Topics: End of travel exemption requirement for fully vaccinated Australians travelling overseas; Australia’s evacuation efforts from Kabul; every person in immigration detention offered a COVID vaccine.
SALLY SARA: Karen Andrews is the Home Affairs Minister and joins us from Sydney Airport. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.
KAREN ANDREWS: Good morning, Sally. It’s a pleasure to be back.
SALLY SARA: Do you accept that there’s a risk, even allowing vaccinated travellers… they could bring more COVID into the country?
KAREN ANDREWS: What I will say to that Sally, is that I think Australia has demonstrated our ability to be able to deal with the COVID pandemic. Yes, there have been outbreaks in Australia and they are being managed, but many Australians – in fact, I would say most Australians – want their lives back, and that’s why it is important that we go through the process that we committed to; which is reopening the international borders as soon as it is safe to do so. The advice that we have – the medical advice that we have – is that at this point it is safe to start reopening the borders.
SALLY SARA: Minister, some health experts aren’t happy about this plan to lift restrictions. Epidemiologist Tony Blakely says it’s ‘epidemiologically mad’. Nancy Baxter says it’s ‘ridiculous that there’ll be no quarantine’. What’s the advice that makes you feel reassured that it will be safe?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, firstly let’s say that the quarantine – the health arrangements – are always managed by the states. That has been the case throughout the pandemic. So in the case of New South Wales – for example – they are confident they have taken advice in respect of the quarantine arrangements that are here and will start taking effect as of Monday. So New South Wales has made its position quite clear. Now, there are differences amongst the states – and there are different levels of vaccination across the states as well – but New South Wales and the ACT – in particular the ACT – is very well advanced. They have very high levels of vaccination rates, and their view – based on the advice that they have been given – is that they are at a point where they can manage the quarantine arrangements and that they can reduce them; so it will be zero for fully vaccinated passengers coming into this country in most circumstances.
SALLY SARA: Minister, some people are worried about how things will go for families where the parents may be vaccinated with an approved vaccine but kids haven’t been able to get it. Can you guarantee that families won’t be separated?
KAREN ANDREWS: Absolutely we will be doing our best to make sure that families are able to travel together. We’re putting in place various arrangements to make sure that happens. We know that in the United Kingdom – for example – full dosage vaccination for the 12 to 17-year-olds is one dose. So the agreement that has been reached – and the Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly announced a little while ago – is that for those 12 to 17-year-olds with the one dose who are travelling with a family group, they will be considered to be fully vaccinated when they enter Australia.
SALLY SARA: But what about for younger kids? If I’ve got a five or six-year-old who haven’t been able to get vaccinated, does that mean I need to go into quarantine with that child?
KAREN ANDREWS: If they’re coming in with a family, they will be considered to be vaccinated and they will not be separated from their parents and other family members.
SALLY SARA: Let’s look at the tourism sector. We heard earlier from the head of the Melbourne Airport, Lyle Strambi, about the need to get business moving again and tourism. This is what he had to say.
LYLE STRAMBI: We really – I think for the broader economic benefit, we’ve actually got to get to a stage fairly quickly where double-vaccinated foreigners are allowed into the country. It’s going to be very hard for airlines to have sustainable flights if we’re only targeting Australians who are double vaccinated going out and coming back. You know, that reduces your market by half.
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SALLY SARA: When do you think you’ll allow foreigners to come in on tourist visas?
KAREN ANDREWS: We’re working through that process now. We need to make sure in the first instance that our priority is and remains looking after Australians – that’s why the reopening arrangements that we’ve announced that will be taking effect as of Monday are focused on Australian citizens and Australian permanent residents. The next cohorts that we are looking at are students. We’re looking at the economic cohorts – skilled workers – coming into this country. There are many places in Australia that rely very heavily on international tourists coming into the country and it has been very hard for them over the last 18 months. We will work to bring in international travellers as soon as we can, but the priority is Australians, followed by skilled workers, international students.
SALLY SARA: Minister, what are the arrangements for Australians who want to come home but they’re in a country that has a vaccine that we don’t recognise? For example, things like Sinopharm in China? What happens for them? Do they need to go to a third country?
