Topics: COVID-19 cases in NSW and VIC; Commonwealth investment in clinical trial programs.
Good afternoon everybody and thank you for joining us today.
Shortly before joining you, I spoke with the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, and he was very heartened in particular both by the level of testing across Australia of 51,136 tests across the country in the last 24 hours and also by the results – three cases in Victoria, and the Victorian Government has given a comprehensive explanation of the origins and linkages of those – and eight in New South Wales, all known and linked to clusters.
In particular, as well, we’ve seen the Berela cluster with a clear definition of its likely origin on the basis of genomic testing. This is not from the Avalon cluster.
And so all up, the message for Australians is that although the times are challenging, when we look around the world and then we look at the extraordinary results of in the New Year, in the holiday break, testing on a major scale, results that show significant containment both within Victoria and New South Wales, to use the advice of the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, there is significant cause for hope in Australia.
At the same time, in particular I want to acknowledge that Australia has now reached 11.4 million tests, over 22,000 in Victoria in the last 24 hours and New South Wales 19,000, amongst others. Our case numbers in Australia continue to be astonishingly low by global comparisons.
We’ve seen a rolling average of approximately 600,000 cases a day worldwide. To have the 11 local cases by comparison is an extraordinary outcome.
We have always warned that there would be cases in Australia. Our goal is zero community transmission, but whilst we engage with the a world that has well north of half a million cases a day, it is inevitable that there will be moments of transmission – a touch, a breath, a surface – that provide the vector through which the disease will be passed.
Our first line of defence is our international quarantine, and that has prevented potentially thousands of zero cases entering our community. But then our next line is our testing and then our tracing.
And in New South Wales and Victoria, in both states, our tracers have done and are doing an extraordinary job. People are being called back from holiday leave after having worked right through the year.
They’re starting the New Year in the same way – working to protect the public – the definition of public service.
And then there are the distancing rules as the fourth level, and different rules are being put in place, but appropriate rules in our judgement as a national government by the respective states.
And I think this is a very important thing, that there are different circumstances, and the best health advisors in those states are working daily with the Commonwealth, daily with the other chief health officers.
As we speak, I understand the medical expert panel, or Australian Health Protection Principal Committee is meeting, and they are doing this each day, every day in order to safeguard and protect Australians and to provide advice and common views between different jurisdictions with the Commonwealth chairing it. So that engagement is a national approach that’s occurring each and every day.
And then, importantly, we compare this with a world with now over 84.5 million cases, with, agonizingly, the second highest level of new cases only in recent days for any one 24-hour period, and the highest level of lives lost in any one 24-hour period.
And so as this disease enters a new calendar year, it is at levels as high as any. Lives lost higher than any. And we see in advanced and sophisticated jurisdictions that ICUs are overflowing.
There are difficult, agonizing choices being made about ventilation. Hospital systems, entire hospital systems, are under massive pressure in developed countries.
And yet, on the advice I have just received from the National Incident Centre, there are zero Australians on ventilation for COVID. There are zero Australians in ICU for COVID.
That may not always be that way, but these are incredibly important indicators of our national progress. And I think it’s important at what is a difficult time to provide that sense of perspective and hope and optimism about what Australia is actually achieving in the midst of a global pandemic.
So, there will be cases, and they will make it difficult, but Australians have stepped up to be tested, the systems have responded, and we are making progress. We are winning, but we have not won. And we will continue to have to do this.
I also want to specifically focus in relation to aged care briefly. I’ve spoken with the head of the Victorian Aged Care Response Centre, Ann Smith, this morning on behalf of the Prime Minister and Richard Colbeck and myself.
There are 218 facilities in Victoria which have been tested or are currently being tested. At this stage, there is a zero case result. Zero positive cases for any of those 218 aged care facilities.
Further facilities will be tested during the course of this week, and we believe there’ll be another 20 that are likely to be tested. But that is an extraordinary achievement in terms of the mobilisation of resources planned, prepared, now implemented, but perhaps more importantly still, a deeply heartening and reassuring outcome for Australians.
Then, I’m delighted to be able to announce today that the Australian Government will be investing $10.1 million in six breakthrough new clinical trial programs for COVID protection.
