Sky News Interview: AM Agenda: Victorian COVID-19 Restrictions



SUBJECTS: Victorian Covid-19 restrictions.  

TOM CONNELL, HOST: I’m joined live now by my poli-panel; Liberal MP, Trent Zimmerman, and from the Labor party, Peter Khalil. Thanks both for your time, gentlemen. Beginning with you Peter, of course in your home state and home city, it’s a very high bar we’re seeing out of lockdown. In fact at this stage, Victorians will still be under curfew if cases are five or more a day on average, over 14 days. It’s a pretty low bar. Is it justified? I mean right now, if that were in place in New South Wales, Sydney would all be in lockdown. 

PETER KHALIL MPGood morning, Tom and Trent. Look as a Victorian, I think I can speak for most Victorians and say that we are ready for these restrictions to be over, and it has been a tough relentless period for so many people. The mental health impacts are severe. The impact on students – we’ve got two little kids and we’ve been doing learning from home as well – casual workers, small business, and families that are impacted with the home-schooling as I mentioned.  

To your question, I think obviously the modelling that the Victorian Government is basing their decisions on, it’s quite conservative and they’re being extra careful because frankly, we don’t want to go back. And I think I can also say most Victorians would not want to open up and then have to go back to another lockdown, so I think that’s where the cautiousness is coming from. And we don’t want to see a yo-yo effect that you’ve seen happen in Europe, with going back to imposing further lockdowns when cases get out of control. Now, the good thing I would say is that because the Victorian Government has based their decision making at least partly on the case numbers tied to easing restrictions, if the modelling – which some commentators have said is quite conservative – if the modelling proves to be too conservative and cases are halved quicker rather than every 18 day, it’s every 8 or 9 days, then there’s a real hope there that we could actually ease those restrictions a little bit sooner than what was even announced by the government. So there is some hope in that if the modelling is too conservative and you start to see cases drop quickly – and I note today with 41 new cases in Victoria, so there’s a drop there as well. So if that continues… 

HOST: Well that’s the hope. Talking about conservative modelling there, the problem is that whatever the results are, the numbers that are now locked in to get to these restrictions just seem so low. So ambitious, I mean, is there another jurisdiction in the world where its citizens are under this level of lockdown for so long? And at this stage, even if it slows to five or six a day, they’d still be under curfew. You have to get to below five on that 14 day average. Is there anywhere else in the world where it’s this conservative? 

KHALIL: Well, the only place I can think of that had a similarly strict suppression strategy or really strong suppression strategy that almost looked like elimination was New Zealand. And we’ve heard the news around what happened there with their efforts. So the Government is making decisions, and look, again, I’m not going to second guess a State Government’s decision. I noticed that the Prime Minister, Josh Frydenberg, and Greg Hunt put out a press release which was kind of critical of the Victorian Government or taking a bit of a swat. I mean, I would suggest to the Prime Minister and the Federal Government that they do their job; fix age care, put more money into mental health, and actually, I’ve been arguing for a very specific economic recovery plan for Victoria. We’ve already called at the Federal level for JobKeeper to be extended at the rate that it was, particularly for Victorians, but there should be tax relief and other small business measures that support small businesses over the next month in Victoria to try and get them through this particular period. 

HOST: Okay. I want to bring in Trent Zimmerman; your thoughts on the Victorian plan that was outlined yesterday? 

TRENT ZIMMERMAN MP: Good morning Tom and good morning Peter. Look, it’s hard from Sydney to imagine what it’s like in Victoria and in Melbourne, but I can just imagine how devastating it would be for so many Victorians and businesses based in Victoria, with the news of these lockdown extensions. Obviously, the numbers in Victoria are not where you want them to be but, what I would say is that I think that it’s important that while the health advice has to be the primary consideration, it shouldn’t be the exclusive consideration being looked at by the Victorian Government. What strikes me is the point that you made that basically, that if we had the type of criteria being used by the Victorian Government put in place in New South Wales, then New South Wales would be somewhere between stage two and stage three lockdowns.  

And I think what New South Wales has so effectively demonstrated is that you don’t have to persist with those types of extreme lockdowns if you’ve got the tracing and management systems in place to be able to cope with low levels of community transmission. I think that’s really where we need to be thinking as a nation about coping with some low level of community transmission, managing that, being able to do the contract tracing, put all the mechanisms in place to protect the broader community and those most vulnerable, while not resorting to what really are job destroying and economy destroying severe lockdowns, persisting longer than they need to. 

HOST: So essentially you think the Victorian Government doesn’t have enough of a risk appetite – it gets advice, its response to that is too conservative? 

ZIMMERMAN: Well, I think the hurdles they’re setting… I mean, obviously the situation today remains of grave concern from a health point of view, but if you look at the hurdles that they’re setting themselves – to say for example, for the second last step that restaurants can’t have indoor patrons until there have been 14 days without a single, not one, a single community transmission, I think it’s setting the bar very, very high. That type of conservatism I think is what’s fuelling the angst that we’re seeing from so many businesses responding to this today, and the despair that we’re seeing today reflects the fact that the roadmap is not providing the hope that I think many in the Victorian community were after. 