KAREN ANDREWS: No, they don’t. So basically, if people have been vaccinated with a vaccine that’s not recognised in Australia by the TGA, they will be considered on entry to be unvaccinated and they will be under the health and quarantine arrangements of the state or territory in which they enter the country.
SALLY SARA: Do you understand the frustration of Australians who’ve been stuck overseas for so long?
KAREN ANDREWS: Absolutely. I understand how difficult it is and I thank them for their patience. It’s been so difficult, and I see many emails coming into my electorate office and also my ministerial office – so I have a very good understanding. That’s why we have been doing all that we can to increase vaccinations here in Australia, to work with the states and territories to make sure that’s been rolled out as quickly as it possibly can. The first key thing that we all have to do is make sure that we roll up our sleeves and we get that vaccination; because that is a key to being able to reopen.
SALLY SARA: Minister, on a separate issue, when it comes to Afghanistan, I need to ask you about the Amiri family. Their son was an Afghan interpreter working with Australian troops and he was killed while he was on duty with Australian forces; killed by a rogue member of the Afghan National Army. He was wearing our uniform. His sister is here in Australia but his parents and other family members have not been brought to Australia – they’ve been in a refugee camp in the United States. Is it acceptable for the parents of a young man who lost his life wearing our uniform to not be allowed into Australia at this stage?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, Australia actually did assist in the evacuation of over 4,000 people from Afghanistan-
SALLY SARA: That’s not the question.
KAREN ANDREWS: I understand that that’s not the question, but you can’t look at an individual’s circumstance in isolation. You actually do need to look at the enormous efforts that were made to evacuate as many people as possible. Now, Australia did that; many other countries supported that. The position that we’re in now is that we are working through our humanitarian program; that is the pathway to come to Australia now. We do have our agencies – we have the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – going through those processes now. The commitment that the Prime Minister made some time ago now is that there would be 3,000 places in our humanitarian program, but that is a floor, not a ceiling. And, yes-
SALLY SARA: But we’re not talking about general humanitarian places; we’re talking about a family whose son worked with our forces and lost his life doing that. Isn’t that enough to get a family to Australia?
KAREN ANDREWS: There are many cases that are absolutely tragic, and we’ve made it very clear that we will be prioritising certain groups through the humanitarian program. Now – in that instance – the particular example you have given; you have spoken about parents of someone who is already in Australia. That’s who we are looking at bringing in, but there is a process that we need to go through.
SALLY SARA: But they’re also parents of an interpreter who died with our forces. Will you give an undertaking to look at this case?
KAREN ANDREWS: We are looking at all cases. It is devastating for these people, and we fully understand that. So, yes, the government is very concerned to make sure that… you know, people have gone through extreme circumstances. The people who are already here, we are providing additional support to them. They have gone through torture and trauma that is unimaginable to many Australians. So, yes, we will look at these cases and we will prioritise as many as we can to get them here as quickly as we possibly can.
SALLY SARA: Have you looked at this case in particular?
KAREN ANDREWS: Look, I’m not going to discuss that case or any case in particular. What I can tell you is that there are priority cases that are being looked at now. That includes people who have given direct support to us in the past and those people who have family members already in Australia – and that’s the only information that I can give you about any case.
SALLY SARA: Twenty-one asylum seekers who are detained in the Park Hotel in Melbourne have contracted COVID. How’s that been allowed to happen?
KAREN ANDREWS: The advice that I have been given is that everyone there had the opportunity to be vaccinated. Some took up that opportunity; others chose not to-
SALLY SARA: So the responsibility doesn’t rest with the government in that case?
KAREN ANDREWS: I’m answering the question in relation to what happened – and the individuals there did all have the opportunity to be vaccinated; some of them took up that opportunity. The people who have been and continue to be in detention in Australia have had the opportunity to be vaccinated. I was very clear with the Border Force to make sure that people did have the opportunity to be vaccinated. Again, we gave them the opportunity and we’ve been very successful in making sure that COVID has remained out of our facilities. That is because, within the facilities, there has been good arrangements in place to manage any potential outbreaks; hygiene has been very well managed; people have had the opportunity to be vaccinated; and – yes – there has been an outbreak, but that is being managed; and that is the first breakout in any of our detention facilities.
SALLY SARA: Karen Andrews, we must leave it there. Thank you for joining us on Breakfast.
KAREN ANDREWS: It’s a pleasure. Take care.