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Doorstop interview about coronavirus (COVID-19) with the Chief Medical Officer

Read the transcript of a doorstop with Minister Hunt and Professor Brendan Murphy, Chief Medical Officer, about coronavirus (COVID-19) in Sydney.

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

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I’m joined by the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy.

In relation to the global and national developments, sadly we now have approximately 4000 lives lost and 114,000 officially recorded cases and confirmed; 107 countries, including Bangladesh and Albania amongst other new countries that have been confirmed with their first case.

And within Australia, we now have 100 officially confirmed cases and it continues that sadly there have been three lives lost.

In terms of major developments, we have today, the Prime Minister and myself through Professor Murphy, have requested the medical experts to review the status of Italian travel advisories.

We have done that obviously on the basis of the growth in cases over the last 48 hours in particular, and with regards to Italy’s own decisions.

That advice will be forthcoming over the course of the next 24 hours.

Secondly, the Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister, along with the Chief Medical Officer, have met at a roundtable with employers and employees to discuss maintaining workforce and helping those people who are within the workforce that, at some stage, are affected by the virus in terms of their continuity of employment.

I think that's a very important part of preparedness, but also in terms of equity.

Thirdly, we are now in the advanced planning and design phase for telehealth items.

Those are currently being consulted on with the sector.

We want to thank them for their work.

The CMO led a roundtable on Friday, the day after the Prime Minister confirmed that we would be developing that, and pathology items to assist in bringing the private sector into provision of pathology services.

So, all of those, I think, have been extremely important developments.

We continue to work with the medical community, and I want to again thank them.

As I said on the weekend, if over the summer the firefighters and emergency service workers were our national heroes, over the coming months our medical workforce, our health sector, will be the heroes.

We owe them a great deal, and our job is to assist and to support them. And I want to thank all Australians for their part.



Thank you, Minister.

So, the principal development internationally has been the situation in Italy, with, as Minister Hunt said, substantial increase in cases, but also a very substantial increase in deaths, unfortunately, which would suggest that there is a very large outbreak in Italy.

And that's prompted the Italian authorities to take some fairly significant measures.

As you know, they've extended their controls beyond just the northern outbreak region, and they've taken a lot of measures – the sort of measures that a country should take to try and contain and delay further spread.

In Australia, our situation is very much the same as it's been over the last few days.

We have continued to have some cases that have come from contacts of imported cases, some continued cases imported from a range of countries, and some additional cases from the community transmission event that's happened in northern Sydney.

New South Wales and Sydney is still the significantly biggest part of our outbreak in Australia, and clearly New South Wales Health is doing a huge amount of work to track and control the outbreak.

As the Minister has also said, we are working very closely with the health community generally, the whole of the health system, in preparedness and planning, and to move to a new phase with, as the Minister said, telehealth items and the like.

So, I should probably repeat again, because there has been some confusion in the minds of some about who should be tested.

There have been people requesting COVID-19 tests who don't currently warrant the testing.

Our focus at the moment is testing people who are returned travellers who have acute respiratory symptoms: cough, sore throat and the like.

And, contacts of confirmed cases.

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee will be making a recommendation about whether healthcare workers should also be tested in some circumstances, but that recommendation is still to come.

But at the moment, we are not recommending that general members of the community with acute respiratory symptoms: colds, flu, and the like, be tested.

So, I think that's a really important statement.

It may happen at some stage in the future if we have more community transmission than that one episode we've got.

But at the moment, we are not recommending people with acute, cold, flu-like symptoms, unless they are a returned traveller, or unless they are a contact of a confirmed case, be tested.

Thank you, Minister.


Great. And happy to take any questions.


The hotlines – there’s (inaudible) problems. We’ve had problems with it before, but obviously it’s been more guarded. You know, people are told: call the hotline, and it’s not working.


Yeah. So look, I appreciate that. Just prior to coming here, the latest advice I have is that there have now been over 20,000 calls received and answered on the hotline.

The average time waiting until, I think, the last date for which I have the formal times, was the eighth, and the average time waiting was six minutes.

I understand, and I'm very aware that over the weekend there has been some additional pressure on it.