That includes two for recovery. One of the issues that we’re all focusing on and the world is learning about is the need for more research and better treatment to assist those people who are in recovery from COVID.
One program in relation in particular to the neurological impacts of COVID, with a focus on Statins being led by the University of New South Wales. Similarly, a cardiovascular recovery program being led by the University of Melbourne.
Two projects in clinical projects for infection control – Flinders University is leading a face guards and face protection program to limit the spread of airborne COVID, and at the same time the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute, or SAMRI, is looking at UV light sanitisation projects.
The University of Melbourne is looking at aged care, and also the Doherty Institute and the University of Melbourne, very importantly, have a next generation vaccine programme which is looking at the spike protein and making sure that we can have an mRNA-style vaccine but without the need for ultra-cold transportation.
We don’t know whether or not further vaccinations will be required after this year, but we do know that we will prepare for every eventuality.
As part of that, I’m delighted to announce that over recent days the Government has completed all of the work for the Novavax contractor, another contract already announced and agreed in earlier stages with the final work having been done.
We remain not only on track but ahead of schedule for our vaccine rollout, and indeed it’s in a very similar position to New Zealand.
I was talking with the Chief Medical Officer about the New Zealand approach, and we are working in a common pathway on that.
And our goal is very clear – to make sure that every Australian who seeks to be vaccinated is given free, voluntary and universal access to vaccination with that to be completed during 2021 with our expectation of October at the latest for the whole of population.
I’d be delighted to take any questions. If I may, I might start with those on the phone. I think Christina.
So, one of the things that we know is that this virus mutates. We’ve seen obviously the UK and South African strains. We are preparing for all eventualities.
All our advice is that our current vaccines are likely to be effective, and we’ve reviewed that on a daily basis against the existing mutations.
But what we don’t know, and I think it’s important to be honest about what we know and what we don’t know, is whether or not there will be further mutations which may require new types of vaccines, or in particular, whether or not re-vaccination will be required in the same way that we have to do that for the flu.
And that we’ll know more as the world goes through its vaccination programme on an unprecedented scale, but the Doherty Institute and University of Melbourne vaccine is a second-generation vaccine.
It’s about preparing for COVID. It’s about preparing for the next year and the next year and the next year and always being ahead of the curve.
It’s almost a year since Australia was one of the first countries in the world to declare on the 21 January COVID-19 to be a disease of pandemic potential, long before the World Health Organization.
And we did that because we wanted to be ahead of the curve, and we’re going to stay ahead of the curve.
Thanks, Minister. This morning we heard at the Victorian at the Victorian Presser that that there’s been multiple mistakes made by the Government there, including misnaming some of the locations, not alerting venue owners that they were an exposure site. And there’s also been lots of people being turned away from testing facilities that were at capacity.
Do you still have confidence in Victorian government to get this under control? And what more would you like to see them be doing at the moment?
I do have confidence in the Victorian Government and the response.
I think, to put it in perspective, Victorian testing numbers have more than tripled in the last week. People who had been on leave – and it’s understandable that they had provided furlough or leave to staff that had worked right through the year – have been called back. They’re stepping up.
A tripling of testing within Victoria. A contact tracing system which the National Incident Centre believes is dramatically improved.
And we’re dealing with human uncertainty. Sometimes people will have to reconstruct all of the places where they’ve been, and sometimes that detail will be refined.
And so I want to acknowledge and genuinely say to Australians that our view, our belief, is that Victoria is far better placed now.
We will have these challenges. It could be any state or territory. It could be WA or South Australia. It could be Tasmania. It could be the Northern Territory, the ACT or Queensland.
At the moment, there are two states dealing with a challenge, and they’re dealing with it well. And so Victoria has moved from a situation where they had zero cases, and that’s been an outstanding outcome given that they were facing 700 cases.
But the systems are dramatically improved, and I say that with our clear assessment.
Where there have been challenges in any of the states and territories, we’ve respectfully but clearly called them out.
Now we can see if they’ve been able to triple their testing, dramatically improve their contact tracing and to provide the granular detail.
I spoke with Martin Foley a couple of days ago, and the fact that he was so early in the course of this round in Victoria able to provide details, venues, sites, I thought was an indication both for himself but also for the Victorian system that they are in a much stronger place.
