Interview with Jim Wilson, 2GB Drive

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Olympian Jess Fox; Sydney lockdown; Vaccination; facilitated commercial flights; COVID-19 origins investigation.
27 July 2021

Jim Wilson:

Well, as greater Sydney enters a fifth week of lockdown there is plenty to chat to Foreign Minister Marise Payne about. She's a very good friend of this program, she's a proud Sydney‑sider who lives in our west and she's on the line this afternoon.

Minister, welcome back to Drive.

Marise Payne:

Hi Jim, I'm on the edge of my seat waiting for Jess Fox.

Jim Wilson:

I was just about to say I know you've known Jess for a long time, as I have, but I know you've been a big part of her support crew and cheer squad, so to speak. It's a big moment for her. Hopefully fingers crossed she can win the gold.

Marise Payne:

It would be a phenomenal, phenomenal outcome. She is such an extraordinary Australian, such an amazing competitor and aren't we so proud of all of our athletes there. They're just doing so well. And how hard to get there in 2020-21 in the context of COVID. It takes an extra – more than an extra – mile. It takes a lot. I'm just so proud of them all.

Jim Wilson:

Well said, well said. I know you're a proud Sydney‑sider. You're well aware how serious this crisis is in our city – 172 cases, five weeks of lockdown, a new record. Is the New South Wales Government doing enough, Minister, to bring this under control?

Marise Payne:

Jim, the Premier and her team, I'm absolutely sure, are doing everything that they possibly can, and I understand that lockdowns are very tough on people, very tough. But right now they are necessary. I spent three weeks of course at the beginning of the lockdown in Sydney doing that.

I'm in quarantine in Canberra myself now so that I'm able to go to Parliament next week.

What we're seeing though is the Delta variant really changing things, not just here but all over the world. So, I welcome the fact that the Federal Government is able to work closely with New South Wales, that we can share costs with their State Government delivering that much-needed support to smaller and medium sized businesses, and we'll continue that as long the lockdown continues.

And of course, we are working very hard to lift those vaccination rates. In fact, I've only got two messages for people: stay at home and, if you go out, only go out to get vaccinated.

Jim Wilson:

Just on the vaccine rollout, we're just over 17 per cent of the total population fully vaccinated now, Minister. Is there more that can be done to get Pfizer vaccines into the country sooner rather than later?

Marise Payne:

Well, we review that every day. That would be a conversation that, one way or another, the most senior members of the Government, the Prime Minister, the Health Minister, where it's appropriate for me to engage, I talk about those issues and work on those issues.

We have over 11 million vaccine doses administered now and we're hitting a million doses administered each week. So we are continually searching and engaging and, as you saw, we were able to bring forward some deliveries recently, so we continue to work on that.

Jim Wilson:

Okay. New South Wales has done a lot of the heavy lifting with hotel quarantine and those returning from overseas. Has there been any discussion inside the Federal Government to shutting the New South Wales international border to allow all the State's resources to focus on the ongoing lockdown?

Marise Payne:

We'll be guided by the State, by New South Wales in this case, on that, in terms of what they tell us they're able to deal with. But New South Wales has indeed taken the lion's share of returning Australians that have gone through hotel quarantine. And we're up over 650,000 Australians returned since we told Australians to return, if they wished to, in March of last year. And that includes 99,000 people who have been registered with my Department and it includes 154 facilitated commercial flights that the Commonwealth has organised overwhelmingly with Qantas. And in fact one arrived from New Delhi yesterday carrying 189 passengers and we have further flights coming into Darwin. Our strong focus is these facilitated commercial flights while we have caps through the States and Territories at these reduced levels.

Jim Wilson:

Just on the origins of COVID‑19, we still don't know for certain where it came from. The reports are China has rejected a second probe by the World Health Organisation into the origins of the virus. What's your reaction to that?

Marise Payne:

It is our strong view, Jim, and I've spoken about this on your program before and we have been absolutely consistent, that it is critical that we must know and establish the origins of COVID‑19 so that we can do two things: so that we can protect people, including our very own community of Western Sydney right now, and so that we can prevent its recurrence.

We've consistently called for a transparent, independent scientific review and our position has not changed and we welcome the support from many others around the world for the next phase of this work. And we absolutely believe that further studies must have access to all relevant data.

Jim Wilson:

Were you satisfied with the findings of the first World Health Organisation probe into the virus?

Marise Payne:

We were concerned and we said at the time that it was significantly delayed and that it did lack access to both complete and original data and samples, and we made that clear in a statement that we joined with 13 other countries, including Japan and Korea, Canada, the United States, United Kingdom, in expressing those concerns at the time. The EU itself issued a separate statement mirroring those issues.

So, we have seen those matters raised by the WHO Director‑General and transparency called for by many, many concerned nations and leaders.

Jim Wilson:

So it goes without saying that the Australian Government will be pushing for a second probe?

Marise Payne:

Absolutely, and we have been very clear about that, and we've also noted particularly the work that our close neighbour Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, and her colleague Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former President of Liberia, did on that Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response. It has called for explicit powers to investigate pathogens with pandemic potential, to publish information about those potential outbreaks immediately. All of those steps are part of a comprehensive international response and Australia strongly supports those.

Jim Wilson:

Just going back to the repatriation flights. How many more repatriation flights are scheduled in the next month or so?

Marise Payne:

We have further flights coming into Darwin across the coming days and weeks. Two more this week from Istanbul and from New Delhi, and a further 16 across the rest of July and August. We work that flight schedule closely with the Northern Territory Government so that we're able to ensure the capacity of Howard Springs and the requirements for cleaning and for separate locations for each flight and so on are met, and we will continue that increased tempo of flights into September.

Jim Wilson:

Is there a timeline to get vulnerable Australians back home?

Marise Payne:

Well we work every single day, Jim, that's why we have in that cohort of 650,000 Australians, 99,000 registered Australians, many of whom also fell into that vulnerable category, and we provide support to them. We have provided a lot of support to facilitate their passage on commercial flights but also our own facilitated flights. And of course, our financial assistance program has been able to, where it has been very difficult for people in a number of countries, to provide grants and loans to over 4,700 Australians overseas and the Government has contributed almost $35 million to that process.

Jim Wilson:

Is it realistic, Minister, that we could see vulnerable Australians home by the end of the year?

Marise Payne:

Well everybody's circumstances are different, Jim, and so when the number today is 38,000 Australians registered seeking to return, then we will be working closely with all of those people on our facilitated commercial flights and on separate commercial flights, and of course it remains to be seen what the States and Territories are able to do in relation to caps.

It is an ongoing challenge and COVID continues to impact so many countries, continues to impact the international aviation environment and people's capacity to move around. But the absolute focus of my Consular and Crisis Division is supporting these people, and particularly our posts on the ground, I know that they are also working very hard to support those Australians.

Jim Wilson:

Minister, thank you for your time this afternoon.

Marise Payne:

Thank you very much, Jim, and best of luck to Jess Fox.

Jim Wilson:

I'll let you get back to that, good on you. I appreciate your time joining us. That's Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

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