ABC Kimberley

Release Date: 
26 March 2020

Ed Cowlishaw: At nine o'clock tonight, this region will be inaccessible to the outside world, with the exception of essential supplies being brought in. The new designation has been made by federal Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, who joins us on the program now. Good morning, Minister.

Ken Wyatt: Good morning. In fact, it's with both myself and Minister Hunt, who has the principal authority under the Biosecurity Act.

Ed Cowlishaw: Minister, when it comes to this decision, why have you taken this step?

Ken Wyatt: Well, for a couple of reasons. One is the vulnerability of communities, but certainly a number of community leaders and communities asked how they could protect themselves and what would government do to help them. And certainly, given what we've seen around the globe and in Australia with people travelling who are carrying the virus, then their contact with others exposes that individual to contracting coronavirus. And so on this basis what we've decided to do is to lock down access to remote Aboriginal communities in order to protect the vulnerable. And given the availability of services, that also provides an additional challenge. And look, if I had a choice, I'd rather be living in a remote community now that is insulated as opposed to living in Perth where you're exposed.

Ed Cowlishaw: Minister, who's been consulted on this action?

Ken Wyatt: This consultation has been right across the board in both the top end of our nation. I've had discussions with Ben Wyatt here in Western Australia, the Chief Minister, Michael Gunner, the Premier of South Australia, Steven Marshall, and with Jackie Trad, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in her state. But more broadly, with all ministers for Aboriginal affairs to look at the measures we take in respect to discrete communities within every state and territory.

Ed Cowlishaw: So is this effectively a lockout? If you are outside of these boundaries, which includes the four shires here in the Kimberley. As of 9:00 pm tonight, you cannot come into the Kimberley at all.

Ken Wyatt: Well, it's 11:59 tonight, which is a strange time to bring this into effect, but that's how it works. It just means that anybody wanting to enter a community will have to go into 14 days of isolation. And should they not show signs of coronavirus or COVID 19, then they will be able to go into the community. But there are essential services and exemptions that will be provided with key designated decision-makers about who enters those communities and on what conditions. For example, you'd certainly want police access, you'd want family violence and water services, etc. So there are some key services that will continue to operate, but we will restrict and look at who's going in and who's coming out.

Ed Cowlishaw: So to break this down, this is not just Indigenous communities we're talking about here, we're actually talking about townships such as Broome, Derby, Kununurra, Hall's Creek, Fitzroy and the like there, that's what you mean by community?

Ken Wyatt: No, we're talking about discreet Aboriginal communities. So we're talking about the Kimberley region, which is what was designated by the Western Australian government, the East Pilbara region, including the Western Desert Lands and the Shire of Nunanjurra. And the decision-maker, principally, is the Chief Biosecurity Officer, Dr. Paul Armstrong, from the Health Department.

Ed Cowlishaw: Are you expecting areas be designated across the nation?

Ken Wyatt: No, I'm not anticipating any additional. New South Wales might nominate three or four, but other than that, the communities we've identified, we've worked with and the communities are in agreement that they want this protection from having the virus enter into their communities, creating a range of problems that they don't wish to experience.

Ed Cowlishaw: Is Mr Hunt available?

Ken Wyatt: No, he's not with me at the moment.

Ed Cowlishaw: Not with you at the moment, okay.

Ken Wyatt: He's in Canberra dealing with the other fronts that are important

Ed Cowlishaw: Pardon me, my mistake for that. So Minister, why not make the cities go into lockdown as well if the virus is at a higher rate. Why is the region of the Kimberley such a concern?

Ken Wyatt: Well, National Cabinet is considering all of those. The reason for the discreet Aboriginal communities is the vulnerability of individuals, it's much greater given the complexity of co-morbidities, some of the challenging health conditions. And it's also medical advice from the medical experts who are advising the National Cabinet, and the National Cabinet is all of the Chief Ministers, the Premiers and the Prime Minister.

Ed Cowlishaw: So in regards to that, are you expecting the cities to go into lockdown shortly?

Ken Wyatt: Well, I think we've seen restrictions now come into play, which is moving towards reducing the level of impact between people to slow down the exponential growth of infections and to flatten the curve of infections, because what Australia doesn't need is what we are seeing happening in a couple of other countries. And certainly I know that our approach is about flattening the curve, protecting Australians and giving us that certainty that over a period of time, once we flatten the curve and the virus disappears, we can start to return back to life as we knew it, although changes arising out of this period will have a profound impact for some time.

