Topics: Update on the COVID-19 response in Australia; Flattening the curve; Aged Care; Language translation; ADF Deployment; Vic State Control Centre meeting on 27 March.
We know at a time when the world has past 20.5 million cases and very sadly, agonisingly, almost three-quarters of a million people have officially lost their lives to COVID-19, that this challenge is real and continuing.
Today, however, there are real signs for cautious optimism.
I have myself been very cautious in referring to a second flattening of the curve in Victoria.
I will say, on the medical advice that I have available from the Chief Medical Officer and the Department of Health, we now believe cautiously that we have early signs of the flattening of the curve in Victoria.
Equally, New South Wales, has seen very positive developments as well as what’s happening in Queensland.
So, three states, three signs of hope, three signs of positive developments.
Protection in Queensland and New South Wales and reduction in Victoria, and so, cautious optimism of a flattening of the curve.
We know that the Australian numbers however come with an agonising detail, and that detail is that nine more lives have been lost.
Nine families will be grieving and all of those that have supported these people will experience that deep human tragedy.
All up, 292 cases around Australia, but Victoria at 278 has seen its lowest numbers in some weeks.
And so, there is the agony but then there is the hope at the same time.
More generally, I’d like to update you on the containment and capacity strategies, which are the twin pillars of Australia’s approach.
With regards to containment, obviously, the first part is our border control.
We have protected Australians against hundreds of incursions of this disease through the hotel quarantine system.
Seven out of eight states have operated and continue to operate extraordinarily well.
Obviously, we know the situation in Victoria but we are working with them to ensure that once it recommences that it is an impregnable fortress.
Second, with regards to testing, there are now over 5.1 million tests that have been conducted and over 61,000 tests in the last 24 hours.
These tests are increasingly being targeted at those that are most at risk of potential contagion, and it has previously been identified and continues to be the case at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, regards Australia not just one of the broadest but one of the most accurate testing regimes in the world.
That’s a tribute to the public health units and the private pathology providers in every state and territory.
Then with regards to tracing, the tracing system, again, has been one of the most significant elements of the Australian structure.
New South Wales has, I would respectfully submit, one of the most advanced and developed tracing systems in the world.
The Australian systems more generally, across all of the states and territories, have been very strong.
In Victoria, our ADF contingent of 1700 has a very significant component of over 400 that have been engaged directly, and that number is increasing all the time with that tracing program to assist with the central tasking to assist in removing any impediments within the transmission of results to contact, and then to assist with the house to house work where we are locating, knocking on doors, finding that people are safe, finding that people are at home, or if there are any gaps, allowing the authorities, the state authorities, to follow them up immediately.
That is, I would say, under a process of progressive and significant improvement in Victoria, and I want to acknowledge the Victorians and acknowledge the ADF for that work.
Finally, with regards to distancing, we are seeing that this continues to be a fundamental part of our national defence mechanism.
Across the country, appropriate distancing rules are in place for the appropriate levels of community transmission.
It is important to remember one simple message, as the Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly says, the disease travels with humans; that if we are close to somebody, then that allows the disease to transfer.
That’s its principal means and mechanism for transmission from one human to another. So distancing does matter.
The agonising lockdowns in Victoria are applying their role.
We are beginning to see the testing and the tracing and the strengthening of that tracing system work and that combines with the distancing to see this first cautious optimism and real cause for hope around the flattening of the curve in Victoria.
Beyond that, with regards to capacity, I set out last week in primary care the very important mental health initiatives that have been put in place specifically for Victoria but more generally to protect the nation.
Those additional resources of $14.6 million dollars are now being deployed to assist Lifeline and Beyond Blue, Kids Helpline and work of Orygen and Headspace.
Over 23 million telehealth consultations, a very large proportion of which have been for mental health.
These will help save lives and protect lives, and if you or anybody you know is struggling, please reach out.
Please reach out to your GP or to head to health.org.au or to beyondblue.org.au. These are really important steps forward to give anybody a chance.
And then with regards to aged care, we know that the situation in Victoria, the community transmission, has contributed to the spread, as it has all around the world. High levels of community transmission find their way through asymptomatic staff into aged care.
The latest advice I have from the joint task force, the Victorian Aged Care Response Centre, is that their activities have included AUSMAT visiting over 40 facilities in 61 different visits.
