Transcript: ABC Radio National interview with ABF Commissioner Outram APM 2 July

FRAN KELLY: Well, a battle royale has broken out between state and federal leaders over the number of people returning from overseas and going into hotel quarantine. Queensland, Victoria, and WA say too many people are being granted exemptions to leave and come home again, and that’s putting the rest of the country at risk. The Federal Government disputes this, claiming the states are to blame for outbreaks in quarantine. It’s not the numbers, it’s the conditions around their hotel quarantine systems. Michael Outram is the Commissioner of Australia Border Force. Michael Outram, welcome back to Breakfast.

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Thank you, Fran. Good morning.

FRAN KELLY: Twelve million people – I think more than that now, if we count Alice Springs population – across Australia are in lockdown. Hotel quarantine is the root cause of the latest outbreaks. There’ve been 26 leaks since the pandemic started, six of them in June, three of them in Queensland. Would halving the number of arrivals lower the risk? Is that obvious?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Well Fran, I’m not obviously a medical expert, and the AHPPC consider the epidemiology of the pandemic. But I spoke to Paul Kelly, Professor Paul Kelly the CMO, last night, and he told me that the latest figures, 0.6 per cent, that’s less than one in every hundred people that are arriving internationally, are COVID positive, so that seems to me like quite a low number. But if you think, Fran, also back to before the pandemic started which seems a long time ago now, we’re now down to less than sort of 2 per cent of the number of people travelling that were then, so we’ve really, really tightened down on the number of movements across the border.

FRAN KELLY: Okay, let’s go to who is coming into the country at the moment when our borders are still ostensibly closed. Yesterday here on Breakfast the Queensland Deputy Premier, Steven Miles, told us the borders are not genuinely closed. Let’s have a listen:

[Excerpt]

STEVEN MILES: So last month there were 2400 citizens of the UK, 1900 citizens of China, 1400 citizens of India, 1100 citizens of the US in fact …

FRAN KELLY: Are they permanent residents here? Are they dual citizens?

STEVEN MILES: No, they’re not. So last month there were 20,000 non-citizens, and half of those were on temporary visas.

[End of excerpt]

FRAN KELLY: Okay. Those figures have been disputed by the Home Affairs Minister, Karen Affair- Karen Andrews. She says 80 per cent of returning travellers are either Australian citizens, permanent residents or immediately, or immediate family members. If we’re looking at who is coming into the country right now, who’s correct? Who is it?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: So Fran, let me get us through to a snapshot that we provide, and we provided it five times now to National Cabinet that explains in great detail who’s coming into the country. And I’ll take the snapshot from 17 to 23 June as it’s the most recent. So returning Australians, which includes of course citizens on an Australian passport; permanent residents who don’t have an Australian passport, of course, they’re on a visa and their immediate family, many of whom will be on foreign passports as well. In that week there were 4039 of those.

There are a whole lot of people that don’t impact on the caps, and – for example, crew, travellers on green flights, transits, military, seasonal workers and some elite sports people who the states and territories, by the way, approved to come in – there were 20,000 of those, but they have no impact whatsoever on the cap.

And then when you go to the remaining group, the foreign nationals, there were 775. So in other words, 83.9 per cent of people who came back into the country, who impacted on the cap, were returning Australians or PRs – permanent residents or their family – and only 16 per cent were foreign nationals. And that gives you a total of 25,000 people – that’s just one week. Now, we provided those stats to National Cabinet in February 84.8 per cent; in March 81.5 per cent; in April 81.9 per cent; and, in May 84.6 per cent. So the, the data’s really clear, Fran, and it’s anchored against the passport data, the visa data, and the information at the actual border.

FRAN KELLY: Okay. And the complaints from the Queensland Government were not just about international arrivals, they were also talking about departures. A citizen or permanent resident can get permission to leave the country if their travel is for business. And the root cause of the outbreak in Brisbane was an unvaccinated man who travelled between Australia and Indonesia a number of times, repeatedly. Is it acceptable someone is able to repeatedly leave the country and come back if they’re not vaccinated?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Well of course, from a Border Force point of view, there are two parts for exemptions regime. There’s the compelling and compassionate parts – we recognise that a lot of Australian families are doing it tough, separate from family, ill people overseas and that’s a large number of people who are travelling. But also critical industries and business. We’re asking our industries and business to push into new markets and they do actually have to travel to conduct their business. And the idea-

FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] Sure. But if people are having to conduct business, is it- should it be imperative that the businesses and those individuals make sure they’re vaccinated before they do that?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Well, we haven’t been provided with that advice by the AHPPC. That’s a matter for the medical professionals to determine. But in terms of the exemption categories that we have for people to travel, let me say this to you, Fran, since the 1st of January this year, we’ve approved 51,000 or just a bit over, but we’ve refused 52,000. So the idea that we’re just letting people travel on a whim is actually fake. We’re actually being really tough on this. And we are requiring business people to prove evidence of the compelling nature of the travel, in other words why do you have to do it now? And if it’s an employee, they have to provide a letter from their employer about the importance of the travel. So, whilst-

FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] And who’s been given the tick? And who’s been refused? Because one in four Australian’s born overseas, 46 per cent of us have at least one parent born overseas. On Breakfast we’ve done a number of interviews with people who haven’t been allowed to leave, to see their immediate family, for 18 months now. They’re not necessarily in a health crisis, they don’t necessarily have mental health issues themselves – which are two of the reasons cited as, as why you might get an exemption – but they have pressing family needs. Why is a business trip a good reason to leave the country? But seeing your immediate family is not?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Well, in fact over 10,000 Australians have been approved to travel overseas on compassionate and compelling grounds. And look, this is really hard. If you-

FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] Over 10,000 in what period?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: That’s between 1 January this year until 31 March.