So we’ll get through this, but there will be challenges, and I understand and appreciate the patience of Victorians. But I do particularly want to acknowledge that there have been improvements.
One important thing is, of course, any response has to have a compassionate element, and we’re confident that a way will be found by Victoria to bring people home.
And I think that is an important part of our duty as a national Government. From overseas we’ve been doing that throughout the course of this year, and we’re confident that Victoria will work through and find ways to bring people home to their home state, to their families.
Thanks, Minister. Happy New Year. Just in relation to the rollout of the vaccine, can you completely rule out the rollout of the vaccines being linked to the No Jab, No Pay policy?
And secondly, just with business groups raising concerns and wanting the Government to provide some clarity around whether they can force employees to be vaccinated before turning up to work, will the Government close that loophole or allow employers to force employees to be given their vaccinations?
Sure. Look, firstly, on the general principle of vaccines, our fundamental underpinnings are these: firstly, that it is voluntary. Secondly, that it is free. And thirdly, that it is universally available, so available to all Australians that seek it.
No Jab, No Pay relates to children, and at this stage, children are not envisaged in the early phases of the vaccine and around the world have not been a focus of it. And so we have no plans to use that policy mechanism in this case.
In addition to that, the question was a legal one, and I respectfully refer that to the Attorney-General.
I understand that that’s actually a legal interpretation that’s required. And so he’ll be considering that over the course of the current weeks.
And I know that the Government will be providing advice, but we have expanded the Australian immunisation register to ensure that COVID is included on it.
But one of the things we specifically did not do when we legislated was change the position in relation to the voluntary nature of vaccination. So that’s an important national principle.
Minister, sorry, just with reference to the No Jab, No Pay, you said no plans, but that’s not ruling it out for children later on, is it?
Well, at the moment, there are no plans to vaccinate children and there are no plans whatsoever in order to use that particular mechanism.
So I understand you’re saying will the Government do this or will you categorically rule it out? I’m being very clear that we have no plans and no intentions, and that remains the position.
And unless there were a Cabinet decision – and that’s not been the subject of a cabinet decision – I wouldn’t want to go further. That’s all.
Minister, Daniel Hurst from Guardian Australia. You’d be aware that today New South Wales Health has asked potentially thousands of people linked to that bottle shop to isolate, and that case has been linked to patient transport worker- transporting an overseas traveller.
How concerned are you by that development on whether this could be brought under control in New South Wales? And do you have any concerns about New South Wales being too slow to introduce the mask mandate that they announced yesterday?
Look, I think the first thing is I think the New South Wales decision today was entirely appropriate given the additional information they’d received.
The second is that it came about because of what is not just an Australian gold standard, but in our view, a global gold standard contact tracing system.
That’s related to the additional point, and that is the advice from the Chief Medical Officer is that the outbreaks in New South Wales could potentially have been on a vastly larger scale than that which occurred in Victoria but for the extent of the response, the speed of the response and the capacity of the contact tracing system.
There were multiple seedings. What we’ve seen is, of course, there was the bottle shop seeding. We had an RSL seeding, and we had a bowls club seeding.
All have involved multiple individuals, and yet the speed of the response initially in relation to the Northern Beaches and the Avalon cluster, the actions which were taken on the Northern Beaches and the peninsula in particular have led to the containment of it.
I saw one prominent commentator who said there would be 3000 cases a day by the 7th. Well, it’s the 3rd today, and New South Wales has eight.
And so I think it’s very important that we recognise that a potentially enormous event has to date been avoided. And so we are doing well as a country.
There are challenges. There’ll always be somebody who has a different view, and that’s a hugely important part of our democracy.
But I think both New South Wales and Victoria are responding and responding well. Our ABC journalist is here. Sorry, one more from Daniel. Daniel, sorry. Go ahead, please.
Sorry, why do you think that New South Wales was not too slow to introduce the mask mandate?
Well, I think they were responding to their circumstances, and, at the same time, they were encouraging people. And I respect their approach.
When you think that a set of circumstances which could potentially have been far greater than that, which produced over 700 cases a day in Victoria, has seen case numbers now at eight cases today, fewer cases yesterday, all known contacts.
That is a major event from at least three different seeding sources which has been avoided. And that’s an extraordinary position.
