Interview with Fran Kelly – RN Breakfast

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Domestic Vaccine Rollout, PNG COVID Support, Nauru contracts.
12 April 2021

Fran Kelly: Zed Seselja, is the Minister for International Development and the Pacific. Minister, welcome to RN Breakfast.

Minister Seselja: Good morning, Fran.

Fran Kelly: I'll come to the Pacific in a moment. But, first to what's happening here at home, and the Prime Minister last night dumped the October target for dispensing the first vaccine shot to all. He says no new target will be set. Does that mean the Government, basically, has no idea when all the Australians who want to be vaccinated, will get vaccinated?

Minister Seselja: No, and thanks for having me on, Fran. What the Prime Minister has outlined is that, obviously, with the changes to advice when it comes to AstraZeneca that we received recently, last week, and that we've responded to, that obviously that has an impact on the rollout. We have rolled out, or in fact, over 1.1 million Australians have now been vaccinated and we're seeing that ramping up. But, obviously, with the particular advice that came in on the AstraZeneca, as it applies to under 50s not being recommended for under 50s now, that obviously impacts the rollout. But what we anticipate is that we will see the rollout of vaccines ramping up, as it is. It will continue to ramp up, and obviously, some of those time frames will continue to be recalibrated as we get access to doses.

Fran Kelly: But, Minister, we don't have any time frames. That's what the Prime Minister told us last night. Without a target, without a timeframe, how will the rest of us know if the rollouts on track?

Minister Seselja: Well, sorry, I'm just having a bit of an issue with the volume there, Fran. I'm sorry.

Fran Kelly: Oh, I'm sorry. We don't- As I understood the Prime Minister's comments last night; we don't have time frames now - we don't have targets. So without that, how will, will this know if the roll outs on track?

Minister Seselja: Well, what we'll know is that we've already seen over 1.1 million, and there will be updated advice as we go through, as we get access to further information. But there- we've contracted between the various options for, for vaccines, around 170 million for Australia. So we have made provisions for Australians.

Fran Kelly: Yes. But, most of those can't go to the bulk of Australians. The AstraZeneca, which is the bulk of that, can't go to the bulk of Australians, the under 50s.

Minister Seselja: Well, there's a number - and of course we saw an extra 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine that was committed to last week as well. So, we've seen a variety of different types of vaccines that can be delivered. Obviously, the advice that we received last week does have to cause some recalibration as to the timing, but, what we're going to see - as we've seen in other countries, and I just make this point that if we, if we looked to the early phases of the rollout of many other comparable countries, places like Germany, Canada, Sweden, France and many others, we have seen more doses delivered in Australia than was in those comparable countries, and they had obviously very different circumstances in terms of the rate of COVID. But, we've seen over a million already administered - that will continue to ramp up. And in terms of when we see every Australian who wants the dose, having one, obviously we'll be seeking to do that absolutely as soon as we can, and we'll see that roll out in the coming months.

Fran Kelly: But you agree it's clear now, it won't be by the end of the year?

Minister Seselja: Well, I think what's clear is that, as we've had to recalibrate, we can't commit to an October timeframe at the moment. But, the Government, with our health authorities, will continue to work very, very hard to deliver it. And what we- where we are in terms of the very low rates of COVID that we've seen in recent months in Australia, the strong way that we've been able to handle it, we have been in a very different position from many other countries, we will continue to ramp up that rollout.

Fran Kelly: Yeah, well, that's one message. I mean, that might be a fair enough message, that there's not a crisis here. So actually, you know, we can perhaps be a little less concerned about how quickly we get vaccinated. But, that hasn't been the message. The Governments said we're at the front of the queue, you know - well, turns out we have- we bet on the wrong horse. You know, have we been caught with our pants down basically? Because countries like the US and the UK, which had four or five or six options, are rolling out very, very quickly.

Minister Seselja: Well, I don't accept that characterisation at all, Fran. And we do have a number of different options. We obviously have-

Fran Kelly: [Talks over] Well, we've got two, and one isn't available for under 50s.

