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Interview – Afternoon Briefing with Patricia Karvelas, ABC News 24

27 March 2020

Interviewer: 
Patricia Karvelas

Subject: COVID-19, including new quarantine measures, supply chains and PPE.

E&OE

Minister for Industry, Science and Technology was interviewed on Afternoon Briefing with Patricia Karvelas, ABC News 24

Patricia Karvelas: I'm joined now by the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, Karen Andrews. Karen Andrews, welcome.

Karen Andrews: It’s a pleasure to be here.

Patricia Karvelas: Let's start with just the big rules that have just been announced. Are these new quarantine rules for Australians returning home an acknowledgement that people haven’t been following the directives that they should self-isolate?

Karen Andrews: Well, the reality is that we know that not everybody has been following the rules that they need to self-isolate, so I think this is a necessary and an appropriate step.

Patricia Karvelas: Why haven't they been following those rules, given the government said the rules needed to be applied; has there been something about the communication? What do you attribute it to?

Karen Andrews: I think that Australians in general have a bit of an attitude of she’ll be right, and I think the enormity of the situation in which we find ourselves is really just registering with many people now. But the positive thing is that there has been an enormous response from everyday Australians to the need to self-isolate, but also to maintain social distancing. And the Prime Minister was very clear earlier today how important that was and how effective it has been so far. But we’re certainly not stopping there and we don’t want Australians to think it’s going to be all okay at this point in time. If they don’t social distance, it won’t be. They need to social distance, they need to keep at least 1.5m away. So the rules that have been put in place are critical. This is about saving lives, and the more every Australian does the right thing, the better the chance we’ve got of getting on top of the coronavirus.

Patricia Karvelas: Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy says there is evidence of small levels of community transmission in some pockets of the country. How concerned are you about that?

Karen Andrews: Look, community transfer is obviously a concern to us. It goes to a range of issues such as the ability for us to do contact tracing. So, we are asking for people, if they have been in contact with someone who has- is known to have COVID-19, that they do self-isolate. It’s really important that we do these things and maintain the social distancing. All of those things are really important. We want to reduce, as much as we possibly can, the community transmission, and one way to do that is for people who need to, to be in self-isolation, and for everyone else to maintain good hygiene and good social distancing.

Patricia Karvelas: Should Australians conclude from today’s press conference that if people practicing proper social distancing, if they don’t do that, then tougher measures are inevitable?

Karen Andrews: Look, it’s obviously open to all levels of government to look at the need to put in more measures as and when required. We are working very positively on the basis that if people maintain good hygiene and they do social distance, that is going to go a very long way to flattening the curve, and we need to flatten the curve so that our medical professionals have the opportunity to deal with the cases that we are expecting.

Patricia Karvelas: Now, I know you’ve been in a meeting today dealing with some of the supply issues. Talk me through where the discussions are at?

Karen Andrews: So, there are a couple of meetings that I was involved in today. One was particularly looking at hand sanitisers because we know that that is an issue. We know that it’s an issue for our medical professionals, but we also know that it’s a problem for people at home, everyday Australians who want to be able to access hand sanitiser. Now, I’m reasonably comfortable that the supply chains are good. We talked through with a number of our big providers of- for example, ethanol. The issue is it’s important that we make sure that we’re getting the product to the right areas. We’re very focused on doing that. Very focused on making sure that we are producing goods that fit within the TGA guidelines, but also products that fall into the cosmetic range. And they’re pretty much what you see on supermarket shelves. So there’s two different markets, and we want to make sure that we are getting hand sanitiser back supermarkets as a priority, as well as fulfilling the needs for hand sanitiser and cleaning agents at hospitals, aged care facilities. So, that work is under way and we will work with all the producers.

