000 people have now been through quarantine, and I know it's devastating when there's one case outbreak, and a whole state gets shut down. But hopefully, they learned at those early outbreaks, and then they step up to doing a better job. Now, when it comes to regional versus in the city, the lessons that have been learned for city hotel quarantining will be applied equally to the regions. And, understandably, we need to be very careful and cautious whenever we do new things. But the good news is, there's a vaccine rollout, it is a number of weeks away. So this is going to be a total game changer with regards to the risks that Australians will face, and particularly our frontline workers, and those who are in quarantine, because they are amongst the very first to receive the vaccine in really a number of weeks. So this is going to be a real game changer for the way that we deal with the risks of hotel quarantining and now and into the future.

HOST: Andrew Giles, on the issue of regional areas being used for quarantine facilities. You know, there was a commentator that brought up the fact that one silver lining is the fact that this would be a boost to regional health facilities as well. Is that the way you see it?

GILES: Look, I guess my main concern is to ensure that we get people home, and we get them home safely without any risk to the community. And the concerns that have been expressed by a number of experts in the media today, and which were expressed by Anthony Albanese yesterday, require us to look at exploring different forms of quarantine, as for different forms of hotel quarantine, or remote area quarantine, then simply that which is currently in place, and I guess it should be more than possible for our national government to do that, to meet its commitment to get people home and the immediate obligation to keep people safe. If there are benefits to regional economies as well that's another bonus that would be on top of meeting those primary objectives.

HOST: Katie Allen we've got Phil Gaetjens and other senior public service leaders working on this new advice to take into account the changing circumstances around COVID-19. For example, the fact that we'll have the vaccines, but also, we've got these more contagious strains of the virus. With that advice then informing policies moving forward in 2021, are you hoping that that advice will be applied consistently across the country? And how will you ensure that happens, given that we've seen states and territories acting very differently during this pandemic?

ALLEN: Well, thank you for that question. I mean, I think the fair thing to say is, both federal and all state and territory governments have been working with one purpose in mind, and that is to keep Australians healthy and safe. And yes, sometimes there's been a difference of opinion about how to do that. And that has caused immense frustration across the country. But what I will say is every time there's been a very clear signal about what we should do as either federal or state government, I see a lot of unison within the national cabinet. And that's been the beauty of national cabinet. Most of the decisions have been in unison, most of the decisions have been very bipartisan, and most of the decisions haven't been politicised. And I do sense that that is the case with the vaccine rollout, there's been an immense support for the diversified vaccine portfolio approach that Federal Government has taken. There's been fantastic partnering at the National Cabinet level and through AHPPC. But all the expert committees right across Australia that are informing state and federal government have been providing an evidence based expert informed approach and Australia is now in a very good position to take that advice forward.

So I'm hopeful now that we're all on the same page, state and federal governments are all on the same page, with regards to the vaccine rollout. We know there will be, unfortunately, there's always mistakes with ever any major public health rollout. And we need to be as forward planning as we can, to be as generous to each other as we can and to keep at the very centre of our decision making the fact that this is about each and every Australian and helping to keep them safe for the future.

HOST: All right, Katie Allen and Andrew Giles, thanks for joining us this morning. And Katie, I just want to acknowledge the beautiful artworks behind you this morning.

ALLEN: Thank you. That's my children's artwork.

HOST: I wondered if that was the case. Thanks very much to both of you for joining us.

GILES: Thanks very much.