Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has been forced to apologise after an extraordinary gaffe, in which he claimed Australians “aren’t dying” from COVID.
The error came as Mr Joyce also blamed hoarding by Australians and some businesses for the nationwide shortage of rapid tests.
Virus case numbers are beginning to steady or fall across much of the country – there were 15,091 more infections in NSW on Monday, 11,695 in Victoria, 10,212 in Queensland, 2009 in South Australia, 756 in the ACT and 619 in Tasmania.
But more than 900 Australians have died with the virus since January 1. A further 24 deaths were reported in NSW on Monday, 17 in Victoria, 13 in Queensland and two each in SA and the ACT.
Mr Joyce’s extraordinary comments came after he was quizzed on ABC radio on Monday about the US and Europe warning their citizens against travel to Australia because of its ongoing COVID crisis.
“People aren’t dying,” Mr Joyce told RN Breakfast.
Host Patricia Karvelas quickly pointed out that he was wrong.
“People are dying. People are dying every day,” she said.
That prompted an immediate apology from Mr Joyce.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry. Yes, you are correct, I shouldn’t have said that,” he said.
“But the number in which – the fatality rate is very low.
“Obviously that is a tragic thing for anybody … [to die] for any reason – for catching the flu. But the fatality rate of Omicron is remarkably low and Australia has done a remarkable job.”
Mr Joyce said most people diagnosed with the virus would have only a “mild illness”, as he did late last year.
Karvelas also asked Mr Joyce about ongoing shortages of rapid tests.
More than six million concession-card holders – including pensioners, veterans and low-income earners – became eligible for 66 million free rapid tests on Monday. Under a federal government plan, they can get 10 free kits every quarter (limited to no more than five a month) from pharmacists.
But supplies of the tests remain scarce across Australia, with pharmacists warning it could be another month before they are readily available. They are required to source their own supplies of rapid tests, rather than dip into a government stockpile.
Mr Joyce blamed the ongoing shortage on hoarding by companies that had stockpiled the tests for staff – and compared it to panic buying of toilet paper earlier in the pandemic.
“People have been buying not what they require, but more than they need,” he said, although he gave no evidence for his claim.
“Corporations and businesses who buy up more than you’d expect … It’s like saying you’re not producing enough toilet paper because people are swiping it off the shelves, I don’t know why they do it, but they do.”
Mr Joyce said 70 million tests were on order, and the supply issues in Australia were also being felt around the world.
One of the country’s largest pharmacy chains, Chemist Warehouse reportedly has enough stock to hand out free tests to pensioners at its 500 stores. But thousands of smaller pharmacies were unable to source the tests in time to provide them on Monday.
“Pharmacists are tired, we are exhausted, we are doing every thing we can to give you every vaccine that you need and that you’re entitled to, to give you every test that you need and are entitled to but we just ask to have a bit of patience,” Pharmacy Guild of Australia president Trent Twomey said.
“The voluntary codes of one pack per person, per day, adult person per day will remain in place for a couple of weeks … until the demand
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese clapped back at Mr Joyce’s claims on Monday. He said it was “extraordinary” to blame Australians for the lack of tests.
“We all knew that once we opened up the increased number of infections, elimination tests would be an important part of the response to keep people safe, and the government simply didn’t do anything about it,” he said.