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Canberra Press Conference with Minister Greg Hunt, Minister Karen Andrews and Professor Paul Kelly, on 30 November 2021, on Omicron, boosters and border closures

Read the transcript of Minister Greg Hunt, Minister Karen Andrews and Professor Paul Kelly at the Press Conference in Canberra, on 30 November 2021, on Omicron, boosters and border closures.

The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Former Minister for Health and Aged Care

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And good morning, everybody. I'm joined by the Minister for Home Affairs, Karen Andrews, the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly. We're here to give you a brief update on the latest actions in relation to the Omicron variant and in particular the deliberations of the National Security Committee last night.

As we said yesterday, Australia is as well prepared as any nation in the world to deal with emerging variants. We are now at 39.2 million vaccinations, 92.4 percent first doses, 87 percent second doses, and 430,000 boosters.

And so Australians are doing their part to provide the strongest possible protection, and that's been played out in one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, one of the most recently and freshly vaccinated countries in the world, and one of the lowest rates of loss of life in the world. All our expectations are that those trends will continue.

Nevertheless, our goal has been to be prepared for emerging variants and there are a series that have come before and, no doubt, there will be others that come after Omicron.

But last night the National Security Committee of Cabinet met and made these additional decisions in addition to those that were taken and announced on Saturday.

In particular, in order to provide a two-week period, during which Professor Kelly and his colleagues can work with international colleagues and our domestic capabilities to analyse and understand the full nature of the Omicron variant which, of course, is showing some signs that it may be milder, but that's still to be determined, we will put a pause on the next phase of international arrivals which would have commenced on 1 December.

In particular, those arrivals with regards to the students and working visas and other related categories which were going to commence on 1 December will now commence on 15 December.

We're doing this out of an abundance of caution but our overwhelming view is that whilst it's an emerging variant, it's a manageable variant. We know that other countries are facing the same challenges and we know that the US President, President Biden, spoke and made the points about the United States looking to have a two-week period, which was exactly the advice that Professor Kelly and the Head of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Group, Professor Murphy, gave the National Security Committee yesterday.

So it just reminds me that we're blessed with the advisers we have. The additional measures which will also occur is that the bubbles which were going to open with Korea and Japan will be put back by two weeks, paused by two weeks, from 1 December to 15 December and those measures which we announced on the weekend will now be extended to 15 December.

And all of this is done on the presumption that we will recommence from 15 December, but medical advice will guide our decision-making throughout.

Essentially, that's the brief update. Minister Andrews will outline some of the border measures and cooperation with the states, and the Chief Medical Officer will talk about the next two weeks and what we're looking at, and what we've found so far, and the process for that recommencement.

The other thing is, I do want to particularly single out and thank South Africa. South Africa has been very cooperative and transparent, both internationally and directly with Australia.

Our High Commission is working with South Africa. The Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Michael Kidd, has been work being South Africa. And the advice on the fact that this may, may turn out to be a milder variant, even if it were more transmissible, has come very much from the field evidence on the ground in South Africa.

So we want to acknowledge and we recognise it's a difficult time for them but everybody is working together. And Australia's dealt with challenges and we're ready for this. We're able to deal with this and we want to give Australia that confidence.

Minister Andrews.


Thank you very much, Greg. So last night the National Security Committee of Cabinet took the decision to pause the reopening of our international borders.

This wasn't a decision that was taken lightly. We relied very heavily on the advice from Professor Kelly in terms of the period of time that we would need to pause the reopening.

So what that means is that international arrivals who are in the cohorts of economic cohorts, including skilled workers, international students, humanitarian and refugee visa-holders will now be- their delay will be for a period of 14 days to the 15 December when they can enter our country.

There is also a pause in relationship to the announcement that we had made for South Korea and Japan, and again, we will open our borders to those citizens on 15 December.

So this 14-day pause, as I've indicated, was taken as a result of the briefing by Professor Paul Kelly last night. It wasn't a decision that the Australian Government took lightly. We have been very focused on doing all we can to open our international borders as safely but quickly as we possibly can do.

I do want to stress that this is a 14-day pause and we will be working to ensure that we can open our borders as soon as we possibly can.

We are acutely aware of the impact that this will have on individuals, families, and businesses here in Australia, but I do stress this is a 14-day pause.

I would also like to commend the state and territory governments for their response to the issues relating to the Omicron variant. They have been calm, measured, and responsible in their approach and I thank them for doing so.