You know, a big shout out and congratulations to the distillers who are rolling up their sleeves and getting on board. And I guess that’s we’ve seen, there’s an enormous Team Australia in manufacturing and production that’s really getting behind these issues. Now, when we talked about other supply chain issues, we know that freight is an issue and it’s an increasing issue, particularly air freight, and we know that the costs are high. We already have people working right across government to make sure that we are availing ourselves of every supply chain opportunity with regards to freight in particular, so we are working hard in those areas but we know that it is problematic. We are hearing that parts of China are coming back online but we also know that other parts of the world, the EU for example, New Zealand are closing down, and so we are very conscious of making sure that we are working in every available area to keep our supply chains for product suppliers well working. So that’s the main thing that came at …

Patricia Karvelas: … So when you mention- sorry to interrupt, I didn’t mean to be rude, but on the freight issue, how is the government stepping in to help, because you’re right this is a huge issue in terms of transport and air travel; how do you do that?

Karen Andrews: Well, we’re looking at co-ordinating as much as we possibly can. So I understand that the Federal Government, the state and territory governments and of course individual manufacturers here in Australia are looking to source product from overseas, we’re trying to get a coordinated approach to that. Qantas has been magnificent in terms of the support that they have provided and their willingness to assist with freight. In some instances, the ADF will be an option for us depending on what the product is and what the shortages are here in Australia. So, it’s really a coordinated response. So, in the manufacturing space, I called a meeting of my state and territory colleagues, Industry ministers from across Australia. We met a day or so ago to talk through how we were going to coordinate production and manufacturing of essential items here in Australia. So, each state and territory will continue to do their procurement as they have done and so they’ll continue that. But we will look at making sure that there’s a coordinated effort and that we know what product are available in Australia and we work out ways that we can distribute them to where they are needed most.

Patricia Karvelas: Just back on the hand sanitiser because this is such a huge issue for people. Is there enough hand sanitiser available in Australia to restock some of those shelves? I mean, I've been trying to get it myself, I think this is pretty standard for a lot of people. Businesses that need to have it for instance, that are still open. Is there enough stock here right now?

Karen Andrews: Look, I believe that there is sufficient stock. What we’ve got is an issue with getting supermarket shelves restocked. We also need to make sure that we are getting proper flows of ethanol. So, we know that Ego Pharmaceuticals have ramped up their production but we know they need to have their raw materials going through to them without any delays. That’s what we’re working on. So I can assure the Australian people that, yes, we do have sufficient supplies of hand sanitiser, there is no need to panic buy, there is no need to hoard. That is what has created problems in the past; whether that be with toilet paper, pasta or tomato sauce. So there is no need to hoard and in fact there has been a reduction in buying across-the-board in the last day or so which has meant that supermarkets have had the opportunity to restock their shelves. So, we don’t want people out there panic buying and hoarding, we actually want a common sense approach; buy what you need.

Patricia Karvelas: In terms of protective gear, masks, gowns particularly for doctors, what kind of talks is the government in to try really accelerate the pace of that?

Karen Andrews: So, we’ve been working on this for several weeks now. We did put out a request for information where we went more broadly than our known suppliers. And we were also looking for other manufacturers that could potentially step up and start producing some of those goods. So if I talk about surgical facemasks, for example, we identified Med-Con quite some time ago as the only Australian manufacturer of surgical masks. We have worked with them to upscale their production and we will continue to work with them. We have also have had another couple of manufacturers that have put their hand up and said we believe we could potentially convert some of our equipment to produce surgical facemasks, and we’re also talking to a couple of companies that are interested in importing machines so they can set up production facilities here. So that’s happening with facemasks, just the surgical and also the P2 masks.

We know that there is a lot of concern about ventilators, so we have placed orders for some ventilators. But we’ve also gone very wide as well to search out where we have ventilators that we could repurpose, where we could remanufacture some of those ventilators so that they then become invasive machines rather than non-invasive machines. So we are working with about four suppliers already here in Australia. I have been contacted by Ford; they’re interested in allowing us to access some of their production facilities in Broadmeadows. This comes on the back of an arrangement that has now been put in place between Ford, GE and 3M in the United States. Ford is going to share everything with Australia and with the Australian Government so that we can replicate that arrangement here in Australia if needed. So there is a lot of things that are happening. So, it’s Federal Government, state and territory governments, individual businesses, the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Sector has now got a portal on their website to track potential suppliers.

Patricia Karvelas: Thank you so much for your time, Minister. That’s Karen Andrews, she’s the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology.

Karen Andrews: It’s a pleasure.