CHARLES CROUCHER, HOST: Joining us now from Adelaide is Health and Aged Care Minister Mark Butler. First of all, Minister, happy new year to you. This comes into effect from Thursday. What consideration was given at that time?
HEALTH AND ELDERLY CARE MINISTER MARK BUTLER: This is also the time that the United States, the United Kingdom, maybe other countries, I think, have also decided. It gives an advisory, especially to the airlines that we have to work with, to put that into practice, an advisory to travelers as well. But he also acknowledges the fact that we want to get this in place as soon as possible.
CHRISTINE AHERN, HOST: What concerns you the most? Is it the rising numbers in China or the lack of data?
BUTLER: There is no doubt that the number of cases is increasing dramatically in China. This is obviously a very large population, the largest in the world, but also one that has been largely shielded from COVID for the past almost three years now. So there are very contagious variants that we are dealing with here in Australia, as well as the rest of the world, particularly the Omicron variants which are now starting to spread across China. And I think all the public health advice I have is that you will see very large case numbers that are already emerging, really, from all the reports, but they will continue to increase over the next few weeks. there is no doubt. And this is going to be cause for significant distress and upheaval – the kind of distress, upheaval and death that we have tragically seen over the course of 2022 here in Australia and around the world. This is likely what China will face in the coming weeks.
CROUCHER: It looks like this decision has been in place for a while?
BUTLER: We hope this is a temporary measure and a short term measure. And I think that’s the view that you’ve seen from several other governments in North America, Europe, and Asia that have also made this decision to require that a test be submitted by passengers before they board a flight to Australia from China. . You’ve seen the United States and Canada do it 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 set up before the start test. And the reason they do this, very importantly, is the lack of complete information about what is happening in China. This is what the World Health Organization pointed out over the weekend. This was a key factor in my decision yesterday to put these same measures in place. And the type of information that the World Health Organization was talking about is the genomic sequencing of COVID cases. So look at what variant of COVID is spreading through China or any other country for that matter. This type of data has been shared by countries around the world in near real time for some time now. So that we all have a clear line of sight when a potentially dangerous new variant of COVID emerges. And that’s what the World Health Organization has highlighted as their concern: the lack of comprehensive information about the situation in China right now. And that’s really why we made this decision. It is a modest and balanced decision. This will help us access some of this information and data without restricting travel which we are very happy to see finally resume between China and Australia.
AHERN: OK. What you haven’t confirmed yet, however, is whether travelers will need a RAT or PCR test. When will it be confirmed?
BUTLER: So we are still working with the agencies and with the airlines on these final details, they will be released very, very soon. I said I wanted to make the testing arrangements as flexible as possible for passengers, but also robust and verifiable. For example, the United States has implemented a verifiable rapid antigen test as well as PCR. We are looking at this very closely. But these final decisions will be announced very soon, including on the Smartraveller website, not only in English, but also in Mandarin and Cantonese. So that travelers are informed as much as possible of these provisions. But we want to prove them right. We want to make sure they are in place in time for passengers to understand what their obligations are, and then for travel to resume. It will be a good thing for so many Chinese Australians to finally be able to see family and friends again instead of on a screen. And I know that universities are desperate to see international students from China return to campus rather than take their classes on Zoom or WebEx, and tourists and so many other opportunities that we will get from the resumption of travel. But we need to make sure this is done with as much information as possible to protect the health of Australians.
CROUCHER: And Mr. Minister, all these things you just mentioned also add up to the fact that we are in a strange diplomatic period with Beijing. How concerned are you – along with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister for Trade, they’re all over there in South Australia with you – about the impact of this decision on that relationship?
BUTLER: This is, as I said, a modest step. We are not doing anything to limit travel. Indeed, as I said, as many of my colleagues have said, we warmly welcome the resumption of travel between China and Australia. It will be good on 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 that to continue to grow. We don’t put any restrictions in place. We are implementing very modest testing requirements. And they are in line with the decisions that have been taken in very many countries in Europe, North America and Asia. We would like the absence of complete information that the World Health Organization pointed out over the weekend to begin to resolve. And I’m confident that if that happens, then these types of arrangements that we’re putting in place during this week can be lifted.
AHERN: It is interesting to see how long these restrictions remain in place. But Minister Mark Butler, we appreciate your time. Thank you.