Topics: Coronavirus update.
Good afternoon, everyone.
I’m joined by Professor Paul Kelly, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, who is also a leading Australian epidemiologist.
So a specialist in contagious diseases. I want to begin by updating the figures on both the global and the Australian confirmed cases of coronavirus.
Just prior to coming to this briefing, the National Incident Centre provided me with the advice that there are now 20,627 confirmed cases of coronavirus around the world.
There are, sadly, 426 deaths that have been confirmed, subject to coronavirus, and we have just had an as yet an unconfirmed report, which I have asked the National Incident Centre to investigate and confirm, of an additional death in Hong Kong, which would make the second death outside of mainland China.
The Australian situation, again, as just confirmed, and I know that Professor Murphy, the Chief Medical Officer, has been on the Australian Health- AHPPC, this afternoon, and it remains that there are 12 confirmed cases in Australia.
Two in South Australia, two in Queensland; four in Victoria, and four in New South Wales. And three of those in New South Wales are clear of the virus and have been discharged.
As other cases of suspected or potential coronavirus emerge, they are being tested by the state authorities.
And I want to thank and acknowledge the work of all of the state and territory authorities. They are doing a tremendous job.
I’d also like to give a status on the flight from Christmas Island, and I’ve just been briefed prior to coming into this room by the head of the National Critical Care and Trauma Centre, Len Notaras.
They run the AUSMAT team, the Australian Medical Assistance Team, which is on the ground on Christmas Island and was part of the flight crew attending to passengers.
All travellers, I’m advised, are examined- have been examined, and there are no cases of confirmed coronavirus.
Fourteen were looked at more closely to ensure that they were in an acceptable condition, and they have now all been cleared of the virus.
A further two are being tested as a precaution.
The advice from the AUSMAT team on the ground is that, however, they regard the likelihood or the probability of coronavirus in that case as being minimal. But nevertheless, they are being tested.
A pregnant woman and her partner who were on the flight are now in isolation in Perth.
In relation to the New Zealand flight, we’ve been working very, very closely with New Zealand, and I want to thank New Zealand for their cooperation with Australia.
I’m advised that an Air New Zealand flight will arrive in Wuhan within the next 24 hours, if not earlier.
And subject to availability, we expect that a number of Australians will be able to join that flight.
There have been some questions raised as to whether Australia would initiate a second flight of our own, and I can advise that the Prime Minister has instructed consultation to begin with the Chinese authorities on a possible second Australian-assisted departure from Wuhan to Australia.
And I can say that the Chinese have been extremely cooperative. We want to thank them for that. And so, there is progress being made.
But prior to the first flight, we were very conservative in what we said and we’ll continue to be conservative and respectful.
And if approved, that second Australian flight would continue to prioritise the departure of the most vulnerable and isolated Australians in Wuhan and the broader Hubei province, in particular – the young, infants, the elderly, and family members.
I might ask Professor Kelly to give an update on the virus, work which is being done on projections and modelling, and work on the scientific front within Australia.
Thank you, Minister.
So I can confirm that yesterday, as is our usual way of handling these sort of situations of new viruses, new diseases in humans, we called together an expert panel, included state and territory representatives from the communicable diseases community, infectious disease specialists and mathematical modellers.
And this is a capacity which has been built up with funding from the Australian Government over many years, and is part of our preparedness planning for exactly this sort of event.
So that group met yesterday here in Canberra, and we have a draft plan about what the next modelling questions we need to answer.
For example, about what might happen in the international sphere, in China, and beyond; what might happen in Australia and- so we can be very prepared in our planning in terms of health service availability, laboratory capability, and the like. And so, that work is under way.
In terms of other preparedness measures, we have our national stockpile.
We have our pandemic plan. That was originally described for pandemic influenza but the same committee yesterday met to discuss whether that was suitable for purpose, and in general terms, it is.
There are a couple of differences in relation to this actual virus compared with influenza. And of course, for influenza, we have antiviral drugs and vaccines.
These are not currently available, but are part of an international effort to increase the way we can deal with this virus into the future.
And Australian scientists are definitely at the forefront and involved with those activities.
I might leave it there, Minister.
Great. We are happy to take any questions. Ben?
Minister, I’m told that there’ll be about 40 Australians on this Air New Zealand flight that comes into Auckland, roughly tomorrow afternoon.
The New Zealanders are going to a navy base. Where are the Aussies going to go?
So, I would update those figures – that immediately prior to coming here, the advice I had is that at this stage, we are anticipating potentially over 50 Australians.
And again, special thanks to New Zealand for their cooperation.
And the advice I have is that if they are to come to Australia, if they’re not housed in New Zealand, then again, prior to coming here, the anticipated place is that we’ll be supporting them on Christmas Island.
Minister, the Chinese Embassy has said this afternoon that it wasn’t informed about the travel ban. Why were they not informed?
