Topics: Victorian COVID-19 outbreak; Mass gatherings; COVIDSafe app; Border closure.
Let’s go to Melbourne now and catch up with the Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt.
Greg Hunt, thanks so much for joining this on what’s a very difficult day for your portfolio and for everyone in Victoria. Has your home state of Victoria let the nation down?
Well, look, we’re not here to criticise. We’re here to support.
What we do see, of course, is that there was a very significant breach of the Victorian hotel quarantine system.
That has led to the ceding of cases. Those cases have spread, and as a consequence of that and other community-based transmission, Victoria is now having to do the very difficult thing of bringing back restrictions to the whole of Melbourne, and that’s enormously difficult for families in small units or flats.
It’s difficult for small businesses that have been through this.
Having said that, we’ve effectively got to nearly zero community transmission in seven out of eight states and territories, so we know how to do this.
It’s going to be a difficult six weeks, but we’re going to fight, and we’re going to continue to make sure that Australians get through this.
Of course you don’t want to get into a spat with a state Labor Government – you’re not there to criticise, as you say – but of course, we need to be dealing with this global pandemic for months, possibly years to come.
We need to know what’s gone wrong, and you’ve put your finger on it there isn’t it?
It’s been the way the Victoria hotel quarantine has been mishandled that’s led to this community outbreak.
Well, the Victorian Government has acknowledged that there was a significant breach of the hotel quarantine system.
It’s operated exceptionally well around the country in seven out of eight states.
Unfortunately, here in Victoria there were breaches; that’s led to a judicial inquiry.
Our focus is to make sure that there is support.
The ADF is available if they are required to assist and to support; that’s a matter for the Victorian Government.
More generally, the Prime Minister has, this afternoon, authorised an additional 260 defence force personnel to assist Victoria with general duties that will be outlined in the next few days.
And there’ll be 350 defence force personnel – and up to 500, if required – to assist with the border restrictions with New South Wales.
So, difficult, challenging times, but we’re supporting, and we’re focused on making sure that, ultimately, we’re doing everything we can to replicate what’s occurred in the rest of Australia here in Victoria.
Daniel Andrews has said the population have become complacent in Victoria, and that’s led to a lot of this community transition- transmission.
Is there any evidence to suggest that Victorians have been more complacent or adhering to social distancing rules in a less stringent manner than the rest of the country?
Look, I think Victorians have overwhelmingly done a magnificent job.
I do think that, coupled with the hotel quarantine breaches, there were, you know, a small number of people who felt that – once the protests had occurred – that, gosh, if it’s okay for 10,000 to get together, surely it’s okay for 10.
The sense of a double standard was quite strong in parts of the state, and there was a clear mood against that as a result.
Overwhelmingly though, I would praise Victorians for what they’ve done, and I recognise that now they’re going to have to deal – you know, and really all Victorians will bear consequences from the Melbourne lockdown – they’re going to have to deal with what is for families, for individuals, for workers, for business owners, the most difficult of circumstances.
But we do know how to get through this.
We are now prepared in terms of our hospitals, our PPE, our testing, and we’re in a stronger state than we were, but we have to confront a very significant outbreak.
If there’s a lesson there in quarantine, is there also a lesson when it comes to public gatherings that if you’re going to ban mass gatherings, they have to be banned for all, rather than to allow exceptions and therefore, perhaps, as you say, lead to a diminishment in community commitment?
Well, the Prime Minister, myself, Brendan Murphy, the Chief Medical Officer [sic], we were absolutely crystal clear about all of those public gatherings all around the country in relation to anything which was breaching the standards.
It was particularly risky in Victoria because of the underlying community transmission, which had not been fully suppressed here.
It wasn’t in the position of some of the other states, so it was an additional risk in terms of the messaging and the behaviours that some took from it as a result.
Having said that, given that we are where we are, these difficult restrictions, now we have to work through it.
Commonwealth support in terms of the military to assist with the general duties, the 260, the offer is there.
