Topics: Victorian COVID-19 outbreak; Commonwealth support for Victoria; mandatory mask wearing; hotel quarantine; AHPPC advice; childcare changes.
This has been the darkest winter for so many Australians, and yet there are real lights of hope. We know today’s numbers will be distressing for so many Australians because these are not just numbers, these are Australians who have been infected by a virus which can be deadly or deeply debilitating. But those lights of hope include our achievements as a nation.
First and foremost, the support of one Australian to another; of our health workers, who have been extraordinary; but of friends and family, of people unknown to each other, with their acts of kindness and generosity.
Now is the time for that support to continue and to extend. And there have been our achievements in terms of the borders and protecting Australia; testing, with almost 3.5 million tests and over 60,000 in the last 24 hours; the work on tracing, of finding and tracking down those cases that are linked to people who might otherwise not know that they’ve been exposed.
This remains our single greatest national priority, along with the care of our elderly. And so we are providing that additional support. And then the work of Australians in distancing. More measures today, in Victoria, which we support. Which the Commonwealth clearly supports.
So, these are difficult moments. Extraordinary achievements, extraordinary challenges. But there is still a distance to travel, particularly in Victoria. In a world with nearly 14.5 million cases, in a world heading towards 20 million cases, undoubtedly, with 600,000 lives lost officially and no doubt, many more, and sadly, many more to come, we know that the challenge will remain.
And therefore, we have to be honest about that. But Australians have risen magnificently so far, and we will continue to do that. And I want to thank, on behalf of the Prime Minister and the Australian Government, all Australians for their role, their part, in helping to put Australia in the position we are in.
But in one state, in particular in one city, in Victoria and in Melbourne respectively, the challenge remains great. So today, I want to outline some of the actions that the Commonwealth is and will be taking to support Victoria and Melbourne at this moment of challenge. Firstly, with regards to the tracing that I mentioned. This remains a fundamental national priority to ensure that each case every day is traced.
As part of that, the Australian Government has made the ADF, our extraordinary military women and men, available across the states and territories to assist in whatever way, shape or form will meet the needs of that particular jurisdiction.
The advice I have from the Defence Minister, only briefly before joining you, is that there are now over 2,700 ADF members who are part of Operation COVID Assist. In Victoria, there are already 1,212 ADF members on the ground. They are to be joined this week by an additional 272, taking the expected number to about 1,484 Australian Defence Force women and men and they are assisting.
In particular, they have helped with border control, with isolation, with checkpoint work. But perhaps most importantly, in providing support, assistance and rigour in the contact tracing program.
That is being done at the request of Victoria after the Commonwealth’s offer, and it is being done to make sure that the standard of each case, every day, is met. There can be no compromise on that standard. So, our support is open-ended. As long as it takes, as much as is needed. Confirmed, again, by the Prime Minister.
I want to thank all of our ADF men and women for their work, their commitment – many of them bringing themselves away from their families and to Victoria. Being on the front-line, potential exposure to the disease. But their infection control training, their disciplines are of the highest order. They believe in Australia, and they believe in the Australian ideal.
Beyond the ADF, in particular, we have partnered with Victoria to protect our elderly. The partnership is with the public sector, the private sector, the Commonwealth, the state, and the families.
In particular, we know that there have been residents in 16 aged care facilities who have been infected, and clients in three home care services that have been infected. All up, 103 residents and 120 staff. When you include those facilities that have staff, that would make 49 residential care facilities and six home care services.
In order to protect these residents, and the staff, most of whom have contracted the virus within the community, following, of course, the catastrophic breach of hotel quarantine, which has seen a city of five million in lockdown. As a consequence, what we’re doing is a new series of actions with Victoria.
An additional 1 million masks for regional Victorian aged care facilities. An additional 1 million masks for disability workers across Victoria. We are putting in place additional staff work support, so as in partnership with the aged care sector in Victoria, there will be the capacity for additional funds, for additional periods of work for individuals to remain within a single aged care facility.
That is the goal which we have agreed upon with the support of the workforce and the support of Victoria and the aged care facilities. In terms of testing, five mobile testing teams have been stood up by the Commonwealth to ensure that staff and residents are tested in a timely fashion.
This is an absolutely critical step forward. Tracing of cases of those coming in to aged care facilities in Victoria, with our support and consent, is announced additional but difficult and challenging restrictions on visitation, which, whilst we would never want, we recognise they are necessary. And then, in terms of infection control training – we are working with Victoria to build on the number of staff who are able to apply the highest levels of infection control training. Across the state, Victorian staff have been extraordinary.
This then brings me to our last action, and that’s the decision of the Victorian Government in relation to the mandatory wearing of masks across the Melbourne area and Mitchell Shire. I’ve been in contact with the Prime Minister; the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly; and the secretary of the Health Department, Professor Brendan Murphy.
Together we fully and completely support this difficult decision for the mandatory wearing of masks. It is a function of the level of community transmission in the Melbourne region and surrounding areas. It is necessary, and we are sorry that it has reached this point for all those who’re affected. But this is about saving lives and protecting lives. Ultimately, it’s about saving lives and protecting lives.
