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Interview with Tom Connell from Sky News on 15 October 2021 on regional health and COVID-19 vaccinations

Read the transcript of Minister Gillespie's interview with Tom Connell from Sky News on 15 October 2021 on regional health and COVID-19 vaccinations

The Hon Dr David Gillespie MP
Former Minister for Regional Health

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TOM CONNELL: Welcome back. Well, travel to regional New South Wales has been pushed back to November 1, despite the looming 80 per cent vaccination milestone. Federal Minister for Regional Health David Gillespie joins me now from Wauchope on the Mid-North Coast. Thanks for your time. Interesting now we're getting any international tourists and residents can come back as long as they're vaccinated, but Sydneysiders can't go out to the regions. Is this a good balance, do you think?

MINISTER GILLESPIE:  Well, (what we’ve seen is) a temporary pause because our rates are rising, but at the moment there's many regions, Tom, that have got high first dose, but very low second dose, as low as 56 per cent second dose. But my area, for instance, is above 90 per cent and many are. But it's the second dose effect that is really important.

They will catch up quickly over these coming weeks because a lot of the doses have been three-week interval doses with either Moderna and/or Pfizer. And there's a lot of people who are lining up for their final second dose of AstraZeneca.

So I think it'll go up quickly, and then we'll have what you are just outlining before the break. We might have cases, but we won't have the illness severity, which is what the vaccine does. It prevents infection, prevents spread. And if you do unlucky and you get it, it will be a much less serious illness. So no much call on ventilation and ICU.

TOM CONNELL: Hmm. Yeah, let's hope so. [Audio skip] a couple of more weeks, perhaps before those regional tourism services get a bit more of a workout. What about what you mentioned there, hospital numbers? So we're looking at the situation right now. There's concern in Queensland about being able to handle COVID-19, eventually when COVID gets in, and they say their health system, hospital system is not necessarily going to be properly funded for it. Does this concern you within the Federal Government? Are you looking to talk to Queensland and figure out how they'll be able to handle the surge?

MINISTER GILLESPIE:       Well, we've had many conversations over 18 months, with extra funding, with planning for that very eventuality, and I think the Commonwealth has been very generous.

As you know, we increase the funding to a 50-50 split from 45-55, and we've got extra COVID funding, extra PPE provided. We've paid for the vaccines. We paid for the states to administer the vaccines.

And the general [Audio skip] increase in health funding to the states over the last nine years has been astronomical. It's- in my area, my local health district is getting 195 per cent more than what they got in 2013 from the Federal Government, and I've seen the figures for Queensland, they're even higher. So it's really, I think maybe there's an element of an ambit claim there, plans to ramp up ICU capability.

TOM CONNELL: [Talks over] But what would you say, from your point of view, here's the extra money, here's proof it's there, that's it. It's up to you. Other states aren't as bad as that. So we've done our bit and handed over to Queensland, is that the extent of it or are you concerned? Do you want to start a dialogue here? There's a lot of regional- it's the only decentralised state in the country, essentially Queensland. We're talking a lot about regional rural health here.

MINISTER GILLESPIE: I think they are a very capable health department, they've managed to suppress and contact trace pretty well. I assume they will have the ability to ramp up like every other state has had to have plans in place. These are all the things that were planned well in the early stages of the pandemic. And as I said, I think there is a lot of support there. We are also helping with surge workforce for both the state-run system and for the general practise and nursing and ICU capability ramp up. Every state had to have plans for this surge capacity, and I think they will have to rely on all their early planning. I hope because it's opening up only with high vaccination rates. Like I said, you will- won't see the call on ICU that you saw in the first wave and when we had low vaccination rates, because cases don't necessarily mean the same number of people in ICU.

TOM CONNELL: All right, well, yeah, well, we all hope for that, and that's what [Audio skip] supposed to do and is doing so well so far. Big Nationals party room meeting on Sunday. The key issue is going to be what Australia is going to pledge to in 2030. 2050 is fine, but where the rubber meets the road is 2030. Where do you sit on whether Australia should either increase its commitment - so that's a firm commitment - or just leave it as a projection and not touch the 26 to 28 per cent at the moment we are pledging to reduce our emissions by?

MINISTER GILLESPIE: Well, we don't want to count our chickens before they hatch, but we've certainly got a great track record compared to the rest of the world in what we've actually done, rather than making promises 30 and 40 years away, which many other countries have, but haven't delivered nearly what Australia has done.