FRAN KELLY: [Talks over] Well that, that’s not many. You just said 51,000 approved all up. So 10,000 for family reasons. What’s the rest for? Business?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Well, we’ve got travelling overseas for at least three months, this is the largest category of people, and this is people who, generally speaking, have to go for either a course of study or for work, generally speaking. And that’s the largest number, that’s 27,000 of that particular 51,000. Critical industries and business is 11,000 or just a bit over in that period of time. And compassionate and compelling 10,000 or just a bit over in that period of time.

But what we don’t do and what decision makers, my decision makers, can’t do is look at two applications – one for economic reasons and one for compelling and compassionate reasons – and compare them against each other. That would be unfair on the decision makers, and they can’t make those sorts of value based judgements. They have to make their judgements based on the actual criteria and the guidance I give them around the way that people need to satisfy that criteria.

In terms of people being critically ill and attending funerals and those things – and that’s terrible, that’s affected a lot of families including my own, I might say – then people actually have to show that it’s an immediate family member who’s funeral they’re attending or who they want to go and see because they’re at end of life.

FRAN KELLY: But immediate family member, there’s queries around that definition too. In some cases, parents aren’t classed as immediate family members.

MICHAEL OUTRAM: In some cases, they’re not. But certainly for the purposes of end of life scenarios and funerals, they are.

FRAN KELLY: Okay. Another issue, let’s look to the future. A lot of Australians stranded overseas have been vaccinated in their host countries. Will you recognise those vaccinations?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: At the moment we’re not being asked to do that – the airlines are doing that before people come to Australia. Of course, they also have to recognise that there’s a 72 hour PCR test. And a lot of Australians right now travelling overseas are already having to provide evidence to other countries that they’ve had a vaccination and this, I think will evolve internationally over the next year or so. There are a lot of-

FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] So other countries are recognising ours, but you’re saying Border Force is not involved in the- any imperative to recognise overseas vaccinations yet?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Not at this point in time. And that will be obviously on guidance from the AHPPC where we do start doing that. But we are, of course, planning for the future, which includes whether we would need to start to recognise vaccination certification of inbound passengers. And clearly, that may be one of the mechanisms that’s needed in the future to reconnect the system with international travel.

FRAN KELLY: And would there be a pecking order to that? I mean, the EU, for instance, is introducing its EU Digital COVID Certificate – the Green Pass – from today. Would you think that those- the EU Green Pass would be recognised?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: I would imagine that we would need to work through international bodies such as ICAO or IATA to develop an international standard so that all the different data standards are interoperable and recognise each other, then that’s the way I imagine it would work. And, certainly through the Department of Home Affairs and here in Australia and DFAT, we’re very much linked into and following closely the developments overseas

FRAN KELLY: Because people overseas – and I know of people in this situation – are wondering whether to try and get vaccinated overseas? Might be in a, in a country like the UAE, for instance, and think that they won’t because it won’t get recognised. So they’re waiting till they come home, which of course, puts them in a more powerless situation. Do you think we urgently need some, some better advice, clearer advice on this?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Well, I’m sure that this is being taken under consideration by the AHPPC, which is of course all our chief medical officers from around the country. And in the border force – let me tell you this, Fran we don’t really have the expertise to provide any sort of advice on the medical situation or vaccination status of passengers. But what we are preparing for is to be able to operationalise policy. So if it becomes policy that vaccination status is required before a passenger is uploaded overseas, we’ll be ready to implement that.

FRAN KELLY: Okay. And just finally, hotel quarantines the only option right now for people coming into Australia, but home quarantine has been spoke about. Vaccination, we presume, will be key to that. How close are we at looking at hotel quarantine- at home quarantine?

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Again that, Fran, would be a matter for the AHPPC and the medical professionals. But let me say this, we’re already – you will see around the country – working with airports to put in place mechanisms that allow the separation, if you like, of passengers who are travelling on what we call red and green flights. So New Zealand will be the safe travel bubble, and that means that passengers can walk through the airport and simply depart and go home, or they’re filted into a process with state and territory governments where they go into mandatory hotel quarantine. So again, we’ll be ready to configure with airports the arrival of passengers to ensure that that process occurs seamlessly.

FRAN KELLY: Michael Outram, thanks very much for joining us.

MICHAEL OUTRAM: Thank you, Fran.

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