Look, my understanding is that the Foreign Minister, immediately after the National Security Committee, spoke with senior officials in China.
How will the Australian citizens going to New Zealand be getting back to Australia?
That would be Australia’s responsibility.
And would that be military aircraft?
I’ll leave that respectfully for Border Force to provide those details, but that would be our responsibility.
Minister, the Chief Medical Officer told Labor MPs today that the travel ban could last for months. What’s your advice on that?
I would respectfully- because we had that put to us as an office and we checked with Professor Murphy, and our understanding is that his phrasing was different, and that that is what we are constantly reviewing.
And that whilst he doesn’t anticipate that it would cease in 14 days, it would be an ongoing matter. I think Professor Kelly is with you and he’s been looking at the modelling.
So, of course, the original decision to make the adjustments to travel was based on the advice of the Australian Health Protection Committee.
That’s the committee that the Chief Medical Officer is the chair. I’m a member. We have some experts but in particular, all the state and territory chief health officers are a part of that committee.
And that advice would be ongoing and informed by the modelling that I mentioned earlier, the mathematical modelling, about how many cases there are in China, what’s the transmission of the virus throughout China and indeed, other countries, if that develops.
So bottom line to Ben is that, whilst it’s being constantly reviewed, and whilst the initial framing is 14 days, we’ve given the guidance previously that we don’t expect that it would suddenly be turned off at that point.
We expect that it will continue. But we’re not putting a time frame on it at this point.
Do you expect it to continue after a fortnight for some time?
For a period and that will be subject to the arc of the virus.
The issue, above all else, of the health and safety of Australians.
You know, what are we doing here? Ultimately, our job, or task, our responsibility, is to provide protection and national health security for the Australian people.
And we’ve made some of the most forward leaning decisions in the world, with the 14-day quarantine period for Hubei, with the position in terms of foreign nationals who have been in China, as of 1 February, not being able to enter Australia.
They’ve been difficult decisions but made on the basis of the medical advice and we’ll implement the medical advice.
The Chinese Embassy said it was very unhappy with the decision. It suggested that we’d succumbed to that sort of panic and that that decision had gone beyond the WHO advice.
What is your response to the Chinese Government?
We appreciate their work, their support, their activity. They’ve made some very difficult domestic decisions and we respect those.
Equally though, I can absolutely say our advice as Prime Minister and Health Minister to the Chief Medical Officer and the Deputy Chief Medical Officer is call it as the medical fraternity sees it.
Call it as you believe and we will implement. Do not be influenced one way or another by political or other judgements.
We want you to give us your best advice and whilst I wasn’t part of the AHPPC on Saturday when Professor Murphy indicated on Saturday morning that he felt the medical circumstances had changed, and that the viral load across the rest of China outside of Hubei had changed, the Prime Minister’s response was very clear.
I was on the phone call for that and he said, well, ‘Brendan, please bring together the medical experts and give us your best advice and I will schedule a National Security Committee for that as soon as it’s done.’
That was done at midday for the medical experts, it was done at 2:00pm for the National Security Committee, and the decision was made once the National Security Committee was completed and the Prime Minister announced it.
So it was real-time decision making following the medical advice. And I know, Paul, you have been part of that decision making process.
Yes, and I would confirm exactly what the Minister said.
We were- we received information overnight on Friday, on Saturday morning, was when we went through the process that the Minister has described and the Government has indeed taken all of our advice and very rapidly taken what we believe is appropriate action.
One of the things I will just put in context here, I think it is a very important thing for the Australian people to understand, the WHO, when they assessed international systems a couple of
years ago, identified Australia as being at the absolutely global forefront of preparedness.
And that’s what we’re bringing into being now.
What we have is of course the National Incident Centre which was triggered by Professor Murphy’s declaration of this as a disease of potential pandemic proportion more than a week before the WHO’s comparable decision.
We have the National Medical Stockpile, we have the National Trauma Centre, all of which are operating, and then we have the work of the AHPPC and the Communicable Disease Network of Australia.
And they’re all working together as they should and as each successive set of medical advice comes, those actions are being taken.
But at the same time, we’re thinking ahead to what might be the medical advice a few days, a week, or further down the track and preparing for those contingencies as well.
Minister, what is your message to the thousands of Chinese students who are suddenly inconvenienced and possibly even may seek some compensation from Australia?
Look, I respect and understand the circumstances for many people around the world. Not just those who have a relationship with Australia, this is a difficult time.
It’s both a worrying time and it can also be deeply concerning for people who have their plans.
That’s why Dan Tehan has been working directly with the universities to look at alternative arrangements for study. He’s been very, very focused and early.
I know, in fact, that Professor Kelly has been dealing with the universities as well in recent days. So the message is very clear; we understand, we’re working with you.
Ultimately, ultimately, our fundamental task is to protect everybody’s health and safety by following the medical advice, and that can be difficult but we’ll continue to work with you on your individual circumstances.