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Doorstop interview about coronavirus (COVID-19)

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt and the Hon. Dan Tehan MP, Minister for Education; the Hon. James Merlino MP, Victorian Minister for Education, Deputy Premier of Victoria; and Professor Brendan Murphy, Australian Chief Medical Officer speaking about coronavirus (COVID-19).

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

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GREG HUNT:         

Thank-you very much to everyone for joining us today. I’m delighted to be joined by Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan, the Deputy Premier of Victoria and State Education Minister James Merlino, the Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy, and we have Education representatives here as well.

I’d like to give an update on the Coronavirus, and then we’ll talk about an important development (inaudible).

As of today, the latest figures that have are that there are 77,617 cases of coronavirus that have been diagnosed and confirmed around the world. Sadly over 2300 people, 2356 people precisely have lost their lives to coronavirus.

We also know that tomorrow, 266 people from the third group who have been in quarantine in Australia are set to return home.

They have been at the Howard Springs temporary quarantine facility in Darwin.

They came on the evacuation flight from Wuhan which the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade arranged, in which Qantas very professionally and thankfully carried out with the support of our AUSMAT crew.

What that has seen is a third successive and successful quarantine operation being completed. There have been no cases recorded in any of those first three operations.

The general population numbers in Australia remain at 15 that has been stable for some weeks. Ten of those 15 have recovered and returned home.

It is important to advise that precisely as the Chief Medical Officer had anticipated and as expected, cases have been diagnosed within the new group that have come specifically from the Diamond Princess.

This reaffirms the decision we made not just to conduct an airlift but to ensure that these people were in supervised quarantine in a separate area within the Howard Springs facility.

There are now six Australians who have been on the Diamond Princess and have been brought to the quarantine facility in Howard Springs who have been diagnosed with coronavirus.

All are being or have already been repatriated in some cases by medevac to their home states; one to Western Australia, one to South Australia and today, the four new cases - which brings to a total of six, - will include two to Victoria and two to Queensland.

All are well and in a stable condition but they had been diagnosed and therefore they've been put into an isolation and containment process before being medevacked to their hospitals.

As I say, this was both anticipated and forewarned but it also explains the reason we made the difficult decision to impose a supervised quarantine regime.

More broadly, however, all governments have received advice from the medical experts. The chief health and medical officers of all states, territories and the Commonwealth.

And if I may, the advice received is that COVID-19 has been contained in Australia with no new cases in the general population in the last week.

In addition, the advice that comes from the medical officers goes on: there has been an apparent slowing in case numbers in other provinces of Mainland China suggestive of better containment.

So in short, what we have seen is a reduction from over 700 cases a day outside of Hubei across Mainland China, down to below 70.

And this is a very important international development, backed up by what we have seen in Australia.

And so as a consequence of that, the- what is known as the Australian Health Protection Principals Committee has recommended to the Federal Government and to all of the governments, that current containment measures need continual review for proportionality and in particular, they have recommended that the ability of Border Force to provide case by case exemptions be continued, and that in particular, that should include consideration of Year 11 and 12 secondary school students from Mainland China, excluding Hubei.

And so we have considered that, accepted that advice and there will be a limited number of cases on a double green-light basis.

The Commonwealth has to approve and each state and territory has to approve.

But this advice from the health officials has been unanimous, it has been accepted by the Commonwealth and the states, and then it will be up to each individual state to adhere to the circumstances.

So I want to thank our medical experts. Ask the Chief Medical Officer to briefly explain the advice and the state. And then finally turn over to our two education ministers. Thank you.


Thanks Minister. So as Mr Hunt said, we are confident that if we allow in a small number of additional people from Mainland China, that’s not going to pose any material increase in risk to the population.

We are already, as you know, allowing in Australian citizens and permanent residents and the good news in the last few weeks from Mainland China has been that there have been very, very few exported cases of this disease from Mainland China.

The last official count I saw was only about six and we've certainly seen none in this country.

So we think that a small increase as proposed, is Year 11 and 12 students represent a fairly relatively small number of students, but if the state and territory chief health officers and public health units are confident that they can be home isolated for the 14 days - the same conditions that we're requiring for everybody who's come from Mainland China - that could get them back into the country without posing any material risk to our population.

But it's up to the state and territory health authorities and it’s clearly up to the schools to want to do that too.

So we're not imposing anything, we're saying that this is a pathway where all- if everything’s ticked, that can go ahead.

Just on the on the situation in- from the people who've come back from the Diamond Princess.