If more is required for tracing, for testing, or for hotel quarantine, we’re simply in the business of supporting and assisting each and every state and territory as challenges arise.
And it’s Victoria now; it could be anyone. And we’re all going to have to live with this virus for a long while, because around the world, every day we look, and as challenging as it is here, we still need to be very thankful that Australia has achieved the extraordinary results.
But right now, our thoughts and our focus are with Victoria.
Oh, absolutely. Outside of the Melbourne metropolitan area, you essentially have no community transmission in this country at all at the moment.
Are you confident that this can be contained, or is it almost inevitable that we’ve seen some infections now shift out of Victoria or into other parts of Victoria in the last few days, and in fact could be still shifting out over the next six hours or so before there’s a hard border shutdown?
Well, nobody can give any false guarantees on that.
What we are able to do is to test, to trace, to track, to isolate. We have in place those systems.
Right now, one of the most important things to occur in Victoria is for each case every day to be followed up in terms of contact tracing.
So, the national resources with regards to other states, other territories, Commonwealth support, are all being put in place to assist Victoria to go through that, where there has to be the standard of each case every day, and that’s absolutely what has to be achieved.
The Housing Commission towers that have been sealed off in Melbourne, in the inner-city suburbs, are you happy with the way that has been handled? Is there a better way to deal with those discrete outbreaks?
So, the idea of localised isolation was something we set out in February; we talked about rings of containment.
That is and always has been an option.
So I recognise that that very difficult decision was something which did have to be made; we are not critical of that.
What is fundamental is that all possible support is given to those residents, and that it’s as brief as possible whilst that testing is fully carried out. So, all possible support and as brief as possible.
Now, is contact tracing up to speed in Victoria? Has it been as adequate as in other state? And are you still frustrated by a lack of public uptake when it comes to the COVID app?
So, very briefly, in terms of the app, it’s just over 6.5 million downloads.
We’d continue to encourage people. That’s well ahead of our expectations for this time.
With regards to the contact tracing, Victoria is doing everything they can, but the standard that the Chief Medical Officer, the medical expert panel, or what’s known as the AHPPC, has said is to make sure that each day, every day, all cases are followed up, that the contact tracing is occurring within 24 hours of notification.
That’s what we want to assist Victoria with – to assist with critical personnel from the other states and territories, where obviously they are freer at the moment, to assist with the ADF if that’s likely to help them.
So, in whatever way support can be given to achieve that goal of following up every case, every day, to complete their contact tracing program and process within the 24 hours, that’s our task – to help them.
Just finally, Greg Hunt, given that you’ve had those hotspots suburbs locked down in Melbourne for quite a while now, a number of days, now that the whole of the Melbourne metropolitan area and one regional shire are going into lockdown, and you’re putting in additional resources, federal and state, to help trace cases and, obviously, the quarantine has now been beefed up.
Is it an overreaction to have these hard borders across the South Australian and the New South Wales borders?
Look, this is the first moment where we felt that it was appropriate to have border restrictions.
The Prime Minister and the Premiers of New South Wales and Victoria spoke yesterday off the back at our end of the advice from Professor Paul Kelly, the acting Chief Medical Officer, of similar advice, I know, from the state level.
So, the risk of community transmission passing between states was – for the first time – live and significant.
Given that, we have supported, again another difficult decision. But back in February we talked about this idea of rings of containment.
You have the towers, you now have the Melbourne area, and you have the Victorian state.
These things are designed to prevent the spread of the virus within a specific urban area, outside of the urban area, or to the rest of the country, where we’ve achieved extraordinary results, almost, you know, almost unparalleled.
But we now have an outbreak.
We’d always said the risk was real and germane.
Now we are in that process of dealing with an outbreak, and the world will have to face (inaudible) the next year and beyond.
But we’re well-placed, and I’d say to those Melburnians, who will be doing it tough, we really feel for you. We understand how significant this is and how many will feel down about it. But you know, we’ve done it. We’ll get through it again. We really will.
Greg Hunt, thanks so much for joining us.