Scott Morrison has signalled the federal government will assist more than 2,000 Victorians stranded in New South Wales due to the New Year’s Day lockout.
In interviews with 3AW and 2GB on Tuesday, the Australian prime minister revealed he had spoken to Victorian premier Daniel Andrews on Monday night about developing a “better pathway home” for people unable to return home before the hard border closure was imposed on New Year’s Day.
Morrison said the commonwealth respected the states’ rights to set public health policies including border measures but would help make them as “painless as possible” by identifying Covid-free areas of NSW.
However, Victoria’s police minister, Lisa Neville, rejected the need for any changes to the state’s “tough” border policy or exemptions process.
Neville said the number of exemption applications had risen to 2,798 by Tuesday, with 57 requested granted. Another 153 were told they did not need to apply because they were emergency workers or required urgent medical care.
The prime minister’s conciliatory approach contrasted that of Darren Chester, a senior Victorian in the federal cabinet, who accused the Andrews government of “precipitously” shutting the border which was “unfair” because parts of NSW were previously described as a green zone.
In his Monday night phone call with Andrews, Morrison noted that wastewater testing had shown no trace of Covid outside greater Sydney and other hotspots.
“For all of rural and regional NSW it remains as rural and regional Victoria does and indeed metropolitan Melbourne, substantively. So that’s an opportunity for the Victorian government to continue to work through those issues.
“They are matters for them, I’m happy to talk to the Victorian premier and provide what support we can to see if we can get a better pathway home for Victorians.”
The prime minister added that he understood Chester’s “frustration” with Victorian border policies and it “would be great to see these things move in the other direction soon” given both the NSW and Victorian governments were successfully “getting on top” of fresh coronavirus outbreaks.
On 2GB, Morrison said the federal government had spent much of 2020 arguing for a nationally consistent approach on border closures but the constitution did not allow it to impose a uniform approach on the states.
He argued the federal government wanted to avoid “dumbing down” the approach to the “lowest common denominator”, in which states with less restrictive policies such as NSW become “more closed up”.
Morrison praised jurisdictions that had taken a “hotspot approach” by only banning travel from Sydney, including Tasmania, the Northern Territory, the ACT and Queensland, which he said had taken a different view in 2020.
The Coalition government has been under mounting pressure to accelerate the delivery of Covid-19 vaccines in Australia, largely prompted by Anthony Albanese’s call for the rollout in March to be brought forward closer to the anticipated approval in January.
Morrison responded that countries including Israel and the United Kingdom had given emergency approval to vaccines due to “catastrophic” coronavirus infections, which Australia does not face.
Morrison accused Albanese of “quite an uninformed view” on vaccines because – even after approvals were granted – further testing is required on the batches of vaccines to be delivered across the country.
“We don’t just tick it off and then take a wild guess at what people then put in people’s arms – there is further testing that takes place after the TGA approval and that has to be done properly.
“The Pfizer vaccine for example has to be transferred at minus 70 degrees, so there are logistics and distribution issues … There is a lot of work that’s being done.
“Australians rightly want the vaccine to be safe and … timely, and that’s what we’re working to deliver.”
Labor’s shadow health minister, Chris Bowen, said the government was giving “excuses” after it said Australia was “at the front of the queue” for the vaccine which was “simply not true”.
He referred to comments by health minister, Greg Hunt, that testing batches will cause a “two-week delay” not a two-month delay.
“The fact of the matter is there’s one reason for this delay – it’s because the government was slow to get a deal,” Bowen said.
Earlier, Morrison said he had spoken to the NSW government and believed it had made “sensible decisions based on medical advice” and it was “great” the Sydney Test can proceed.
In both interviews Morrison played down the prospects of a federal election in 2021 but did not rule it out. Morrison told 3AW his view had not changed since he said his intention was not to call an early election.
An election is not due until 2022, with Morrison adding: “I have enough to do in 2021.”
On 2GB, Morrison launched a counter-attack against Labor for complaining about cuts to the jobkeeper wage subsidy and coronavirus supplement on jobseeker.
Morrison said jobkeeper had been a “temporary, targeted and proportionate measure” that had already provided $77bn and would continue until March.
Morrison argued the economy is “finding its own feet again” and economic supports should not “hold back the business-led recovery”.
He claimed warnings of a “cliff” and “calamity” when supports were reduced in September had not eventuated, with 450,000 businesses graduating from jobkeeper.
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