As Minister Hunt said, we now feel very strongly that our proposal, our plan to quarantine those people, even though many of them felt that they'd had 14 days of proper quarantine on the boat, was completely justified.

It does seem clear that there was some ongoing transmission of the virus on the boat in those last few days, as we've seen from those six people who have been tested positive over the last two days.

Fortunately, as Minister Hunt said, they remain well and it is one of the most positive things about this virus that a lot of people do have very mild disease.

So I think I'll stop there, thank you, and hand over Minister Tehan.

DAN TEHAN:          

Thanks Brendan. So just to be very clear, based on the expert medical advice, the Australian Government in collaboration with state and territory governments will allow on a case by case basis, Year 11 and Year 12 students from China, outside of Hubei province, to be able to come to Australia to resume their studies.

Now this will be based on a 13 step process. So it is a strict pathway that we are adopting.

I would like to thank all my counterparts at the state and territory level, all the education ministers at the state and territory level, who I've been in contact with over the last 24 hours, who have supported this decision.

It is incredibly important that we get some normality back to the international student market. Now this is a small step that we are taking.

As I've said, it is a precautionary step because it requires a 13 step process.

It requires the green-light of the state and territory governments, each state and territory government. There is no compulsion for state and territory governments to adopt this, but if they want to, then the Commonwealth Government will work with state and territory authorities, both education authorities and health authorities, to allow on a case by case basis, Year 11 and Year 12 Chinese students to return to Australia.

We will obviously, based on the medical advice next week, also then look at international tertiary education students.

Now that will be done next week and will be once again based on the medical expert advice. At this stage, we are looking at Year 11 and Year 12 students.

But the medical advice has said that in a week we could look at what would happen with tertiary education students but no decision has been taken with regards to tertiary education students and no decision will be taken until we get the relevant medical advice which would say steps could be taken.

I’d now like to handover to the Deputy Premier of Victoria and the Victorian Education Minister James Merlino.

And James, can I just thank you for the collaborative way that you have dealt with the Commonwealth Government since the coronavirus has impacted our international education market.

It is greatly appreciated by the Commonwealth Government and by me in particular, and I thank you for that.


Well thanks very much Dan, thank you for those comments. And this has been an issue- a significant international issue and there’s been strong collaboration and cooperation between the Commonwealth Government and state and territory governments.

So I’m really pleased here, today, to be joining both Greg as Federal Health Minister, Dan Tehan as Federal Education Minister, in this small but important step forward for our international students.

I want to say every step of the way, every piece of advice that we've given schools, both government and non-government, has been based on the expert medical advice of both Brendan at a national level and Victoria's Chief Health Officer, and this is the next step forward in that respect.

I'm also joined by Jill English. Jill is the principal of Strathmore Secondary College which is a fantastic secondary school here in Melbourne. Has a really strong international student program, some 70 students as part of their international student program.

And the announcement that we're making today impacts on six of those students who currently remain in China.

This has been a significant issue for all our schools in Victoria.

We have some 389 VCE students in Mainland China, the highest of all state and territories; New South Wales I think is around 153 and then there are other state and territories have a smaller number.

But this has been a significant issue raised with me by principals.

Universities have some flexibility in terms of their timelines and what they can change to meet the needs of international students that are caught up in the coronavirus and the travel restrictions.

It's much more difficult in VCE; every day counts, every week counts. And principals have been saying to me, as soon as we're able, can we prioritise VCE students?

And that's exactly what we're doing today. It will be as both Greg and Dan said, on a case by case nature.

The students will need to be both screened in China, screened when they arrive in Australia and have 14 days in self isolation.

But it will give the schools much greater ability to engage with those students in terms of their teaching and learning.

So Jill will be able to answer questions from a on the ground perspective as a school delivering international education.

But from the Victorian Government, this is a welcome step forward. Hopefully we'll be in a position in the next little while to further enable tertiary international students access, but this is a small but important step forward.


Open to questions.


Can you just clarify – I know you said the numbers for Victoria and New South Wales for senior school students, but Australia-wide, how many Year 11 and 12 students are in China, are expected to potentially be eligible for (inaudible)?

DAN TEHAN:          

Well there's some 760 students approximately in China. So we would anticipate that a large proportion of those might consider to use this step by step exemption, but ultimately, it will be up to the individual student and of course, individual states and territories wanting to participate in the strict pathway that we've put in place to enable those students to return to Australia.


And can you just clarify – the total number of coronavirus infections in Australia after the latest numbers from the Diamond Princess ship. Is it correct, including those people who have already recovered, is that number now at 21?