These have helped stabilise facilities.
We’ve had nursing staff arrive from South Australia but now I’m advised also from Western Australia and Queensland, and we thank those individual nurses and we thank those states for their support.
This is one country operating to protect each state and each territory because this can happen to any state or any territory.
We’ve seen in New Zealand, which has done so well, have an outbreak.
And so this disease which travels silently, frequently asymptomatically, can be a huge challenge.
Furthermore, in aged care, what we’ve seen is that we have transferred over 400 residents to hospital.
I thank the Victorians, but we want to maintain that standard that every resident with a clinical need will be given that access, and that’s a fundamental part of our federal standards and federal commitment under the Aged Care National Action Plan, which commenced its first iteration in January and is now on the sixth iteration of the Aged Care National COVID Plan.
The next thing I want to address is our hospitals.
Our hospital system, even though Victoria has had some very challenging staff shortages due to the number of staff that have been furloughed with regards to either direct infection or more broadly contact, is holding up very well.
The latest figures that I have from the National Incident Centre, shortly before joining you, 685 people in hospital with COVID around the country, 44 in ICU, and of those 31 on ventilation, and we’ve boosted that ventilation capacity from 2200 to 7500.
So, that’s just attributed to our entire health system.
Finally, with regards to vaccines and treatments, the national plan was outlined last Friday.
We’re in an advanced discussion with a variety of different leading providers around the world.
I do want to announce that we’ve been able to secure over 2700 units of remdesivir, one of the key treatments that will provide a breach until such time as normal global supplies recover in October.
So, the advice that I have from Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Nick Coatsworth is that this will provide the bridge and meet Australia’s needs from now until normal supplies recommence in October.
That’s the second additional supplementation on top of a first round that was provided to us from the makers.
So, all up three rounds of additional supplies to Australia, two following that additional one, and this will help save lives and protect lives.
So, I want to thank everybody for joining us. I’d be happy to take questions. I’ll hear first from Jennifer.
Hi. Thanks Minister for doing this. Can you just elaborate on that claim that we’ve seem to have turned a corner, particularly in Victoria?
How can you be so confident that we’ve flattened the curve? Why is that (inaudible)?
And also, how can you say you had a plan for aged care when we’re seeing more than half a dozen elderlies (inaudible) die each day?
How do you explain to their families that you’ve failed to protect them?
Sure. Look, firstly, in terms of the flattening of the curve, cautious optimism, and that says we’ve seen numbers drop from over 700 to 278 in Victoria.
There will be up days, and there will be down days.
This will not be a straight-line progression, but we are seeing that the strengthening of the tracing system is an extremely important part of this process, extremely important part.
And that’s beginning to yield very important human benefits which can be measured in lives saved, infections controlled.
Then with regards to aged care, right from the outset we knew that this was a disease which would, in particular, target the elderly.
Not confined to the elderly; we’ve seen people of all ages suffer agonising losses, but the very nature and pathology of COVID-19 is that it has a profound effect on our elderly.
So, from January we focused both on the broad national containment strategy, which is the single strongest defence around the world.
And as we saw with controlling through the first wave, that was- meant we were able to minimise the infection rates that occurred in other countries.
But at the same time, we’ve had to focus very specifically on aged care, in particular the national pandemic plan released on 18 February and activated on the 27th.
The National Aged Care Plan released on 13 March, which itself is in its third iteration, and all up there’ve been six stages, and that’s included $850 million for workforce, for other supports, the provision of PPE, the focus of infection control training with 150,000 people having completed that.
All of this though means that each day, every day we’re learning from around the world, learning from around Australia.
Where there are high levels of community transmission, that is a threat in each and every country.
And we’re fortunate that we have not seen the catastrophic results of some countries, but we have still had agonising losses, agonising losses, and they represent tragedy not just for the families but for the nation.
And I think we recognise that and that’s why we’re fighting every day to control the overall containment of the disease, but to focus as we have been, as we’ll continue to be on prevention and control of the outbreak in particular aged care facilities.
Thanks Minister. The initial guidelines (inaudible) aged care providers to be prepared for 20, 30 per cent decreases (inaudible) outbreak, but other advice to aged care facilities suggests that (inaudible) need to be furloughed (inaudible).
Well, this is about what the capacities of each staff, and so there are two different roles here.
