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Interview - The Kenny Report, Sky News

19 March 2020

Chris Kenny

Subject: Manufacturing response to coronavirus and panic buying


Chris Kenny: But for now let’s cross to the Gold Coast and catch up with the Industry Minister Karen Andrews. Thanks for joining us, Minister.

Karen Andrews: Chris, how are you?

Chris Kenny: Good, thanks. You’ve got a big challenge on your hands, making sure that this country can supply some of the medical necessities that we don’t have big enough stocks of, that we can’t get from imports anymore. What are the key products we’re after, and how are you getting them manufactured in this country?

Karen Andrews: So we’re looking at a range of products. I’ll start with the request for information that my department has just put out in the last couple of days, but I’d also like to point out that that request for information is the next step in the work that we’re already doing. So we’ve already identified a number of manufacturers and they’re up and working already, as well as we’re continuing to look at bringing in product from overseas. So what we've gone out, very broadly, to look at is what is our potential to manufacture more surgical masks, more hand sanitisers, more gowns, those sorts of things. So it's a very wide-ranging request for information. We've got some really good responses that have come in to that. If I use the example of surgical masks, we do have capacity already to manufacture that in Australia. We already do have stockpiles of that. But we're looking forward to what our usage may well be over the coming months and quite frankly, beyond that. So we're working very closely with a local manufacturer, Med-Con in Victoria, and we have brought in the resources from the Australian Defence Forces to help them to gear up. They've already doubled their manufacturing output and they're looking to increase that even further. We're looking at what equipment we can bring into Australia and what other manufacturers there are that [indistinct] fairly quickly to keep producing the surgical masks and the P2 respirators for us.

Chris Kenny: You sound like they've cranked up very quickly on this stuff and that's great. You've got to move very fast in all this stuff. But it also shows our vulnerability to imports and supply chains. Surely, after all this is done, we've got to look at ways to make sure that state and federal government contracts go to local manufacturers so we can keep this expertise and this production capability in our country.

Karen Andrews: Look, that's a very good point and it's not just government procurement, it's actually making sure that we can redevelop, restrengthen our manufacturing capacity here in Australia because there are some key areas that we've identified that we really do need to build that capacity. One is surgical masks. Now, the good thing is that we have a very strong food manufacturing base here in Australia. So food is not going to be an issue for us in the short or the medium term and quite frankly, the longer term. So that's actually really positive for us. The issues that we're facing with food at the moment is really the panic buying and the hoarding that's happening in supermarkets at the moment. Now, the Prime Minister spoke very strongly about that this morning and the need for that to stop. I understand. I go into the supermarkets myself and it is concerning to see that there are some shelves that are empty, that have been cleared out very quickly. There's really no need for that to happen. If people just went back to their normal buying behaviours, it would be fine. We do have very good food supply chains here in Australia so we’re not concerned about food, but there are other parts of manufacturing that clearly we need to look at.

Chris Kenny: Just two points on that. Just on this misinformation and the panic buying – it’s shocking what we've seen in the panic buying. It seemed to have been generated by a lot of social media misinformation. It's another reminder- there are some reminders already out of this crisis about where we've gone off track. And I think if people were sticking to mainstream media, be that the Nine Media or the ABC or Sky News, they're going to get a lot more quality factual information and they're going to behave a lot more rationally. Instead, they're going off on fake documents on WhatsApp and the like.

Karen Andrews: Look, I couldn't agree more because I think that the mainstream media has clearly been reporting what's been happening in the supermarkets. But it's when you get onto the social media platforms that you actually see mass hysteria and that is now self-generating. And it's actually starting to cause harm, particularly to the vulnerable people in our communities: those with disabilities and the elderly in our community, who are now quite frightened about whether or not they're going to get the food that they need. And I would just love to assure them that we do have very good food supplies and we will be restocking those shelves. I mean, Woolworths, Coles, Aldi, Metcash – they are working as hard as they possibly can to take stock …

Chris Kenny: … Yeah. Take a chill pill. We'll be right- now just on to the other issue, you are talking about cranking up quickly the manufacture of masks and the like. When you talk about respirators, how sophisticated are the respirators you're talking about? I believe that they're going to be absolutely essential. Do we have enough of those? Can we manufacture those in Australia?

Karen Andrews: Look, we do have adequate supplies at the moment. So, we are looking at how we can produce the P2 masks here in Australia so they will be used by the medical profession primarily. So, the surgical masks will be available more broadly. They will be used by the health professionals but they can be used for people who have contracted coronavirus, COVID-19. So, we're looking at both of those. So the surgical masks and the P2 masks, which are a higher specification. So, we will need more of the surgical masks and we're modifying our procurement accordingly, and we will be ramping up the production of the surgical masks here and more likely continue to purchase the P2 masks from our global suppliers.

Chris Kenny: Finally, a dramatic escalation in the number of unemployed people in this country. What innovative ideas is the Government looking at to try and re-employ people, even if temporarily, rather than throw tens of thousands of people onto welfare?

Karen Andrews: Look, we are looking at a coordinated way that we could help people that are potentially going to lose their jobs to access opportunities and try and match them into growing areas. Now, we do know that there is certainly job opportunities in supermarkets at the moment, in distribution centres, in customer service. We know that that's available at the moment and it may well be short-term. We do know that we're ramping up some of our production capacity. And of course, in an area such as Shepparton, you’ve got seasonal workers that- they’re working in the fruit packing industry as well too. They're available. We’ll start looking at how we can utilise them.

Chris Kenny: Thanks for joining us, Minister.

Karen Andrews: Pleasure.

Chris Kenny: Karen Andrews there, the Industry Minister. Plenty on her plate as well.