Twenty-one is the correct figure. That's 15 in the general public, all of whom were either travellers from or associated with people who had been travelling in Wuhan, and then six who have been on the Diamond Princess; one from Western Australia, one from South Australia, two from Queensland and two from Victoria.


And can you just clarify earlier comments about the virus being contained in the general population of Australia. There’s been a lot of community concern, sadly people avoiding places like your local Chinatown just because their- of misinformation and people being frightened about catching it.

I guess, how would you reassure those people that this virus is no longer spreading in mainland Australia?


So I think the advice of the medical experts which is written down and published, it’s publicly available, COVID-19 has been contained in Australia, is the language of the chief health and medical officers around the country.

And so we've been able to do that through immense community cooperation, cooperation with the states and the work of the federal medical authorities.

That isn't to say that this will always be the case, but we are doing as well as anybody around the world could hope to do.

And against that background, it's safe, as the Victorian Government has said, and as the Chief Medical Officer has said, to be out in the community.

We encourage people to be out in the community to, whether it's a Chinese restaurant; I was down at Wok on Bay again last night with Tommy and this time it was the steak and black bean sauce.

But, you know, whether it's to visit the shopping centres in Chadstone and other places that have been suffering or Little Bourke Street.

So, be out there; support your Chinese Australians, support the community and in so doing give yourself the chance to be really part of the community.

DAN TEHAN:          

I had sizzling pork with Ginger last night, it was really good. 


More broadly, obviously, this is a huge global issue with more than 70-




70,000 infections. I guess, do you think we’re getting to a point where we’re reaching the peak- the tail-end of the spread of the virus in a global situation or is that too early to say?


Chief Medical Officer.


So I think that’s too early to say at the moment. So there are some good signs in China of containment outside of Hubei, but Hubei province is still showing growth and growth in mortality.

But it is locked down at the moment. There are concerns about the size of outbreaks in some other countries such as Japan, Thailand, Singapore and Korea.

They're all countries with pretty good health systems and they're working very hard to control that. But- so we are still in a stage where we have to be very cautious about making predictions about containment at the moment.

But as Minister Hunt said, in Australia, we have had no evidence whatsoever of community transmission.

The only people who've transmitted in Australia were a tiny tour group from Wuhan who were in a bus, a small mini bus together. No one in the Australian community has transmitted this virus.

We've tested thousands and thousands of people in this country. It is completely safe to go out in your community and I have said many times before, abhor any xenophobia that is being exhibited in some parts of the community.


(Inaudible question).


So along with Brendan, the Prime Minister and I visited the Doherty Institute here in Victoria, the first place in the in the world to grow and share the virus.

They're working very closely with the University of Queensland, so this is an extremely promising development. This breakthrough on the path to vaccine here in Australia is a world leading development.

We should be immensely proud. Just this week we've announced $2 million to help with the search for a vaccine.

DAN TEHAN:          

Could I just add to that Greg? Sorry.



DAN TEHAN:          

But- just, can I just commend the University of Queensland for the work that they've done and it really shows the importance of education and the importance of our international education sector.

The University of Queensland has gone beyond to try and make sure that they can seek a cure for the virus, put in place a vaccine. They're doing outstanding work.

And it shows how important, once again, education, whether it be at the school sector or at the higher education level is to our nation.


Has the recent outbreak in South Korea had any influence on this decision?


No because this relates to students from Mainland China. What I would do is say this, that as Brendan and the chief health officers have said, we've seen signs of increasing containment in Mainland China and that's allowing the world to consider first steps towards normalisation.

Our first job is to keep Australians safe.

Our second job is to begin the path of returning to normalisation.

And today we take a first careful, medically advised, cautious step which is about protecting Australians, but allowing steps back on the path to recovery. Okay.


When will the ban on international tertiary students be reviewed?


So the health and medical officers around the country have indicated that later this week they will conduct a review.

We have nothing in terms of medical advice.

They’ve signally that that will be conducted later this week.

And then that will be provided to the various governments.

And again, that will depend on the growth and containment outside of Hubei in Mainland China.

It’s very clear, as Brendan said, that in Hubei that is a case in itself where there’s a lot of work still to be done.

But outside of Hubei, in Mainland China, where there has been a very significant reduction in the number of cases daily, that allowed this decision but it’s also meant that the chief health officers will on their volition being reviewing later this week and providing advice to all governments.

Okay. Thank you very much.

DAN TEHAN:          

Thank you.


Thanks James.


Thanks Greg.

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