Television interview with Minister Butler and Monique Wright, Sunrise - 2 January 2023

Read the transcript of the television interview with Minister Butler and Monique Wright, Sunrise on COVID travel arrangements.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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MONIQUE WRIGHT, HOST: Joining us now is Health Minister Mark Butler. Good morning and Happy New Year to you, Minister, thanks for being with us. Why have you decided to do this now? And why haven’t there been similar restrictions with other countries that have had recent outbreaks like the US, the UK?  

MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE MARK BUTLER: The key driver of this decision is what the World Health Organization has described as an absence of comprehensive information about what is a very fast-moving situation in China. The decision that I announced yesterday, which takes effect on Thursday, also reflects decisions being taken across the world in countries in North America, in Europe and across Asia, for example, by Japan, by India, by South Korea, Malaysia and others. We think this is a balanced decision, a modest decision, but it will start to ensure that we have better information about what is happening in China right now.  

WRIGHT: Do you think China is lying about what is going on?  

BUTLER: No not at all. What we are concerned about as the World Health Organization described over the last 48 hours is an absence 
of information. 

What I mean by that for example, is a lack of genomic sequencing of cases that is obviously happening in China, that we know is a very significant COVID wave that’s underway over there. And that genomic sequencing that is shared pretty much in real-time across countries around the world, allows the global community to identify variants as soon as they start to emerge. And that is what the World Health Organization pointed to over the last couple of days. And that’s why they said that measures like ours, which have also been announced by the US, by Canada, in the last 48 hours by England and France, and earlier than that as I said by Japan, India and other countries in Asia. That's why the World Health Organization described those announcements as understandable. We just want more information about what’s happening in this very fast-moving situation in China.  

WRIGHT: Can you explain for everyone why Australia, along with all of those other countries, are doing this 
Thursday? Why not last week, for example?  

BUTLER: The Chinese Government only lifted its very significant COVID restrictions about three weeks ago, and I think as your viewers would know, that what's happened since then, is the building of a very significant COVID wave.

On Friday, the World Health Organization met with China and indicated that it was still concerned about an absence of comprehensive information about the situation in China. I think what other countries including Australia are looking to, is on the 8 January China will also lift its border restrictions, which we expect will lead to a very significant increase in travel between China and Australia as well as other countries. 

I want to stress that we warmly welcome the resumption of travel between our two countries. I know that hundreds of thousands of Australians of Chinese descent in particular, are really looking forward to the opportunity to be able to reunite with family and with friends whom they’ve not seen other than on a screen for months, if not years. And I know also the tourism industry, the education sector, universities and university communities are really looking forward to that resumption of travel. 

It’s really been the one significant country in the world that we haven't been able to see travel resume, so this is a very positive development, but we just need to ensure that we’ve got the information we need to protect the health of Australians.  

WRIGHT: Business groups are pretty cranky though, saying it is unwinding a decision that National Cabinet agreed upon, saying that we were going to live with COVID. What’s your message to business groups, who are saying that this is going to be really damaging?  

BUTLER: I don't agree with that. This is a very modest, balanced decision that we have taken and there is no restriction on travel from China, or to China by Australian business people, or members of the Australian community who want to get over and see friends and families. There’s no restriction on travel. All we are requiring is that travellers from China to Australia submit a negative COVID test that has been taken within 48 hours of departure.

I'm very confident that is not going to be a deal breaker for people who want to come to Australia to experience our extraordinary tourism assets or to resume their study on campus at Australian universities, rather than having to do their study over a Zoom. Or as I said, to visit friends and families, particularly as we lead into the Lunar New Year period that is so important for the Chinese community. This is a modest, balanced decision that we have taken.  

WRIGHT: Alright, you’ve got a busy week ahead. Looks like you’re in a lovely spot though there in Adelaide, hope you get a chance to enjoy at least some of it. Thank you so much, Mark Butler. We appreciate it. 

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