Interview with Laura Jayes – Sky News AM Agenda

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: COVID support to Papua New Guinea.
17 March 2021

LAURA JAYES: Zed Seselja is the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, he joins us live from Canberra. Thanks so much for your time, Minister.

MINISTER SESELJA: Pleasure.

LAURA JAYES: From the data that we have, what do you estimate the infection rate is in PNG?

MINISTER SESELJA: Well, Laura, I think, as you indicated in your intro, it's difficult to put an exact number on that. What we have seen is a very concerning surge in cases in the last couple of weeks in particular. We've seen a significant spike in high rates of those who are being tested returning positive COVID results.

So, we know that it is of significant concern for us to need to ramp up our efforts to support PNG at this time – to ensure that we can support them, and support their health system, and their health officials to make sure that together we can get this outbreak under control and protect the lives and livelihoods of people in PNG, and obviously protect Australia as well.

LAURA JAYES: There's around nine million people in PNG. Could it be as high as half the population, perhaps even more having COVID?

MINISTER SESELJA: Well, I wouldn't want to speculate on those kind of numbers, Laura. And I would say, and as you rightly pointed out, the rate of testing hasn't been as high as it would be, of course, here in Australia and in a number of other countries. So, it's hard to put those kind of numbers on it. And obviously, the picture is different in in Port Moresby to what it is in other parts of the country, though we do know that there is data to show that each of the provinces has experienced COVID outbreaks or community transmission in recent times. So, there is sufficient data to know that it is of significant concern and that we need to act urgently to support PNG in dealing with it. But I wouldn't want to speculate on those kind of figures without the data.

LAURA JAYES: Yep. And the data that we do have, doesn't it show that this has been a growing crisis for some time?

MINISTER SESELJA: Well, it's, it's obviously been around and we've been monitoring and we've been providing a lot of health support right throughout this crisis. We've been supporting with PPE, with teams on the ground, with all sorts of support. We've pledged, of course, significant support for the rollout of the vaccine. But you're right, what we've seen in just the last few days and weeks has been that there's been a surge, there's been a spike, and obviously, that's caused further concern. And so, in consultation with the Papua New Guinean Government, what we've announced today is a significant ramping up of that support. That will include 8000 doses from our stockpile. We're also going to be asking the Europeans, through AstraZeneca, with the one million doses that we've contracted - which haven't been able to come to Australia, which have been prevented from coming to Australia - we're going to say, we're going to ask them, well, Papua New Guinea, they are a developing nation, they have a significant outbreak on their hands; we have contracted this, we're going to forego it for Australia, but we would provide it to our neighbours and friends in Papua New Guinea.

LAURA JAYES: This pandemic has passed the 12-month mark here in Australia and for those countries around the world. Why are we seeing this explosion in PNG now? Have they just been lucky?

MINISTER SESELJA: Well look, there's a number of things, and it's difficult to give an absolute crystal-clear answer on that, Laura, but there's no doubt that there's been- that early on we saw - and right around the Pacific, it must be said, if we look at other parts of the Pacific, there are, in fact, no cases in most countries. But in Papua New Guinea specifically - we obviously saw some early cases Papua New Guinea - is a bit different to perhaps other nations in the Pacific. It's obviously larger in terms of its population, in terms of its geographical spread. Obviously, those who are in more isolated areas would have been, to some degree, protected from the spread of it.

So, there's a number of reasons why we wouldn't have seen the spread happening up until now but obviously, the figures are showing that it is happening. It is important we act, that's what we're doing. And it's not just about the 8000 doses, it's not just about pushing for the one million - it's the $144 million we've put on the table to fully vaccinate, as we get access to those vaccines, our support for the COVAX facility - 588,000 doses coming in there and a lot of it-

LAURA JAYES: [Interrupts] Well, just on the COVAX facility, that is the Chinese developed vaccine, isn't it? Why has PNG-

MINISTER SESELJA: [Interrupts] No, no sorry, Laura, I'll have to correct you - I know there's a lot of detail. I think you're talking about the Sinovac.

LAURA JAYES: Right.

MINISTER SESELJA: The COVAX facility is in fact the multilateral response, and it is actually a focus - the $80 million we've put into COVAX is about delivering vaccines into our region. So, this is a coordinated response by many countries supporting it, and particularly with a focus to deliver to those nations who otherwise might find it very difficult to get access to vaccines.

LAURA JAYES: So, what is the COVAX vaccine? Is it comparable to the AstraZeneca? Is COVAX the name of the program that's being rolled out? What is it?

MINISTER SESELJA: No, COVAX is not the name of the vaccine. So, COVAX will deliver a number, and my understanding is when it comes to our region it would be AstraZeneca.

LAURA JAYES: Okay. So, the AstraZeneca vaccine will be rolled out largely in the Pacific. So, if we do finally get these AstraZeneca vaccines locally made and get that ramped up, could you see a percentage of those going to PNG on a regular basis until that population is vaccinated?

MINISTER SESELJA: Well, that would be out intention as we get Australians vaccinated, and we've always said that surplus vaccines in Australia, the first call on those will come from our Pacific neighbours - whether that's Papua New Guinea, whether it's indeed into Timor Leste and other parts of the Pacific as well - so that is very much on our agenda. But in the immediate, we're going to release the 8,000, we're going to push for the one million. We're working with COVAX facility to get- obviously, they're going to be delivering- they've committed to the 588,000. And then, yes, as we ramp up our own production, as we vaccinate Australians, we're going to look to how we can further support our Pacific neighbours in getting them vaccines and keeping them safe.

LAURA JAYES: Should we have perhaps done that sooner so we can help our neighbours like PNG to the north?

MINISTER SESELJA: Well, I think we have been providing significant assistance. So, there's been around $60 million of health and other support during the COVID crisis. We've been providing PPE, we've been providing all sorts of medical support, that continues and that is ramping up. But obviously, as we're getting access now to our own vaccines, we're in a position to share some of those, as well as making all of those other-

LAURA JAYES: [Interrupts] Well, that's the point, isn't it, Zed Seselja? Because the Prime Minister has told us repeatedly that we're not in a hurry because we're in such a good position here in Australia. But, this is the very point. With a crisis like this on our doorstep, if we had rolled out and produced this vaccine earlier, we could have helped earlier?

MINISTER SESELJA: Well, I think what we've done is we've gone through a proper process to make sure that there is confidence that we've gone through the TGA proper processes. Yes, we didn't go through emergency processes as some other countries did. We believe that given where Australia is, that was absolutely the right call, and that will give ongoing confidence to the community here that we've gone through all of the processes to ensure that the vaccines are safe. But, because we're in a good position and as we're ramping up our own production, we're going to be in even a better position to support our neighbours, that is the right thing to do morally. It is also, I think, the right thing to do in Australia's interests, because until we get the COVID crisis under control all over the world, and particularly in our region, then of course life won't return back to normal.

LAURA JAYES: Okay, just one final question on this. If we are starting to produce one million local AstraZeneca jabs a week here in Australia from 22 of this month, why do we need those million from Europe? Wouldn't we be in a better position to provide those sooner?

MINISTER SESELJA: Well, we've obviously contracted those and we would like to get access to those as soon as we can. But, what we've done is we've sought to not put all of our eggs in one basket. We've sought to procure from overseas, to have our sovereign capability. I think that puts us in the absolute best possible position to keep Australians safe, to get our economy back on track, and to support our neighbours as well.

LAURA JAYES: Zed Seselja, always appreciate your time. Thank you.

MINISTER SESELJA: Thanks very much, Laura.

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