Professor Kelly.


Thank you, Minister. So I think in general terms, what do we know, what we don't know, and then what we're doing about it.

In terms of what we know, we now have five cases that have been diagnosed in Australia. They've all been diagnosed quickly. They're all in quarantine, one in the Northern Territory at the Centre for National Resistance, the other four in New South Wales.

What do we know about those cases? And it's similar in other travellers that have come into other countries in the world, from almost all of them directly linked with southern Africa, is that they are young. They're doubly vaccinated. Several of them have had infection previously, either known or on serological testing. And have very mild or in fact no disease. That's what we know so far.

In terms of transmission on from those people, that’s the only case we really know about is the one we talked about on Saturday in hotel quarantine in Hong Kong where there was someone who had come from southern Africa and then transmitted to another person from another part of the world that was across the corridor. So we do know it's transmissible.

We don't know, still, about the vaccine effectiveness. We don't know about severity and there's mixed reports on that from South Africa itself, and I would echo Minister Hunt's view, this has been a difficult time for them and their neighbouring countries, one of which, Malawi, I worked in myself, so, you know, I feel for that country and I still have links to there. It's difficult but they've been extremely open and helpful in relation to what they know.

We've organised a meeting through our, to the South African equivalent of our National Health and Medical Research Organisation here in Australia. That will happen later this week.

We are also very actively engaged through other international links, through our diplomatic links, but also directly with the World Health Organisation. It was a late night for some of my team members last night and an early one this morning for other team members, so 24/7, we’re monitoring that situation very actively.

ATAGI had a meeting, the ATAGI Executive met with the Department, myself, and Professor Murphy this morning to talk about issues in relation to vaccine effectiveness and what information we can gather from international colleagues. So that is very actively being looked at and for the severity elements, of course, we are, again, linked in very closely with international colleagues.

I think that in terms of beyond the border and what happens in the coming two weeks, I will be speaking with AHPPC members again today. We're meeting every day to talk through issues in the states and territories.

Ultimately, that is a decision for them. But very clearly we are continuing along our suppression strategy. This is part of that.

This is a temporary pause so we can get that information that we need, but we are committed to continue to reopen. That is the advice and decisions that were made at the NSC last night.

And so that goes with a clear statement that we cannot keep this Omicron variant out forever from Australia. Eventually it will be here.

Most importantly now we do what we can to slow down that introduction, and all of the measures that have been introduced will assist with that.


We'll start with David and then work across.


Thanks, Minister, and this is a question for you and also for Professor Kelly, I think, because it's mainly on the science.

I'm looking at a World Health Organization assessment of Omicron, and I take your point that there's only so much we know at this point. Now they say - this is from 28 November - the overall risk related to Omicron is considered very high, but then they also say, you know, this is mainly about potential immune escape.

I'd be interested in your comments on what that is and higher transmissibility. They don't actually say it's more severe.

So can you talk about what we're waiting on to find out whether it's more severe, when you think we may be able to get some evidence about that, and your comments on this World Health Organization statement that the risk is considered very high.


So firstly, just to explain what immune escape is, that would be if the vaccines don't work as well. So we have some anecdotal reports on that that I mentioned, so doubly vaccinated people as recently as October, couple of the cases we’ve had in Australia very recently doubly vaccinated with Pfizer.

What we don't know, is that a universal thing. We only have 199, I think, cases around the world that we know of so far. So it's too early to tell whether they are just by chance or that's actually a real thing.

So that's the immune and the second element of that is does natural infection protect? So we've had anecdotal reports again that people have had infection before and had been reinfected.

Now we've had that all the way through these last two years. What is different or more of a concern about Omicron? We don't know that yet.

In terms of the severity, I did explain this a few times over the last couple of days, South Africa is very different to Australia. Their life expectancy is 65, only five per-cent of the population is over the age of 65, they only have 25 per-cent vaccine coverage.

So it's going to take time for us to work out what is the effect on older people, more people at higher risk of disease. Again, as I mentioned, most of the information and the detailed information are young travellers, people in their 30s or younger.

And we know all of the variants of this virus are less likely to cause severe disease in that age group. So they're the unknowns.


Yeah. Where are we with Indigenous vaccination and how much of a concern is this variant seeping into remote communities?


