NOUR HAYDAR, HOST: Travellers arriving from China will have to test negative for COVID-19 before being allowed into Australia from this Thursday, as case numbers there soar. Australia joins countries, including the US, UK, and France, in imposing the measures, which China has criticised even though it currently requires a negative test for all arrivals.
MICHAEL ROWLAND, HOST: The Health Minister says he's taken the move out of an abundance of caution, with fears Beijing is not being clear about the true extent of the outbreak in the country. And the Health Minister, Mark Butler, joins me now from Adelaide. Minister, good morning and Happy New Year.
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: And to you, Michael.
ROWLAND: Firstly, have you received any reaction to this move from China, officially or otherwise, so far?
BUTLER: No, we haven't. We informed the Chinese Government before the announcement yesterday morning, but I'm not aware of any reaction and I wouldn't expect one. This is a modest measure, a balanced measure, and one that's been taken in line with countries across North America, Europe, and Asia, for that matter. So, we think this has struck the right balance. We want to see a resumption of travel between Australia and China. We know how important, at a personal level, that's going to be for hundreds of thousands of Australians of Chinese descent, particularly as we head into Lunar New Year, but also for sectors of the economy like tourism and education. And we think we've struck the right balance here to make sure that we have as much information as we possibly can get about this very fast-evolving situation in China.
ROWLAND: How concerned are you that China is not being as transparent as it should be about the true extent of COVID in the country?
BUTLER: A key factor in my decision over the last couple of days was the view that the World Health Organisation put, I think, on Saturday, that said that there was an absence of comprehensive information about the situation in China. I think people are particularly concerned about the lack of genomic sequencing being shared with the rest of the world, and that is the way in which we identify at a very early stage the possibility of new variants of COVID emerging. This is something that's pretty much shared in real time by other countries but isn't being shared right now by China. So, that the key point made by the World Health Organisation over the course of the weekend. And the reason why they described the decision by a range of countries to require predeparture testing by travellers from China, in their words, as “understandable".
ROWLAND: A good international citizen would share this genomic sequencing with the rest of the world, wouldn't it?
BUTLER: We'd like to see that information shared. That's the point that the World Health Organisation, as the key global body monitoring particularly this pandemic, made over the course of the weekend, and it's the reason why, as you said in your introduction, countries from the US, through to many European countries, here in our own region in Asia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, India, have all taken the decision that I announced yesterday. We think it's a modest, balanced decision, in addition to a range of measures that we're going to put in place - for example, wastewater screening of airplanes that arrive from China – that will ensure we get that sort of information that the World Health Organisation has said is at the moment quite absent.
ROWLAND: A lot of epidemiologists are very concerned about what's happening, for instance, in the United States with this new variant XBB.1.5. So, why not look at imposing similar measures on American travellers to Australia?
BUTLER: I think that point just reflects the fact that we have a very clear line of sight about what's happening in the US, and countries across the world, for that matter. As I said, that genomic sequencing is uploaded pretty much in real time, so we do know what variants are emerging around the rest of the world. What we know across Europe and North America and much of the world, for that matter, is that there are new variants emerging reasonably regularly but they're essentially subvariants of the Omicron family, which tragically Australians have been very familiar with for the last 12 months. It really is the key driver of waves around the world. And, frankly, it appears to be the key driver of the wave that's under way in China right now, which is why the chief health officers have taken the view there's no imminent public threat posed by the resumption of travel between China and Australia right now. The lack of that sequencing data, though, is the concern we have as it doesn't give us the earliest possible indication of any new variant emerging from this very significant wave under way in China right now. That's not the case with the US, it's not the case with other countries, who are sharing that genomic sequencing pretty much in real time.
ROWLAND: If that genomic sequencing isn't shared in the weeks and months ahead and the situation in China continues to worsen - I mean, it's very opaque, we really don't know just how bad the situation is - is putting a stop banning travel from China to Australia on the government's table?
BUTLER: No, it's not on our table right now. It's not on the table of any other of the countries that I've referred to, and we have been engaging with, over recent days and looking at very closely. We want to see the resumption of travel but we want to make sure that it's done in a way that gives us the maximum information we need as public health authorities to protect the health of Australians. And we're confident these measures are balanced, they're modest, and they'll help address that absence of comprehensive information that we have right now about the situation in China, and allow us to get all of the benefits we know we'll get from the resumption of that travel. As I said, at a personal level for families and friends to be able to reunite and see each other again for the first time, in many cases, in years rather than just seeing each other over screens. But also, as you'd know, university communities are desperate to see a return of Chinese students back to campuses rather than learning online as well. Tourism and a range of other parts of the economy will benefit from this. We just need to make sure that we do it with the best possible information.
ROWLAND: The Business Council is a bit concerned about this. It argues that what you are doing, what the government has decided, is retreating from this general policy of living with COVID. What do you say to the Business Council?
BUTLER: With respect, I just don't agree. This is a modest measure taken in line with pretty much every country to which we would usually compare ourselves. We are committed to making sure that we can continue to travel overseas, continue the personal and economic benefits that come from having open borders. We just want to make sure we do that in a way that has the maximum information in a timely way that we need to protect Australians. The chief health officers have said across the board, a very broad consensus, we're very well-positioned here in Australia in the fight against COVID. We've got very high vaccination rates, particularly among the more vulnerable cohorts in the population. We've got good access to antiviral treatments. Here in Australia, we have really good surveillance systems - that genomic sequencing of COVID cases as well as wastewater testing and the like. So, we are very well-positioned here. That's certainly the broad consensus view of chief health officers, to continue, for example, or to use the language of the Business Council, that idea of living with COVID, resuming international travel, particularly with China, which was really the only significant country in the world with which we hadn't resumed travel until very recently. So, we just want to make sure we've got the information right, we want to make sure that we're getting good surveillance of, for example, waste water from the planes that are coming into Australia, and then we can enjoy the benefits that we'll see at a personal and economic level from the resumption of travel between China and Australia.
ROWLAND: You mentioned vaccination rates. As you'd know, Australians have been great at getting shot number one and shot number two. Not so great on the third and fourth shots. The AMA this morning is calling for a new advertising campaign aimed at encouraging Australians to get the third and fourth booster shots. That sounds like an eminently sensible idea, doesn't it?
BUTLER: It does, and that's what we will be doing. We want to make sure we get the timing of that right, that campaign is in development right now. We are looking forward - although it may seem a long time away - we're looking forward to the winter period, where as we know through bitter experience, these things can be far more severe because they collide with a range of other respiratory illnesses and pressures on the hospital system. I've said a number of times, Michael, probably on your program as well, that I'm concerned about those third and fourth-dose rates, although they are very good at the higher age spectrum, those more vulnerable age cohorts of older Australians have been very good at getting their third and fourth doses. I'm very pleased with the progress we've made in getting fourth doses in residential aged care. But there's no doubt that, across the broader community, particularly among younger cohorts, there's still work to do there. And I agree with the AMA - good, strong information campaigns are an important tool in the armoury to improve those rates.
ROWLAND: Mark Butler, Health Minister, appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.
BUTLER: Thanks, Michael.