Interview with Michael Rowland, ABC News Breakfast

19 Aug 2020
Prime Minister

Michael Rowland: Prime Minister, good morning.

Prime Minister: Good morning, Michael.

Rowland: What are your experts telling you about how likely this vaccine project will succeed more than the others that are being worked on?

Prime Minister: Well it's strong prospects, and that's why they've advised that we proceed with this. And to come to the conclusion with AstraZeneca will give us the opportunity to be at the front of the pack and to be able to manufacture the vaccine here, and make it available to all Australians. Timing of that well it’s still a bit unsure at this point, but we would hope early next year. If it can be done sooner than that, then even better. But this is the most promising as we’re advised. And in my discussions with other leaders around the world, particularly in Europe, they are forming a very similar view.

Rowland: Okay, if it does succeed and it's rolled out in Australia, who is first in the queue, front of the queue here?

Prime Minister: Well, that would be determined by the medical advisors, and how that program is rolled out. I mean, the trials are not yet fully completed and that would help them form that view. I should stress, though, that it won't be the only one that Australia will be taking a position on. Professor Brendan Murphy is heading up an expert panel to advise us on additional vaccine developments. I mean, there are 160 around the world. And we'll be looking to take further positions and there's already work under way on that.

Rowland: Okay, but when you're looking at possibly having to prioritise people Prime Minister, is it the elderly? Is it frontline workers who would get priority?

Prime Minister: Well, again, that will be determined by the medical advice based on the actual vaccine itself. And you've highlighted some obvious priorities. But the final decisions would be made on medical advice.

Rowland: Australians are desperately hoping this vaccine succeeds, any vaccine succeeds. But of course there is still a chance that there is no vaccine found. What is Government's plan B for Australia if that is the case?

Prime Minister: Well, to continue to live positively with the virus, to ensure we can establish our economy and society as much as is normally possible. And that's why having a COVID-safe economy, a COVID-safe community is so important. That's why having strong testing, tracing and outbreak capacity, capabilities are so critical to enable Australians to get on with their lives. We are working towards and hoping for, and planning and preparing for a vaccine, but equally, at the same time, you need to ensure that you can reopen your economy and you can get on top of the outbreaks that are there. I mean, New South Wales has led the way in containing outbreaks. We've obviously had terrible events in Melbourne and Victoria, but very pleased to see that that corner is turning in Victoria, and that's welcome news. Although there's still many weeks ahead of us yet.

Rowland: We have got the security guard testing positive for coronavirus working at a Sydney hotel. Are you seeking answers from Gladys Berejiklian on that?

Prime Minister: Well, they're following all those matters through. I think that's been one of the excellent responses of New South Wales, particularly over these many months now in dealing with the many outbreaks that they've been able to get on top of. And I have confidence that they'll be able to do the same thing here.

Rowland: Now a lot of,

Prime Minister: Their track record on dealing with this is strong.

Rowland: A lot of borders around Australia, it looks as though realistically, they could be shut not just towards Christmas but past Christmas. Do you understand or do you appreciate the Premiers and the Chief Ministers are doing this to protect their own citizens?

Prime Minister: Well I understand the decisions that have been taken. They've obviously been discussed at National Cabinet on many occasions and I've had many discussions with Premiers about them. The cases in different states are very different. Obviously, the New South Wales and Victorian border was a discussion that I was directly involved in with both Premiers, and we've been quite involved in supporting both of the states to ensure that those borders work as best as they can. They're incredibly disruptive, though, and I appreciate the work particularly New South Wales has done recently in making things a bit more workable, particularly for those working in the agricultural sector. I'm working with all of those Premiers who have borders at the moment on ensuring that Australians can get medical access. I thank Premier Marshall for the work he's done with me, as well as the New South Wales Premier most recently. We're dealing with those on a case-by-case basis and we’re making some progress there. But I understand what they're seeking to do, but it's important that all Premiers act on the basis of transparent medical advice. You know, if there's going to be these border arrangements in place, they will, of course, have very serious impacts on the economies of their states and the livelihoods of those who live in those states, and businesses and jobs. And that all has to be weighed up. And that's the decisions they're taking and they need to be transparent with the Australian people about.

Rowland: Prime Minister, Daniel Andrews the Victorian Premier, says the buck stops with him when it comes to the hotel quarantine bungle. So does the buck stop with you as Prime Minister for the litany of aged care failures?

Prime Minister: Well, there are shared responsibilities for, well public health is a matter for the Victorian government, and the Federal Government regulates aged care,

Rowland: It’s a federal responsibility. It is fundamentally a federal responsibility.

Prime Minister: Well public health, we regulate aged care, but when there is a public health pandemic, then public health, which, whether it gets into aged care, shopping centres, schools or anywhere else, then they are things that are matters for Victoria. So I don't think that it is as binary as you suggest.

Rowland: Okay. Now you've hit back very strongly at the assertion by the counsel assisting the Royal Commission, Peter Rozen QC, that the Federal Government doesn't have a plan for aged care. But Prime Minister if there was a plan, why, for instance, weren't masks made mandatory in Victorian aged care homes until the middle of July?

Prime Minister: Well, these were clinical decisions taken on clinical advice. And what we've consistently done all through this pandemic has been following that advice. I think that that is the best approach to follow. The plan was in place. Assertions were made by individuals at the commission, and those assertions have been rejected and we've provided that factual information directly to the commission.

Rowland: But even Brendan Murphy, now the head of the Health Department, concedes that masks should have been made mandatory in Victoria well before July. So what was going on? Was there a failure of communication?

Prime Minister: No. There was a developing pandemic and the medical expert advice that was being formed, including through the AHPPC, which is all the Chief Health Officers and the Chief Medical Officers of Australia, they've been meeting almost every day now, going back to January. And as further information has come to them, they've provided that advice and the Government has been acting on that advice.

Rowland: Just about out of time Prime Minister, I want to ask you about China's move against Australia’s wine exports. They've launched this anti-dumping inquiry. Many wine makers say this is patent nonsense. And I know that there has been I guess radio silence on the diplomatic front with China for many months now. But would you consider trying to get in contact with China's President to assert Australia's position here?

Prime Minister: Well we will be pursuing this case, as you'd expect. We take it very seriously. We reject absolutely any suggestion of Australian wine being dumped in China. I mean, it's the second highest priced wine in China. And of the highest quality. So we don't accept that suggestion. This will be about an 18-month process. It's not the first time that there have been these sorts of reviews done in China and we'll deal with it through those appropriate channels. Now I've been making the point very clearly that we have an important relationship with China. It's a mutually beneficial relationship. Our trade with China has never been at a higher level actually at the moment in terms of both its volume and its value. So, despite the issues that you've referred to, the trade continues. But where there are risks to that, whether it's on wine or barley or meat or coal, even, then we will continue to pursue those issues directly with the Chinese Government as we always do.

Rowland: Prime Minister, we'll leave it there. Appreciate you joining us this morning.

Prime Minister: Thank you very much, Michael.