Sure. So we've actually seen a very strong spike in Indigenous vaccinations over recent weeks. There was a significant hesitancy, that's the honest answer.

And we're now, as at today, at 74 per-cent indigenous first dose and 62.6 per-cent Indigenous second dose.

And so I want to thank all of the Indigenous community leaders. They've really stepped up. They’re working with Commonwealth, state and territory governments as a partnership, an implementation partnership that was signed with all states and territories for co-leadership in this space.

So we're seeing that that initial hesitancy is beginning to fall away. Northern Territory in particular has been doing a great job. Western Australia is where we still have to do the most work, that's just a, it's a fact, not a reflection, and all of the states and territories are absolutely doing their best to provide the encouragement.

There has been some, I think, fairly malicious targeting by some anti-vax groups of indigenous groups, and we're beginning to fight. We've been fighting against that for a long while, but we're beginning to win that fight.

And I think the Northern Territory has been the model in the way in which we're beginning to see very significant growth in indigenous communities.



Minister Hunt, in relation to Australians who are currently in South Africa, are there repatriation efforts in relation to trying to get those people back to Australia in time for Christmas?

And Chief Medical Officer, if I can ask you, we've seen this reaction off the basis of the AHPPC advice to delay opening the borders further by a fortnight.

Do you now see this as a precedent going forward, that every time there's a new variant coming forward, there's going to be a pause in how the country progresses through this pandemic?


So Paul, do you want to answer that part first?


Yes. So we've had a number of variants over time. This is the- and we've always looked at what we know and what we don't know and made a rapid assessment, as we did on Friday for the announcements on Saturday.

That's how we've handled this particular event. How that will translate into the future, I can't say for certain that that's the case, but there are, it comes back to what the WHO initial assessment was, that it was, it is a variant of concern, and as it been mentioned by your colleague, high risk. And so we're taking that appropriate response this time.


So just briefly, in terms of Delta and Omicron, actions were taken, you remember, we took a two-week pause with flights from India, and that was sufficient to bring the positivity rate down on those flights with the additional measures which were put in place by Home Affairs, from 14 per-cent to half a per-cent. That was the model that we are using now.

But I would say this, that other variants have not led to changes. So again, we follow the medical advice. In terms of South Africa, there were 20 people on the flight last week. There was capability for far higher numbers, and so those places were not filled.

We're planning at this stage of, exactly as Minister Andrews said, finishing the pause on 15 December. But if, as has been the case elsewhere, additional support is needed for facilitated commercial flights, then we would be in a position to do that.



Yeah thanks, Minister. Just, granted you only said it yesterday, but is there any update from ATAGI on the- your request to reconsider the timeframe for the boosters, and of booster shots of vaccines?

And related, has this Omicron outbreak prompted any consideration of starting vaccinations for five to 11-year-old children?


So on 5 to 11 year olds, the update yesterday from Professor Skerritt is they're making good progress on the assessment of the Pfizer vaccine, and then further down the track because of a later submission is Moderna. At this stage, there are no red flags and we're expecting that to occur in the in the coming weeks.

I think there's an important meeting this week. But the guidance that we've set on the basis of ATAGI advice is that we would begin that in early January, and that remains the guidance. Then in terms of ATAGI and boosters, I think Paul met with them this morning, so that process has started.

Certainly, we haven't received any advice.


Professor Kelly, you're talking about suppression as sort of the way forward as to how to handle this. So would you be recommending reductions in limits at gatherings? Would you like to see instead of only vaccinated people in cafes, weddings, funerals? Mask wearing, will be lasting longer now as a result?


So I think we've had a series of mitigation measures that everyone's familiar with over this whole couple of years. And it's always been the sense that vaccination is our major weapon now against the virus.

It's one of those things that we're gathering information about, about how effective vaccination is as a defence. But there are those other areas that you've mentioned - test, trace, isolate and quarantine, - which we have very much increased and improved on our- what we're doing there in the last couple of days.

So really making sure that everyone is getting tested, making sure that genomic testing is happening very, very rapidly for anyone that's coming across the border and so forth. And we'll keep very close monitoring eye on that. And then there's the public health and social measures, which are the ones you were referring to, which is another lever that, if necessary, can be looked at. Now that will be actively discussed again at AHPPC today. I'm sure it will be part of the discussion at national cabinet tonight, and that's where those sort of decisions will be worked through.