One is in relation to the capacity of any institution to be able to replace and replenish.
And beyond that the recognition is that there would have to be additional support through the state and commonwealth systems.
That’s actually why we struck the private hospitals partnership agreement; it not only protected the capacity of those private hospitals, it made available 57,000 nurses and 104,000 staff and over 30,000 beds.
And that was a recognition that the capacity of any individual institution, even if it’s part of a broader firm or co-operative network would be limited.
There are only so many staff that any institution themselves can identify.
Beyond that, the national surge capacity which was created through the over $100 million for surge workforce, the ability to bringing in AUSMAT, the ability to bring in state workers under the hospitals agreement and the ability to have the private hospitals network were intended to cover the additional resources which might be necessary.
Thanks Minister. Just on translations of public health advice. The Health Department says it plans on having translated review documents once they’re live on the website to avoid errors in the future.
When will that start and how come that wasn’t happening from the beginning of the pandemic?
Well, there’s been a constant process and we’ve had advertisements in over 20 languages, and fact sheets in over 60.
There’s a constant process of checking. This is an additional element that has been added. I think that every single day we are adding to what we do.
Remember that the World Health Organization identified Australia as one of the best prepared countries in the world for a pandemic.
But each country faced with a once in 100-year pandemic, on a scale of more than 20.5 million infections officially so far, and clearly heading towards 25 million and no doubt beyond, has had to deal with an unprecedented situation.
And so, every day we’re adding additional and new protections.
And I think that’s what we want to do. Continue to add, continue to learn from around the world and Australia, and we’ve prepared the pandemic plan, and many at the time in February said that we were overreacting.
I do remember when we closed the borders with China on 1 February, there were many who said that we overreacted. We didn’t. We think that that was a necessary step.
I remember when the Prime Minister called this a global pandemic on 27 February. There were some who wondered whether that was premature, and that was nine days after the pandemic – the national pandemic health plan had been released, and all of those preparations were put in place.
But you keep adding to it and you keep adding to it. I think that’s the absolutely critical lesson for the country.
Thanks Minister. On hotel quarantine, (inaudible).
Sure. Look, there are matters here of clear public record.
On 27 March, National Cabinet met. The resolutions of that cabinet were released and announced by the Prime Minister. There’s a formal announcement which indicates that the states would operate hotel quarantine and that the ADF would be made available. That’s on the record.
And there’s also a Premier’s press release of the same date indicating that Victoria would be adopting hotel quarantine with ADF support.
Both of those are public documents.
And in addition, the Defence Minister has set out further offers and responses.
But also, in June of course, the Victorian Government in writing requested 850 ADF personnel to assist with the hotel quarantine process.
The Commonwealth accepted it, the Defence Minister announced it, and I also announced it as the first person standing up that day after the Defence Minister’s release, and the Victorian government subsequently rescinded that request.
But our job isn’t to criticise, it’s to support.
We’ve now been able to bring in 1700 ADF to support Victoria – not through the hotel quarantine process, they haven’t chosen the same path as New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia. But to assist with the tracing, to assist with the testing, to assist with the work at checkpoints and supporting the state. And we’ll continue to support each state as they see fit.
And I think that leads me to Clare.
Thanks Minister. Everyone understands that community transmission increases the chance of outbreaks in aged care and that the elderly are more likely to die. But there’s clearly a very separate issue that the royal commission exposes with regarding the failures to manage COVID once it’s actually entered a facility.
There was half of (inaudible) staff have PPE training and the sector crying out for more money.
So given the urgency of that, would the Government consider funding those extra needs now, including topping up staff ratios and other ongoing issues, rather than waiting until the end of the royal commission?
So I think there are two different things here.
Firstly, with regards to funding, we’ve provided an injection of $850 million to assist with a mixture of a staffing, infection control, preparedness, support, in addition to that, we have provided the Victorian Aged Care Response Centre.
There are, and I should mention this, an additional 50 staff that are being provided precisely to deal with that infection control.
There’s a separate element of ratios, is of course a matter that the royal commission is dealing with.
But what is absolutely the key lesson here from around the world is that community transmission drives the impact on aged care.
If I may, I might just look at some of the- some of the figures here.