Look, everyone in the National Party is committed to making the environment better and we are supporting our current target. As has been pointed out, we haven't seen the details of what is proposed. We will have a sensible conversation. We are just worried about unintended consequences, like what happened with the Kyoto commitment. There was a huge covenant put on a heap of agricultural land. It put covenants on forestry, which were unintended, even though the IPCC supports sustainable, managed forestry. Because it's a great carbon sink, we could increase our capture and storage considerably if we followed what were historical practises rather than locking up forests as unmanaged forestry states. Look, there's so many things we're doing.

Agriculture is already on board, so we will discuss what is being proposed, and we will make sure that the industries that have fed and clothed Australia and develop wealth of the nation and allowed us to have a modern industrial economy aren't disadvantaged by that 30 year away [indistinct].

TOM CONNELL: [Interrupts] So just on that, when you talk, when you talk about industries, is it important to note that there will be changes? Industries change all the time, workers disappear from one and go to another, and it's not a case of you can't lose a coal worker, but we want to make sure the region's overall will have workers, even if that means they're switching from coal and they're making, say, renewable hydrogen in the future. There's no problem with one industry hurting as long as the regions overall can see that they're not going to be disadvantaged. Is that where you come from?

MINISTER GILLESPIE: Well, not necessarily that spin on it. We're just concerned about, not just regional jobs, we're worried about the whole Australian economy with regards to fossil fuels. By all means the world is switching away from it, but they're going into things like nuclear, Tom, because they realise you need a baseload system. But we have a ban on that. So we have to rely on technology to have a baseload power system. As you know, I have advocated personally for a change in that policy, but we're dealing with [audio skip] now and that is a huge part of the industrial and modern economy like Sydney, like Melbourne, like Brisbane. There is- even when the lights are off, there's still huge amounts of electricity running through [Indistinct].

TOM CONNELL: [Interrupts] Right. I want to get to nuclear in a moment. When you put that spin on it, what are you saying? Coal jobs won't- we can keep the same number of coal jobs today and have the same number in 30 years. That's spin, isn't it? That's not going to happen.

MINISTER GILLESPIE: Look, all industries change and modify over time, but we supply energy, either gas or coal, to a couple of billion people. We export our energy to other nations. They require it and they have required it forever. So we will keep exporting them. As we change…

TOM CONNELL: [Talks over] They won't require the same type forever, will they?

MINISTER GILLESPIE:       I know. They may adjust over time, too. But we don't need to have policies that could change 10 times over in the space of 30 years locked in now. We're always [Audio skip] into the future, but we want to make sure that in this global rush to make extraordinary commitments without a detailed plan of how we're actually going to do it, without, I said, disrupting our cities, you know, our whole way of life…

TOM CONNELL: [Talks over] Okay. We're nearly out of time. Let me just ask you this finally.

MINISTER GILLESPIE:       …and regional Australian jobs.

TOM CONNELL: On nuclear, David Gillespie, because you've been a proponent of it in the past. With these small modular reactors that a lot of people are talking about. In terms of getting these in Australia, we have a ban on nuclear energy at the moment. Is it about waiting until these are actually economic? And then you can say, here's a solution, its baseload and it's going to be cheaper. And then you might convince voters, because at the moment, they haven't proven anywhere to be a cheaper form of baseload power.

MINISTER GILLESPIE: Well, the cheapest electricity in Europe is in France, and they have nuclear energy.

Tom, as you understand, as Minister that has oversight and supervises radiation and nuclear safety, because I administer ARPANSA, I've looked at this very closely. The SMR technology is safe and it is very economic.

TOM CONNELL: [Interrupts] It's not economic as it is. Small modular, the actual builds that have been completed are not yet economic.

MINISTER GILLESPIE: Well, they are. They've been operating. They're very economically running ice-breakers. Some of them operating in Russia on pontoons, powering remote areas. There's a whole range of that technology from five, 10 megawatt reactors that would fit inside a couple of containers, through to 70, 80 megawatt units, and up to 300. But it's a very mature technology. It's just how that's packaged together makes it passively safe, so it doesn't rely on secondary systems should they need to turn them off.

TOM CONNELL: Running an ice breaker is a bit different to a whole economy. Anyway, we'll pick it up again another day. David Gillespie, thanks for your time.

MINISTER GILLESPIE: Thanks very much, Tom.


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