Would you be more comfortable having some of those suppression strategies back in place again about limits and having vaccines for certain settings?


So I'm not going to speculate on that further today.


Similar to Jono’s question, just on what we're expecting going forward. We've obviously seen domestic borders, some of them closed – WA’s closed its border to South Australia and so on.

As we see new variants, do you expect that we're going to see domestic state borders still a thing for potentially years to come? Is that something Australians can expect? And are you speaking to premiers and health officers about that measure and how you want to see it used?


Sure. So I'm meeting with the health ministers early this afternoon, Professor Kelly and Professor Murphy will be briefing them.

And so we're working very cooperatively with all of the states and territories, and I might ask Karen to talk about some of the work that's being done on the arrivals from overseas.

But there's a national plan, and we're all working towards that national plan. The national plan has always contemplated temporary measures, but the direction of the national plan is unchanged and Karen's leading much of the coordination with the states and territories. And I think that's going very strongly.



Just on the national plan, is there anything regarding variants in the national plan? Is that something, because obviously a lot of people will interpret the national plan differently and if we have looked at variants at all, I'm sure premiers would, you know, take different measures. Is there anything in the plan regarding that?


The plan focuses on the idea that there could be changes in the circumstances or conditions that embraces, whether it's variants, outbreaks, localised outbreaks, changes in the nature of the disease. And so, that expressly contemplates where there are changes, the ability to be adaptive.


Thanks, Greg. Look, we've been working very closely as a government with the state and territory governments, particularly in relation to international arrivals and the reopening of our borders.

Australian Border Force has done a tremendous amount of work to make sure that they are in a position to support the reopening of the borders.

Internationally, we have very high expectations and requirements of international travellers coming into Australia. That requires them to have a negative PCR test before they are uplifted and there are quite heavy penalties for airlines should they choose to uplift someone who does not have the appropriate vaccination certification or does not have a negative PCR test. So, we have those protocols in place.

On arrival, well, passengers are required to have filled in an Australia Travel Declaration indicating what their vaccination status is and the countries through which they have travelled to come to Australia.

A number of those requirements have been mandated now and there are significant penalties for false declarations. So that's over $6000, can be applied as a fine but also up to a 12-month prison sentence for people who do not declare appropriately on the ATD.

In addition, if it is fraudulently filled out, then potentially there are offences under the criminal code that may well be enforced should they be determined to be appropriate.

And, of course, when passengers arrive here, the Australian Border Force takes a very active role in compliance to make sure that all the proper authorities are in place including the negative PCR test on- before they were uplifted and vaccination status.


Great. Rachel?


Minister, you said earlier that Australia is as well prepared as any country to deal with new variants. So, is shutting the border to certain countries a proportion response?

And secondly, to both Ministers, if I may, this is unlikely to be the last variant of concern that we see, so will you be forming a plan to deal with variants like this in the future when it comes to our borders?


Sure. So, the question on proportionality is an important one and it is a balance and what we've done is follow the medical advice.

You know, a very interesting feature of the entire pandemic, to take you inside the National Security Committee, perhaps, I hope I don't breach any offences here. The Prime Minister always asks, whether it's been Brendan Murphy or Paul Kelly, give me your honest advice, tell me what the facts are, tell me what you think, and that was the same last night.

And Paul gave his advice, that he believed that it would be balanced and proportionate, firstly on Saturday that we close to these countries. Secondly, that in order to deal with the load whilst we gathered information - and it turned out the United States has chosen exactly the same period - that we pause the additional new arrivals, so the commencement of new processes.

And so, we follow on the balanced basis. And that's the answer going forwards that we'll continue to follow. There have been other variants that have emerged where we haven't taken these actions. This was one because of the particular nature of the variant where the recommendation was for a pause.


Sorry, this question is for variants of concern specifically. I mean, there will be other variants of concern.




That may require these sorts of actions.


If actions are needed, we will take them. That's been our approach. But the direction of the country is of a national plan that's opening up.


Just back on the booster shots for a moment, if I can, the UK has halved their waiting time between boosters and their second dose to three months.

Have you spoken to your British counterparts about where they got this advice from? And is it something that Australia would consider doing as well? I know it's before ATAGI at the moment, but can you speak to whether it would be considered?


So, we have, only yesterday, off the back of the international evidence, asked ATAGI to consider it. So, I won't pre-empt that. But as we've done, we've given them a free hand to make their own judgement and we're engaging with the- with the UK very closely.