We know that in Australia, agonisingly, 0.1 per cent of residents of aged care have succumbed to COVID-19; in Austria, it’s three times that as a percentage.
In Belgium it’s 49 times that; in Canada, 15; in Denmark, five; in France, 24; in Germany, four; in Ireland, 32; in Italy, I think 32.
In New Zealand it’s lower and I think we have to pay tribute to them for that.
In Norway it’s four; in Spain, 25 and in the UK it’s 50 times greater as a percentage of residents.
Every life lost is an agony and so we’re going to fight for every life. And that’s why we have a 24-hour response centre in Victoria.
I’m advised it’s the first time that we’ve ever had a Commonwealth set up a comparable body for any operation around the country. There are many things we’ve done, but this is one of the most important.
Michelle? No? I’ll come to Simon and if Michelle’s on she can come back. Simon?
Hi Greg. Can you hear me okay?
Thanks very much, Minister. Just following on from Tom’s question about hotel quarantine. Did the Federal Department of Health at all participate in a meeting at the state control centre in Melbourne on 27 March, which it seems to have green lighted security guards taking part in the hotel quarantine system in Victoria?
And can I also ask you, what do you make of Dan Andrews and also the Management Commissioner down here in Melbourne, Andrew Crisp?
What did you think of Linda Reynolds’ suggestion that no offer was made?
Sure. I’d have to check the record on that first one. That’s not a question that’s been raised with me so we’ll come back to you on that.
Secondly, look, we’re not here to criticise; we’re here to support.
As a matter of record, the Prime Minister’s press release on 27 March following the National Cabinet, set out that the ADF was on offer to all states and territories, and the Premier’s press release in response, not only acknowledged that offer, but indicated that Victoria would be using it.
So those are statements that are clear and on the public record.
The Defence Minister has released a timeline from Defence records. I’ll let the Defence Minister speak to those.
And then of course in June, there was a formal request from Emergency Management Victoria for 850 ADF personnel, specifically for support for the hotel quarantine, announced by the Defence Minister as the government agreeing to their request.
And then Victoria subsequently changed their position and rescinded the tasking request.
Thanks very much for your time, Minister. If I could just ask you, you mentioned cautious optimism before, in relation to Victoria.
We’ve got more than 2500 cases which are still under investigation; about 3000 or so of community transmission. Are you (inaudible) contact tracing team is up to the task of being able to go through, not just the positive cases but all those contacts?
And secondly, you (inaudible) questions and Tom’s question about the hotel quarantine program.
Ultimately though, who should Victorians believe? Because Daniel Andrews has also put matters on the record, as well as the Prime Minister and the Emergency Management Commissioner.
Who should Victorians believe? Is it Daniel Andrews or Linda Reynolds?
So in relation to contact tracing, this is progressively strengthening and improving in Victoria.
The Chief Scientist Alan Finkel is assisting with the Victorians in making sure that they have a fully automated process, that some of the manual delays within the Victorian system which are different to the processes in other states have been continuously addressed and improved.
The ADF is providing the tasking, support and the rigor within the public health unit so they had been seconded to and working to and supporting the public health unit.
I do want to acknowledge the work of the public health unit. They are doing their absolute best.
They’re working around the clock in Victoria and then, of course, the ADF has teams on the ground and there are over 100 teams on the ground and that is an extraordinary effort – going house to house, door to door, following up where telephone contact can’t be made and to make sure that the contact tracing is being fulfilled and that the isolation requirements are being met.
Then in relation to hotel quarantining, I would say this – there is very clear evidence on the public record, no less than the published outcomes of the National Cabinet on 27 March in the release from the Prime Minister, the ADF is on offer no less than the published response from the Premier on the same day that Victoria will be drawing on the offer of the ADF.
Both are written. Both are fundamental and they speak for themselves.
So I’m not looking for a conflict with Victoria. We respect that everybody around the country is in the fight of our lives against this disease.
Today, we are seeing progress. There is a long way to go. There will be good days and bad days. There will be up days and down days.
There will inevitably be more tragedy as the high numbers of recent weeks follow through with what will be further tragedies.
But as the numbers come down, there’s cause for hope and cause for cautious optimism.
And I want to leave that message with the Australian people and say to all of my fellow Victorians, this light gives us all hope and this hope tells us we will get through this and we’ll get through this together.
Thank you very much everybody.