HOST: That’s a fair point… 

KHALIL: Can I respond to that? 

HOST: You can, but let me also put this out: you can have a situation where in the future one suburb has a handful of community transmission cases, and the entire city is locked down as a result. You could have just the occasional community transmission every now and then, every few days, and no restaurants are opening. I mean, how can that be justified? 

KHALIL: Well, I’ve argued in the past, I think even on your program, that we have to get to that next stage where we are really localising lockdowns, and this goes to Trent’s point, and there are some differences between New South Wales and Victoria. Victoria had to catch up on their contract tracing capacity and capability. New South Wales, I think, had more contract tracing capability and capacity. Now, the Victorian Government has now done that, it really upped the numbers there significantly, but also, there are differences around when you look at the numbers you’re looking at. In New South Wales, you’ve got cases that you can actually trace and control in the outbreak, and they’re not mystery cases, or they’re not a community transmission that you don’t know where it came from, so that’s slightly different with Victoria. That’s the concerning number actually if you’ve got cases and you don’t know where they’ve come from, because they can spread even further, so you’ve got to bring that down. 

HOST: You mentioned the localised approach, there is no localised approach here is there? 

KHALIL: Yes, I’ve argued for that in a public policy sense. Obviously, the Victorian Government is really making sure that we get the numbers way down – below 10 a day – because we don’t want to go back to city-wide and state-wide lockdowns. We actually need to get to a phase where it’s Covid-normal… 

HOST: That’s what I want to get into that.  

KHALIL: And I’ve argued that you should… 

HOST: Your argument on a localised approach here hasn’t been listened to has it? 

KHALIL: I’ve argued that we should be having contract tracing capacity that is very, very high so that we don’t have to lock down the entire city, and that can be done going forward. 

HOST: Just finally, Trent Zimmerman, on the prospect of more help for Victoria specifically, is that something that should be considered or would the rest of the country say ‘well, hang on, you don’t get rewarded for having a Government that let hotel quarantine spiral out of control’? 

ZIMMERMAN: Well look, a couple of points; obviously this past fortnight in Parliament, we’ve extended JobKeeper for another six months, which I think is important for Victoria and all of the Australian economy, and in fact, I think something like $40 billion of JobKeeper fundings are expected to flow to Victoria as a result of these decisions. The PM said yesterday in his statement that he and the Treasurer would be working with the small business and the business community more generally in Victoria, now that the roadmap has been released. I know that the Treasurer in particular being a proud Melburnian, is very focused on providing whatever supports are needed to support Victorians during this period. 

HOST: What does that mean about specific help just for Victoria? Is it… 

ZIMMERMAN: Well, I think the preferred approach has obviously been to provide nationally consistent support, but you do have programs such as, for example, a pandemic leave, which is nationally available but is open to the States to take up. So effectively what you can have is national programs that are only triggered by unique circumstances being reached in particular jurisdictions. 

HOST: Right, but you don’t think it should go beyond that? 

ZIMMERMAN: Well I think that’s the type of thing that I’m sure the Treasury will be talking to the business community in Victoria about, to make sure that they get through this. 

HOST: Yeah, but do you think that’s where it should end, only national programs? Yes, that might only be triggered by Victoria, but nothing specific for Victoria? 

ZIMMERMAN: I’ll leave that to the Treasurer and his discussions with the Victorian business community, but the model that we use, the pandemic leave, was one which was directly related to the needs of Victoria. But to ensure that it was nationally consistent – if I can put it that way – obviously it’s open to other States to join that scheme if the need arises. 

HOST: Could I just get your thoughts briefly on this, Peter? I just want to ask you about this: do you think there’s going to be a real chance that larger numbers of Melburnians in particular, just say ‘we’re fed up with this’ and civil disobedience might be increasing? 

KHALIL: Well there is a small minority that protested on the weekend. I think they’re very, very selfish in those actions because they can actually increase the risk and all the work that we’re doing – and we’re grumbling about it frankly and going through this terrible lockdown – could be wiped away because these people are running around and breaking the rules, all the effort that’s been made will be wasted and I tell those people to pull your head in and have a think about it, and don’t do that because the vast majority of Victorians have gone through a lot of suffering to suppress this virus. Second point I would just make, we are one nation. If this breakout of the Ruby Princess happened in New South Wales, I would be arguing that the Federal Government also have more New South Wales specific support for small businesses there. I think that needs to be done by the Federal Government in coordination with the State Government. The Victorian government has specific measures to assist small businesses in Victoria, and it’s not beyond their wit to do that, Tom. 

HOST: Alright, Peter Khalil, Trent Zimmerman, appreciate your time today. Thank you. 

ZIMMERMAN: Thanks Tom, thanks Peter, stay safe.