Minister Seselja: Well, no. So, in terms of in terms of yes, we've got Pfizer - an extra 20 million, so 40 million Pfizer doses. AstraZeneca will continue to be rolled out for over 50s. We also have other, other options coming forward with the likes of Novavax. So, we have contracted to a number of different options; we've got our sovereign capability; we're contracting to Pfizer. Yes, there was a setback in terms of the advice, and we take the advice very, very seriously. And because we're in a position where we don't have large numbers of COVID cases, as most countries in the world do, there is that ability to be extra cautious in that recommendation. And right on the back of that, an extra 20 million Pfizer doses, of course, and other doses will be coming as well.

Fran Kelly: Let's go to the Pacific. You're very involved in Australia stepping up to provide emergency vaccines over there. We've already sent one shipment of 8,500 doses for our frontline health workers. How soon will the supply of 10,000 shots a week be available?

Minister Seselja: Well, that will be ramping up in coming days and weeks and it is a very, very important support package for Papua New Guinea in particular, which is facing a serious challenge. So, the eight and a half- 8400 odd doses that have already been delivered to Papua New Guinea. And then we've committed to an additional 10,000 a week with the opportunity to potentially ramp that up - starting with PNG and Timor Leste.

But, I'd make this point also – we’ve also contributed to the COVAX facility, and we anticipate over 130,000 doses will be coming to PNG through that facility, we anticipate this week in the coming days. So, there are many doses coming to the people of PNG, we're going to stand with them and support them. We've got our AUSMAT team on the ground, we are helping them to ramp up in all sorts of ways as we have been right throughout this crisis. So, there are many, many times coming directly from Australia, and also through other organisations that we support, because we want to make sure that the people of Papua New Guinea can get this under control. But this, this support didn't start this week or it won't start next week - this has been right throughout the COVID period where we've delivered around $62 million in health support and we've committed to a full rollout of the vaccine in PNG.

Fran Kelly: In terms of what we're sending to PNG and what we're discussing re in terms of Australia, as I understand it, the 10,000 a week we're talking about is the AstraZeneca vaccine, that's manufactured by CSL in Melbourne - that's what we'll be sending by and large. PNG is a young country; its median age is in its early 20s. Is it responsible to be distributing that vaccine there, given the blood clotting risk? And what's the advice?

Minister Seselja: Well, what we've- the first thing I would say is that the people of Papua New Guinea and their government will make these decisions. And I understand Jelta Wong, their Health Minister, has indicated that the roll out of AstraZeneca will continue. The point to make here, as individual countries make the decisions as they have right around the world, is each of them look at their risk profile.

So, with the AstraZeneca, which is safe and has been reaffirmed but of course though there's that risk of four to six in one million of clotting had to be judged in Australia against the fact that we have alternatives in Pfizer, that we don't have a significant outbreak of COVID. Other countries such as PNG will make, potentially, different assessments based on the amount of COVID that they have there, there are over 8,000 cases in PNG at the moment - and also, obviously, looking at what alternatives there are.

So, it is a very safe vaccine. The Australian Government, on the basis of advice, has made the very cautious decision to say, well, we do have alternatives; we don't have significant outbreak of coverage in Australia at the moment. But other countries will make different decisions on this issue.

Fran Kelly: And just finally, on another issue on offshore processing. The Guardian's been reporting that the Government's paid a Brisbane company called, Canstruct, $1.4 billion over the past five years to run the asylum seeker centre on Nauru. That works out about $10,000 a day for each of the 115 people still held on the island. How is that, in any way, value for taxpayers?

Minister Seselja: Well, Fran, I'm sorry I just haven't seen that report. So, it's difficult for me to, sort of-

Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] Well, you'd be aware, I presume, would you of the contracts that are in place?

Minister Seselja: No, I'm not aware of that detail, Fran. So, I'm sorry, I can't give detailed comment, other than to say that our processes, when it comes to offshore processing and our overall border protection regime, has seen the people smugglers trade completely destroyed. That's something we want to see continue. But, in terms of that kind of detail, I just haven't seen the report.

Fran Kelly: Alright. Minister, thank you very much.

Minister Seselja: My pleasure.

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