Ed Cowlishaw: The federal Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, has joined us on the program, talking about access being restricted to protect people living in the Kimberley and remote Aboriginal communities as well. I guess the big question as well for locals in our region is how is this measure going to affect our workers, our residents who are wanting to come home, they may be on the road right now, but won't be able to cross that border. It's an inconvenience, as we know, but it's pretty dramatic circumstances.

Ken Wyatt: Well, the inconvenience has to be outweighed by the rate of infection and reducing infection, and certainly we don't want people dying. And look, it's for 14 days, we already have this in place on the borders. And the West Australian government, along with South Australia and Queensland and the Northern Territory, have closed their borders, and they are making sure that people take the mandatory 14 day self-isolation before they allow them to proceed, and that is to protect people within their borders.

Ed Cowlishaw: When is this decision going to be reviewed?

Ken Wyatt: There'll be continued ongoing monitoring and reviewing by the National Cabinet. And when the National Cabinet believe that the circumstances are that we've got the upper hand on this virus, then they will make decisions, it will lift some of the restrictions. Lockdown for a 14 day period will certainly identify those who are COVID 19 infected and those who are not. We're seeing that with Australians who have been on ships and cruises coming back and then having to isolate and some of them being diagnosed with COVID 19.

Ed Cowlishaw: Minister, can I give you a scenario here - we're getting a few text messages coming through. I'll just give you this one, this is Chris in Derby. His wife is booked to fly from Adelaide to Broome next Monday. She hasn't been overseas, they are intending to drive back to Derby and then self-isolated for two weeks. Can that situation still happen after tonight?

Ken Wyatt: I think those circumstances - I'm assuming that she will be able to return to Broome and then provided they take the self-isolation and that is the measure that has been required by our state and certainly by the National Cabinet. So as long as they self-isolate and she returns back to her family, then they've met the obligation.

Ed Cowlishaw: Another one coming through. Are we still, for those that are working at the moment, going from Broome to Derby and things like that? Can people still be moving around the Kimberley?

Ken Wyatt: Within regions, and there are designated occupations that the government has said must continue, And it'll depend on the industry, but generally, governments want industries to continue. We know that in mining there are exemptions, but there are also health checks being undertaken to ensure that staff going on to mining sites don't have COVID 19. The precautions will be in place by the particular industries, so it's about the way we collectively pull together. We make sure that if we come down or we don't feel well that we have our health checked, because what we do is if we ignore it, we then compromise our workmates and that's important that we don't do that.

Ed Cowlishaw: And if people don't ignore this, this circumstance has got to come into action a little bit later on tonight, what could happen to them?

Ken Wyatt: The WA Government has a penalty of $50,000 for people who deliberately break the self-isolation, and the Premier has been very strong on that issue right from the beginning, he's made the comment, we have an obligation to each other and if you can't use common sense and meet that obligation then the ultimate step would be the measure that he's outlined.

Ed Cowlishaw: And who is going to be enforcing the border restrictions and things like that for this lock-out or lockdown that we're speaking of - is just the Police Force, will the Defence Force be involved. Who's actually going to be enforcing this?

Ken Wyatt: No, it's the WA Government. And I do know that from what I've seen in media, that is the police that are policing the major roads into Western Australia, and people are being pulled over and they are having discussions with the police. It again, is a measure to make sure that those wanting to come here undertake that period of self-isolation for 14 days, or they have the alternative of returning back to their point of where they've come from. My understanding from briefings I've had from my Agency is that people are making the choice to self-isolate, particularly West Australians waiting to return home. And we do have a ship coming in on Friday, of which there are 800 Australians on that. And as part of a safety measure, the Premier has indicated that that 800 will spend 14 days on Rottnest Island, which is now being set up as a point of isolation for people returning on this particular ship.

Ed Cowlishaw: Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, with me on the line. Just to break it down, simplify it for those that are listening around the Kimberley. This is all obviously all Aboriginal communities here, but also for those in the Kimberley, as in the four shires as well this is who's going to be affected.

Ken Wyatt: Yes, it will be. And it's important, it is primarily Aboriginal communities, but ultimately it is a regional approach. And the Kimberley has been designated as a region that the state government does not want coronavirus being introduced into, although media reports indicate you've got a couple of people up there who have been identified, but generally it is a safe approach. The Kimberley region is a very distinct, succinct region that needs to not experience coronavirus given the distances and the number of remote and isolated communities, including our non-Indigenous Australians who make a great contribution to the industries in the Kimberley, we need them protected.

Ed Cowlishaw: Minister, thanks for your time.

Ken Wyatt: My pleasure and thank you.