And so we have added additional staff today. We are adding additional staff over the course of the week. I want to thank Australians for their patience.

There are a number of ways that people can seek advice through their general practice, through an emergency department, through their state hotline, or through the federal hotline.

So, there are multiple avenues, but whilst it- on the latest figures, the average waiting time has been six minutes, I am aware that that has increased, and so we've added additional staff today and we'll be adding further staff through the week.


Minister, can I ask, are there any plans to review the 14-day isolation period and potentially cut that time frame down?


That is constantly under review.

We would like to be in lock step with other nations who are also looking at that.

But as the data emerges around the incubation period, it does seem to be more in the 5 to 7-day period, and the 14 days does have a margin for error.

It would help significantly if we could consider a reduction in the incubation period - or in the quarantine time.

At the moment, we are basing our advice from our expert committee, Communicable Disease Network Australia, and international consensus, but that is under very active review.

But no recommendation to change has been made at the moment.


Of the 100 cases in Australia, how many are recovering? And have there been any that have recovered and got it again?


No one has recovered and got it again.

I haven't got the latest update on the number that have recovered, but well over half have recovered.

And all, other than the three who have died, unfortunately, have had pretty mild disease. So, we don't have anyone else that I'm aware of that has severe disease at the moment.


Perhaps the most important information I received over the weekend, and in many ways some of the most important information of the last few weeks is in relation to that question about the capacity for infection.

Although, and I'll let Professor Murphy address the medical side of it, the broad advice that we have received from the medical experts is that it is highly unlikely that people can be reinfected. There is still more international research to do.

The medical experts and the scientists will be monitoring this as probably the top global priority, in a way, because what this does is it gives people a very clear hope that the disease has a certain course, and then it begins to reside.

And that advice, received from both the Deputy Chief Medical Officer and the Doherty Institute over the weekend, is an extremely important development.

Not finalised, not confirmed, but the balance of medical advice.



Correct. And this type of virus, in general, you would expect that once you've had an infection, produced immunity to it, you wouldn't be susceptible to reinfection.

The reason influenza, you can be susceptible to reinfection, is the virus mutates all the time very rapidly.

These types of virus, which is related to the SARS and MERS virus, tend not to have the same sort of mutation.

But we still aren't absolutely sure, as the Minister said, but we think it's unlikely that someone who's cleared an infection would be susceptible to reinfection.


That five to seven days, is that something that we're getting closer to, do you think?


I think you would always want a margin for error in your quarantine period, because you can never be sure.

But I think the data that's coming out of countries like Korea and Japan, where they've studied large numbers, will help supplement the data that's come out of China to give us better information.

So, fairly soon, I would think.


There's an emergency department doctor out of Ryde Hospital today saying that we should do essentially what Italy has done, and have a complete shutdown and quarantine for two weeks, almost complete I think is what she's suggesting; all schools, universities, et cetera, to take the pressure off the health system that is already understaffed and overstretched.

Why is that not (inaudible)?


Do you mind if I start on that and then turn to Brendan?

So, as a Government, our principle has been very clear to take the advice of the medical experts.

And those medical experts have been ahead of the curve here in Australia, and so it's the combination both of the Federal Chief Medical Officer, state chief medical officers, but also informed by the Communicable Diseases Network of Australia.

And so, we'll continue to follow their advice because that is as good as any group of medical experts in the world.

Over to the medical expert.


So, thanks, Minister. So, we don't think- our advice is we're not at that stage.

If we had more sustained community transmission, then we wouldn't hesitate to make recommendations about public gatherings, about schools and the like.

We only have that one episode of fairly limited community transition in Ryde.

I can imagine how the doctor in Ryde who’s been in the thick of that would feel pretty motivated to do more strenuous measures.

But we are reviewing this every single day.

We look at the epidemiology, we look at the pattern; each of the state and territory health departments and I get together, and if there was a reason to make significant public event moves, as you suggest, we would do it.


Professor Murphy, there was a doctor who had two negative swab tests, and then a confirmed case of COVID-19 through an X-ray.

Can you tell us how reliable are those swab tests? And then maybe talk us through how that testing process works?


So, the testing process is taking a swab from the respiratory tract, either the nose or the throat, even better to get one from the lungs.