So, when we look around the world, we see the great challenge. We see – to keep Australia in perspective – the fact that across six states and territories, there is effectively zero community transmission. In a seventh, New South Wales, they are conducting a Herculean tracing task, and they are doing an extraordinary job. In Victoria, that task is with us.
Do we believe that Victoria can succeed and that we can beat this virus? Yes, we do. And yes, I do. And so, I want to give that sense that amidst the darkness, there are lights of hope. Clear and real and visible. Because we know that we can do this because we’ve done this before. I’d be happy to take any questions. Firstly here.
I’ll start with the advice about masks. Is this something that you think that there may be merit in other states adopting pre-emptively now?
The wearing of masks is about the level of community transmission, so the advice from the medical expert panel, or AHPPC, has been consistent, and what has changed is the level of community transmission in Victoria. And so as that transmission changes, it’s appropriate.
At this stage, the medical expert panel hasn’t identified a level such as that in other states and territories. But of course, it remains open to individuals in any circumstances or workplaces in any circumstances. But what Victoria has determined, based on that level of sustained community transmission, is the need to take the steps which will help to reduce the number of cases. We support it.
In terms of free childcare, do you see merit in the idea of rolling out further free childcare as part of the, I guess, efforts to rebuild the economy and particularly get women back into the workforce?
We’ve taken unprecedented steps, and Dan Tehan has set out the steps going forward to allow both maintenance of support and continued transition, and I think that that balance is the right balance to support women and to support the economy.
And in terms of getting to Canberra at all, have you got plans to travel to Canberra over the next few weeks? We’ve heard Treasurer Frydenberg might be encountering some problems with that.
No, I don’t have any plans at this stage. For the time being, my place is in Victoria, and when Parliament sits, then I obviously will join my colleagues in so doing.
And then I might take firstly from the telephone Tamsin.
Thanks, Minister. Given the problems of hotel quarantine and virus control as you mentioned in the outbreak in Victoria stemming from an issue with the hotel quarantine system there, why have returning travellers been allowed to quarantine in places other than in hotels with permission from state governments? And does the agency think this is okay? Or should it now be disallowed, given the importance that hotel quarantine has shown to have?
So these are obviously decisions of individual states and territories, but it will be one of the elements that Jane Holton, a former secretary of the Department of Health, as well as a leading international member of CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness, is examining in her review.
So, she’ll be doing that work, looking at hotel quarantine, looking at any exemptions to it. Again, they’re decisions of the states and territories, but Jane is fearless in her advice, and she’s been tasked with being fearless in her advice, so I think that the right person at the right time for the job. And she will be working with each of the states and territories on their current protocols. Clare.
Thanks, Minister. New South Wales Health has actually for the first time today recommended mask wearing where social distancing is not possible. Given now supply for PPE for health workers is now secure, what harm is there in issuing blanket mask wearing advice wherever there is community transmission? And if you’re not going to do that, will you make it public what the thresholds are for actually triggering when community transmission is at a high enough level that mask wearing becomes recommended?
So, there are no Commonwealth barriers to individual states and territories making recommendations, either for local areas, for broader metropolitan regions, or for entire states or territories. So no barriers. The medical expert panel has set the standard that where the level of community transmission is such that it’s required, then it should be implemented.
Victoria has previously made a general recommendation of it being proposed and supported for the Melbourne metropolitan and Mitchell Shire areas. Today they’ve lifted it to mandatory. If any state or territory sees a level of transmission which they believe is sufficient, then they are empowered under the AHPPC rules and guidelines to do that. So that’s available if they believe it. And at present, they will make their own judgements, but what we’ve seen is a rapid response where cases rise. Richard?
Thank you, Minister. What has the AHPPC detected as happening in the second wave than the first wave? For example, is it more easily transmittable? Is it targeting a different demographic than last time? What are the signs? What’s different about the second wave compared to the first?
So, community transmission is the difference. So, in the first wave, what we saw was primarily cases being brought from overseas. Now, we had the breach of hotel quarantine. That spread through the northern and western suburbs of Melbourne, and that seeded a significant number of community transmission cases. So that’s the principle source of difference.
We’ve also seen, of course, that there was considerable family transmission as part of that, and now some workplace transmission which has been identified and is one of the leading reasons behind the change in advice with regards to moving from recommended to mandatory mask wearing.
So they’re the principle differences. But above all else, it’s the move from overseas arrivals to community transmission, and that community transmission is difficult and challenging. And that’s what has changed, and that remains our single greatest threat, and in order to deal with that, today, we’ve announced the level of ADF support in Victoria.
Our testing, and from our testing, our tracing and our tracking is absolutely fundamental. Each case every day, and in addition to that, to make sure that those community transmission cases which are being passed to citizens who are also aged care workers are not able to spread through aged care facilities. So, they are our fundamental tasks at this moment.
So with that, I’ll say one final thing, and that is, these are difficult and challenging days. And they will take some time to pass. Around the country, Australians have been extraordinary, and again, I want to thank – on behalf of the Prime Minister and myself and the Australian Government – everybody for their role.
I particularly want to highlight our aged care workers and our pathologists, our chemists, our doctors, our nurses. But it’s all Australians who have played their part and who will need to continue to play their part. For Victorians, it comes at a heavier cost and with greater restrictions.
We will get through this. We have more to do, but we know we can do it because we’ve done it before. Thank you very much.