Interview with Stephen Dziedzic – ABC News

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

STEPHEN DZIEDZIC: Zed Seselja, Minister for the Pacific, thanks very much for joining the ABC. The Prime Minister has obviously made a pretty significant announcement today. In particular, let's focus on the immediate: 8,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccines going straight to PNG. When do you anticipate they'll arrive and exactly who will they go to? We're told frontline medical workers. Who is included in that?

MINISTER SESELJA: Yeah, look we would hope absolutely as soon as possible, so in the coming days. Obviously, we're working with the PNG Government to work on the absolute logistics of when they will be delivered. But those 8,000 doses that will go immediately would go to frontline health, so particularly doctors and nurses and those who are obviously working in the hospitals in PNG and dealing with COVID on a regular basis. So they will be the priority, because we need that health workforce, PNG needs that health workforce to be protected from COVID. We don't want to obviously see an outbreak amongst health workers, because that would make it so much more difficult to deal with the outbreak as it unfolds. So really important we deliver this support urgently and the plan is over the coming days.

STEPHEN DZIEDZIC: Now is 8,000 enough? I mean I know you've always got to draw a line somewhere, but some people have suggested something like 20,000 might have been better to cover absolutely everyone at the frontlines. How did you land at that 8,000 figure?

MINISTER SESELJA: Well, 8,000 was obviously looking at – we’ve got around about 4,000 nurses in PNG, around about 500 doctors, and then obviously going beyond that. So no, it won't do absolutely all of the health workforce. I think the total health workforce is about 30,000, but what we're also doing is obviously working to get a lot more doses coming into PNG very soon, working on the one million AstraZeneca doses that we have contracted, and our message to the Europeans is that we've contracted for these doses. We've paid for them. Obviously, they've expressed concerns about the need in Australia versus the need in Europe, but we would say we're going to gift these to Papua New Guinea. And Papua New Guinea, as a developing nation with perhaps greater challenges in dealing with COVID than other advanced nations, absolutely needs these doses. And we would say to our European friends that we would want to see the doses flow into PNG as soon as possible.

STEPHEN DZIEDZIC: So that's an interesting tactic there as well, because obviously as you've mentioned, this argument in Europe has always been put about that Australia fundamentally doesn't need the vaccine. So you're turning it on its head here and saying: okay, maybe not. You can make that argument. Europe's in a much worse position than Australia, but PNG is arguably in a worse position than Europe. Is that essentially the argument you're making?

MINISTER SESELJA: Well there's two things. One, we maintain that if we contract for these doses, which we have and we pay for these doses, well we should be able to receive them. But, yes, the Europeans in some quarters have expressed the view that Australia doesn't need these doses as much as Europe. Well, the Papua New Guineans, obviously with an outbreak on their hands, which could become, I think, a very serious outbreak potentially, and obviously a nation that is still developing and has greater challenges in its health system, I would, argue than many parts of Europe would of course. And so there is a great need. And so absolutely, we think there's a strong moral argument. We would like to see it flow. It would be part of our support. It would be part of a broader package of support that we're delivering. And really, we're going for a number of different ways that we can obviously support Australians, to get vaccines, but also to support vaccines into our region in Papua New Guinea and beyond.

STEPHEN DZIEDZIC: Is this announcement fundamentally about protecting people in PNG or is it fundamentally about protecting people in Australia? We know what the risk of mutations is, what threat that poses to Australia over the medium- and even the long-term. Who is the chief beneficiary here?

MINISTER SESELJA: Well, Stephen, both. But certainly, I think, at the first instance, of course it's people in Papua New Guinea. The Prime Minister said today, and rightly so, that Papua New Guinea has stood with us. We've always stood with Papua New Guinea and they are our friends, family, and our neighbours. So we take our responsibilities to them very, very seriously. We genuinely want to see their nation thrive and be protected from COVID. But of course, there are benefits to Australia if we look after our region. So it's not just the right thing to do morally, it is of course in our interests to make sure that whether it's in PNG, whether it's in other parts of our region, that people are protected, people are vaccinated. So as we roll out the vaccines in Australia we know that until really right around the world, until vaccines are delivered all around the world, life won't return back to normal and the risk will still be out there.

STEPHEN DZIEDZIC: Alright. Let's talk about the wider vaccine rollout. The Government of course has committed some $200 million to vaccinating, particularly nations in the south and south-west Pacific. Now I've been told that there's a timetable now that the Government is looking at. That that timetable is that you'd hope to roll out vaccines to get about 20 per cent coverage by the end of June. Is that a realistic goal and what steps have to be taken by the Australian Government to reach that point?

MINISTER SESELJA: Well, there's a couple of things happening in other parts of the Pacific. So obviously PNG is an immediate focus, but if we look to other parts, places like Fiji, Vanuatu, and beyond, we've provided $80 million to the COVAX facility. We believe that $80 million contribution would be enough for around about 20 per cent coverage in those nations. But we've additionally said that we will, through bilateral support, support all of those countries that won't be either supported by the US, or New Zealand, or France who have particular responsibilities to some nations in the region. So for those nine or so nations in the Pacific, we will not just provide the COVAX, which is being delivered right now, for instance in Fiji, they have received 12,000 COVAX doses. I believe the Solomon Islands will be receiving 24,000 doses in a couple of days' time. So it is starting to roll out. And what we're going to be doing is, as our own vaccine rollout ramps up, as our sovereign capability ramps up here in Australia and as Australians have access to those doses, then either through procurement overseas or through surplus stock that we have in Australia, we will look to deliver those over a period of time, working with those governments.

STEPHEN DZIEDZIC: When do you think, realistically, Australia could see effectively full immunisation or full coverage in the Pacific?

MINISTER SESELJA: I wouldn't probably, I don't think we can put a day or a month on that at this point. I think there's a process to go through. The COVAX doses were always going to be the first part of that. As and when there are surplus doses, we'll be in a better position to say how quickly some of those surplus doses in Australia can get out there. But we're also looking through UNICEF and others or other forms of procurement. So the money is on the table. And in the meantime, what we're doing with those nations is actually helping them to prepare their health systems, helping with things like health advice, workforce training, communications, because obviously reticence to take the vaccine will be one of the things. That's true everywhere in the world. It's true in the Pacific. So it's end to end support, we're doing a lot of that work now, there are doses rolling out now. As we have more doses, we'll be able to deliver more to our neighbours.

STEPHEN DZIEDZIC: Alright. Thanks, Minister. We appreciate your time.

MINISTER SESELJA: Thanks very much, Stephen.

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