So, I think this is again, we need to be cognisant of the international evidence and international decisions. But remember the Northern Hemisphere is in winter. And so, boosters in winter make a lot of sense.

We're six months, more than six months away from winter. We know that respiratory viruses circulate more in winter. It's likely that that would be when we really want the boosters to be totally actively working.

There are some scientific reasons behind the reason for a delay in a booster more than, more than three months but it's a balance and that's exactly the sort of issues that I discussed this morning with ATAGI and they are going to look at that now.


I just have a question for Minister Andrews. Australia's involvement in the Solomon Islands has been called not helpful by a Province Premier. He’s accused the Government of holding up a corrupt leadership. What do you make of those comments?


Australia responded directly to a request for support by the Solomon Islands Prime Minister and the Government there. That is exactly what we're doing.

This is a policing matter, it’s not a military matter, and we are there providing support to the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force.

We have made it very clear that our presence there is to assist the police force to restore law and public order as soon as possible. We are not there to provide any interference, support, or to intervene in any way in domestic political matters.


Thank you. Paul?


Minister Hunt, could I please ask what the Commonwealth's position is on the threshold of when we move from the third to the fourth phase of the national plan when we're supposed to have international borders open?

And for Minister Andrews, what would you say to skilled visa applicants and international students who are looking at Australia and the precautionary approach we're taking here and think that Australia is never going to there and it's too big a risk as a destination?


So, again, that would be medical advice and we'll follow the medical advice, that’s under review at the present time, and these are the items being discussed through National Cabinet.


But we've got very high rate of vaccination now, you know, 92 per cent first dose, 87 per cent second dose.




Variants of concern will continue. The Commonwealth must have a view on when we should move from the third to the fourth phase of the plan.


So the position at the moment is, of course, right now, we're in the process of moving through the stages of border reopening. The last part of it would be unvaccinated arrivals.

We're not at a point yet to make that decision. We've always set out the time frames for decisions and those which will be considered at a later time.

Right now, we have to work with the states and territories and we are working with them cooperatively. The National Cabinet is meeting today; the health ministers are meeting collectively today.

And so, the national plan is always under constant review at this point in time. The next phases are the students and the workers, then double vaccinated tourists and the progressive bubbles, and then we'll continue to follow the medical advice and when we believe that that's safe, we would look at unvaccinated arrivals. But that's not today.



And Minister Andrews, that second question for you about people that think that Australia’s approach is too precautionary and they can’t make it their destination of choice.


Australia's response is absolutely appropriate to the risks of the Omicron variant. So, for the skilled workers, and the international students in particular, who were looking to enter Australia post 1 December, I would say to them very clearly is Australia is definitely a destination that you should look towards coming to.

This Government has done an enormous amount of work to reopen our international borders. We haven’t taken a step back with this deferral. We are actually keeping in place the settings that we had already announced.

What we are doing is deferring the opening, pausing it, for a period of 14 days to gather the information that we need so that we can be best prepared to deal with the Omicron variant. That is absolutely the appropriate course of action from the Australian Government.


And last question from Tom.


Minister, thanks. What percentage of the booster stocks are already in the country, and is it possible that there could be a return to the international competition we saw earlier in the year, potentially leaving us exposed?


Well the boosters are the same formula as the primary doses, and so we have ample doses. We actually went through this yesterday with Lieutenant General Frewen; we have ample doses to meet all possible demand in Australia at the present time.

And so, we’re able to meet- we have the capability of delivering 300,000 doses a day, which was what we were doing in the peak period of September and October.

And that, I think, is a very good point to finish on; that I would continue to urge the small number of people who’ve yet to come forward for first doses, to come forward for first doses. Those that are due for their second doses to come forward for their second doses. And if you are due for a booster, please come forward.

But Australians have been magnificent in coming forward for boosters; already 430,000, and as we review where we’re at, be aware that we are one of the best prepared countries in the world. One of the most highly vaccinated, one of the most recently vaccinated, one of the first to commence a whole of nation booster program after Israel, and with one of the lowest rates of loss of life.

So, our job is to keep us safe, but to do it in a balanced, measured way. And as we see that there may be milder symptoms associated with this variant, but- to be determined over the next two weeks, we’ll be cautious but we want to give Australians confidence that we’ve got this. We know how to do it.

Take care everybody.


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