Release type: Transcript

Date:

Interview - Sky News Live Newsday with Tom Connell

Ministers:

The Hon Stuart Robert MP
Minister for Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business
Acting Minister for Education and Youth

E&OE-------------------------------------

TOM CONNELL:

The Federal Government is determined that students will be back at school this year, but it is still, of course, up to the states. New South Wales and Victoria are keeping up with that mantra. Queensland has decided to not go ahead with the start of the school year. There is also a plan, of course, for rapid antigen tests to play a key role in all of this. The Minister joins me now to talk through all of this. So back to school for most, not Queensland. What have you made of the Government's decision to delay the return?

STUART ROBERT:

Well, Queensland, of course, has been trailing in vaccination rates, who are now at 90 per cent double vax – vaccine, which is superb. And of course, the Premier has made changes to international arrivals in accordance with that. That's the reason the Premier has put it back for two weeks, compared to New South Wales and Victoria whose double rate of vaccinations is so much higher. So Queensland should have been back today, my son should have been back today. A two-week delay to allow them to prepare, whereas New South Wales and Victoria are, of course, keeping to their timetable following the national plan and the Doherty advice.

TOM CONNELL:

So you back the Queensland decision?

STUART ROBERT:

I think it's a reasonable decision considering the vaccination drag that Queensland has experienced.

TOM CONNELL:

Is the drag its fault, though? Is that what you're saying?

STUART ROBERT:

Well, Queensland, of course, made a range of decisions and a range of public comments that led to vaccinations being slower – I think we're through that.

TOM CONNELL:

So if they hadn't happened, you feel as though Queensland could be up with the other states in starting school?

STUART ROBERT:

Hard to know. There’s all grounds of hypotheticals. Where we are now is good – 90 per cent in Queensland is good. We’d encourage more and more people to get vaccinated, especially in that 25-to-29-year-old bracket, they’re still only about 80 per cent in Queensland – as many Australians vaccinated as possible.

TOM CONNELL:

Has modelling been done? Omicron, we know, is more mild and children generally, thankfully, very rarely get sick. But on returning to school, do you have figures on how many schoolchildren you expect to get seriously ill as a result of being in classrooms, close together, and exposed?

STUART ROBERT:

Well, the Doherty modelling has recommended that there is, for a week in school for students and teachers, for surveillance monitoring of two times during the week. The AHPPC’s, their view is, may or may not be of assistance; and of course, Omicron’s only been around for a few months so there's still a lot of water in the bridge to go under. But the best medical advice the Government has to go on says children should be at school. There is little risk of serious illness in children going back to school.

TOM CONNELL:

[Talks over] But what is the risk? I mean, do we have a number on how many children you expect to be seriously ill as a result of saying the priority is to get them back in school?

STUART ROBERT:

No. The Doherty modelling suggests that there will be outbreaks, but that surveillance monitoring will allow it to be curtailed. And for students, of course, just like they had the flu or any other…

TOM CONNELL:

Alright.

STUART ROBERT:

… infectious disease, could stay at home.

TOM CONNELL:

So a big part is, is the RATs, as they're called. Can you guarantee supply? And how long for – these regular tests. Do they happen all through the year?

STUART ROBERT:

School supplies are already in place. Victoria and New South Wales are already in location – those supplies already exist. Of course, the Federal Government's got 89 million plus coming through into aged care, and there's tens of millions more coming through. So states and territories…

TOM CONNELL:

[Interrupts] So, if schools want to keep that level of testing, have you got enough to do it all year?

STUART ROBERT:

Well, that the Federal Government, of course, is joining with the states on a 50-50 cost share, as we have been through all…

TOM CONNELL:

[Interrupts] But cost hasn’t been an issue so far. It's been supply.

STUART ROBERT:

It’s availability, but the availability is there. States and territories have got those in place. And planning is there for that to continue.

TOM CONNELL:

But, for the whole year if they want to?

STUART ROBERT:

Well, the decision hasn't been made by the states and territories in terms of how long it’s to be…

TOM CONNELL:

[Interrupts] No, no, I understand that, but I'm just asking you, if they want to continue with these regular tests all year, is there supply to do it? Or will you…

STUART ROBERT:

Well, states and territories are very confident on the supply issues they've got.

TOM CONNELL:

Okay. What is supply? I mean, how many do we have right now in Australia? RATs, if you like. Are they sitting in a stockpile? Do you have?

STUART ROBERT:

Something like 16-odd million have already arrived. Tens and tens of millions more are due in the early weeks of February. Eighty-nine million, of course, the Federal Government is procuring for aged care on top of what states and territories and the normal medical community are. So you're talking north of 100 million tests.

TOM CONNELL:

Which is also only about four tests per Australian.

STUART ROBERT:

You'd only get a test, of course, Tom, is if you've got symptoms. That's the only reason you’d get…

TOM CONNELL:

[Interrupts] Or if you get monitored in school and aged care… 

STUART ROBERT:

[Talks over] That's right, and that's…

TOM CONNELL:

…employers might buy them and monitor their employees.

STUART ROBERT:

They may indeed.

TOM CONNELL:

So 100 million’s actually not a lot, is it?

STUART ROBERT:

And it's a global market for tests, like it is for all goods and services.

TOM CONNELL:

Barnaby Joyce says people are buying more tests than they need. Is he right?

STUART ROBERT:

I don't know, I don't have any data in front of me to suggest if that's the case or not. I think we've seen in the past a degree of panic buying of supplies. We saw the great toilet paper escapade in the past. The key message for Australians, though – and the Prime Minister's been making this – we should respect the virus, not fear it. It is safe for children to go back to school. There will be availability of tests. There’s no need to hoard them at all.

TOM CONNELL:

So what is hoarding? If you've got a family of four, say – two parents, two children – how many is reasonable for that family to have on hand?

STUART ROBERT:

Goodness. Well, it depends upon how many family members may or may not have had COVID. If you've had it previously, perhaps the need is not so great for it. If you're being tested at school, the school is providing it. You wouldn't need that. If there's a requirement for testing at work and your employer’s providing it, you wouldn't need them at home. Every family is different, Tom.

TOM CONNELL:

Okay. So there's no real number. Because if you're saying hoarding is a bad thing, you've got to say what hoarding is, don't you?

STUART ROBERT:

Well, like, a thousand rolls of toilet paper I think is considered hoarding, and you could take it to that extreme. The key thing is, just be sensible, and Australians are eminently sensible.

TOM CONNELL:

Stuart Robert, appreciate your time. Thank you.

STUART ROBERT:

Great to talk to you.