And we see this every day when we look around the world, over 50,000 cases a day for the last six days in the United Kingdom. The challenge that a jurisdiction such as California is facing with the hospitals potentially being overwhelmed in some parts of Los Angeles.
And yet again and again, Australia is tested and challenged, and again and again, Australia passes that test and passes that challenge.
And it doesn’t matter which of the jurisdictions; because we have the national activity, that national coordination on a daily basis, it allows us to work with each state and each territory.
Has the Minister received any health advice that suggests a consistent national standard for border closures is not the best way to go? Would be beneficial for all states to have the same standards on border closures and people movement?
So the Commonwealth has put in place a Commonwealth definition of a hot spot, and that provides the basis for action.
We recognise that some of the states, particularly Western Australia and Queensland, have long reserved their right, and this has been discussed on many occasions. And so the Prime Minister, I think only two days ago, reaffirmed a respect for the rights of states to make their own decisions.
But we have used the Commonwealth definition as a guide, and that in particular, when it was triggered in relation to the Northern Beaches by the Chief Medical Officer saw a national response with significant consistency, not absolute.
So we have the Commonwealth definition, and any states or territories that wish to use it, that stands available to them.
Definition of what, sorry?
Commonwealth definition of a hot spot, which in turn has impacts in relation to borders.
So there’s no time plans for an all states, sort of, border policy?
Well, I think that’s a matter for the states and territories. What the Prime Minister has said on a number of occasions is that we have Commonwealth definitions. We’ve achieved extraordinary national unity through this.
But he recognises that, in particular, Western Australia and Queensland at different times have reaffirmed their right to have their own responses based on their own medical advice.
I do want to shout out in a positive way to Queensland and Tasmania the way they have responded, along with the Northern Territory, to the challenges coming out of New South Wales.
We think that there has been a particularly sensitive and thoughtful approach to the border restrictions and the challenges and recognising the needs of people coming from rural New South Wales areas where there are zero cases.
Are there any health risks from having Victorians stranded behind the New South Wales border? Are they less likely or able to follow COVID precautions, for example?
I think the important thing, and we’re beginning to see this from Victoria, is that a pathway is found to help bring people home to Victoria.
There are no domestic passports in Australia, and that’s one of the features of this country, and it’s one of the great hallmarks of who we are in terms of being a single, united Australia.
And so we recognise that they have to be proportionate responses, but they have to be compassionate, and I am confident that Victoria is working on ways to help bring their citizens home in a COVID-safe way as soon as possible
What plans are there to support those people trapped north of the border?
Well, they’re being carried out by the states. And at this stage, if we were to receive any requests from New South Wales, then we would be considering them.
But we’ve been assisting all of the states and territories. The Australian Defence Force deployment of Operation COVID ASSIST is currently has almost 1600 personnel around the country in different states and territories providing different levels of support.
May I ask one more question?
Yeah, of course.
Will the Federal Government need to extend JobKeeper in light of the recent border closures and effect on the economy?
Look, that would be a measure for the Treasurer and the Prime Minister to discuss. But there are no plans for any change.
Part of the process when we have 11 community cases around the country is that we are on a return to a COVID-safe Australia.
We’ve been tested, we’ve been challenged, but so far we’ve passed.
And I want to finish where I started by thanking Australians for coming out and being tested. I know this is difficult. I know this is challenging. It can be inconvenient, and patience may be required.
But our pathologists, our testers, our public servants, our contact tracers are working literally around the clock, and I want to acknowledge and thank them.
And so, in what is a time of break for many Australians, there are many others who are working through. There are others who have been deeply inconvenienced. And I just want to thank all Australians for that.
We’re going to get through this. When we look at those numbers of over 600,000 cases a day on so many different days around the world, of 15,000 lives lost on one day in the last few days, and then compare them to zero Australians in ICU, zero Australians on ventilation for COVID and the response of Australians everywhere.
There’s much to be proud of, and there are real reasons for hope. And to remember that we will get through this. We are getting through this.
And of all the countries in the world, it’s hard to imagine anywhere else that people would rather be in order to deal with COVID during this time of pandemic.
So I think we’ve seen in 2020 the finest of Australia, and I can say that already in 2021, we’re seeing that again.
Thank you very much.