Television interview with Minister Butler and Charles Croucher, Today Show - 2 January 2023

Read the transcript of the television interview with Minister Butler and Charles Croucher, Today Show on COVID travel arrangements.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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CHARLES CROUCHER, HOST: Health and Aged Care Minister Mark Butler now joins us from Adelaide. Firstly, Minister, Happy New Year to you. This comes into effect from Thursday. What was the consideration given around that timing? 

MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: This also the timing that the US, the UK, maybe some other countries I think have also decided. It gives some notice, particularly to the airlines that we're having to work with, to put this into practice, some notice to travellers as well. But it also recognises the fact that we want to put this in place as soon as practicably we can. 

CHRISTINE AHERN, HOST: What are you most concerned about? Is it the surge in numbers in China or the lack of data? 

BUTLER: There is no doubt that case numbers are surging significantly in China. This is obviously a very large population, the largest in the world, but also one that's largely been shielded from COVID over the last almost three years now. So there are very infectious variants that we've been dealing with here in Australia, as has the rest of the world, particularly the Omicron variants that are now starting to spread through China. And I think all of the public health advice I have is that you will see very significant case numbers that are already emerging, really, from all reports, but they will continue to grow over coming weeks. There's no doubt about that. And that's going to be a cause of significant distress and dislocation - the sort of distress, dislocation and death that we saw over the course of 2022 tragically here in Australia and across the world. That is likely to be what China is confronting over the coming weeks.  

CROUCHER: It sounds like then this decision is in place now for some time? 

BUTLER: We're hoping this is a temporary measure and a short-term measure. And I think that's the view that you've seen from a range of other governments in North America, Europe and Asia who've taken this decision as well to require a test to be submitted by passengers before they board a flight to Australia from China. You've seen the US and Canada do this in North America, a number of European countries, including England, France, Italy, Spain as well, and Asian countries like Japan and India, South Korea and Malaysia all put in place pre-departure testing. And the reason they're doing this, very importantly, is a lack of comprehensive information about what is happening in China. That's what the World Health Organisation pointed to over the weekend. That was a key factor in my decision yesterday to put in place these same measures. And the sort of information the World Health Organisation was talking about is the genomic sequencing of COVID cases. So looking at what variant of COVID is spreading through China or any other country for that matter. This sort of data has been shared by countries across the world pretty much in real time for quite a deal of time now. So that we all have a clear line of sight when a possibly dangerous new variant of COVID emerges. And that's what the World Health Organisation pointed to as their concern: the lack of that comprehensive information about the situation in China right now. And that's really why we've taken this decision. It's a modest, balanced decision. It will help us get access to some of that information and data while not restricting the travel that we're very pleased to see resume between China and Australia finally. 

AHERN: Okay. What you haven't confirmed, though, yet is whether travellers are going to need a RAT or PCR test. When is that going to be confirmed? 

BUTLER: So we're still working with agencies and with the airlines about those final details, they will be released very, very shortly. I've said I want to make that the testing arrangements are as flexible as possible for passengers but are also robust and verifiable. For example, the US has put in place a verifiable rapid antigen test as well as PCR. We're looking at that very closely. But those final decisions will be announced very shortly, including on the Smartraveller website, not just in English, but also in language as well in Mandarin and Cantonese. So that travellers have as much notice as possible about those arrangements. But we want to get them right. We want to make sure they're in place in time for passengers to understand what their obligations are, and then see that travel resume. It's going to be a great thing for so many Australians of Chinese descent to be able to see their family and friends finally again rather than over a screen. And I know universities are desperately keen to see international students from China return to campus rather than doing their lessons over Zoom or over WebEx, as well as tourists and so many other opportunities we will get from the resumption of travel. But we've got to make sure it's done with as much information as we can possibly get to protect the health of Australians. 

CROUCHER: And Minister, all those things you just mentioned can also be added to the fact that we are in a strange diplomatic time with Beijing. How concerned are you - with the Foreign Minister, the Trade Minister, they’re all there in South Australia with you - about what this decision will do to that relationship? 

BUTLER: This, as I said, is a modest measure. We're doing nothing to restrict travel. Indeed, as I've said, as many of my colleagues have said, that we warmly welcome the resumption of travel between China and Australia. It's going to be a great thing at a personal level for so many families, but it will also be good for our economy in sectors like tourism, education and others. And we want to see that continue to grow. We're not putting in place restrictions. We're putting in place very modest testing requirements. And they are in line with decisions that have been taken in many, many countries across Europe, across North America and in Asia. We'd like to see that absence of comprehensive information that the World Health Organisation pointed to over the weekend start to resolve. And I'm confident, if that happens, then these sorts of arrangements we're putting in place over the course of this week will be able to be lifted. 

AHERN: Be interesting to see how long these restrictions do remain in place. But Minister Mark Butler, we do appreciate your time. Thank you. 

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