The testing is looking at the genetic material of the virus, so it's what we call a PCR test. It amplifies up the viral genetic material.

We think, in our hands in Australia, it's highly reliable.

But someone may not always be shedding virus in the upper respiratory tract at one time.

They may have, if they've got a particularly lower respiratory tract involvement, such as in pneumonia, such as you might see on a CT scan, you might occasionally not see a positive test, particularly if the swab hasn't been taken very well.

So, there will be some occasions when it won't be positive, but we think it's very reliable in our hands.


Just on these special respiratory clinics, you say they're being established, but at what point will they actually be opened? And what kind of outbreak, I guess, do we need to see before (inaudible)?


Sure. So there are clinics that have been set up by the state and territory health departments already in most capital cities.

They- but we- the Commonwealth is now setting up a range of additional ones in areas to complement those that have been set up by the state and territory health services.

So, we are working, as we speak, with the Primary Health Networks and the various GP stakeholder groups to identify those practices or locations in the country where we can set up the first of these.

We have to be scalable. You don't want to set up a big clinic in a city that doesn't have any cases at the moment.

So we have to plan for where the action is, and prepare to scale up as required. But at the moment, there are clinics being set up by the state and territories that have.


(Inaudible) a time frame in mind, though?


Weeks. Yeah.


Yeah. Well, I'll add something on this.

Firstly, as was agreed as part of the pandemic preparedness plan, the states were to set up initially, and they've done a great job.

Examples being in South Australia, at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, or at the- they have a drive-through clinic.

In Victoria, there are four hospitals that have already established and are operating clinics.

And I visited Frankston Hospital, which isn't one of those four, which has its own arrangements.

That’s just one of many around the country. The Gold Coast has them and New South Wales is undertaking its own operations.

In addition to that, as we've seen, in Victoria for example, the GPs have already begun to set up processes and we are now working with them to make sure that they're safe.

But they will support those that need it.

So, when you think of it this way, there are multiple ways for people to seek advice: calling ahead to your GP and then through your GP, calling the state hotline, the national hotline, but we do recognise that the additional resources that are required, and being added; the emergency department and the respiratory clinics as they're being established.

And I've got to say, when you think of it, to be able to establish those in real time has been a real achievement by many, but more are coming.


Thank you. Professor Murphy, what are you doing to address confusion over where people should go if they need to be tested?

There’s been reports that GPs are referring to pathology labs that aren't doing the testing. People are receiving conflicting advice.


Yes. I think that's a really important question, and that’s one of the- the national hotline will now be given a very clear script and information about where people should go to get tested, and GPs will be given that information as well.

So, at the moment, it started off- I think everything was going very well until we had a big run on tests on the weekend, and that's caused a little bit of confusion.

But we will make sure that that information is well out there in the hotline, well out there in the minds of GPs; and make sure that those private pathology labs who are now gearing up to take on the testing, which was initially done just by the public health labs, have identified those collection centres where they are going to do them, and that information will be made readily available within days to all health professionals.


And we are in consultation (inaudible). We're in consultation with the private pathology providers about expanding that capacity over the course of the coming days and, this is an important moment, I understand.

When you look at the fact that we’ve been able to contain the cases that came from Wuhan initially; that we’ve been able to collect and treat all of those on the three evacuation flights and to return home everybody from the three evacuation flights who’ve been in quarantine, and to delay the spread, that's been a great collective national achievement.

Now we are entering a period where there are more people who will be in contact, and more people who will be affected.

And so this is the moment where, collectively, all of us have to, again, show that spirit from the summer of supporting each other and recognising that whilst there are challenges, we will absolutely get through this.

There is no question about this.

The news and the advice on the scientific front, that it is far more likely than not that people can only contract this once, means that this is a limited duration.

And I think that's a very important message to Australians.

And so, now is the moment of pressure. So we're upscaling. The states are upscaling. The GPs are upscaling.

And if we can work together in this moment, with a little bit of patience from everybody, understanding that this is a once-in-50-year challenge that we face.

And so for us to be our best selves in this moment, working to the plan that we've got, but to be supporting each other, I think that's an important thing.

Last question.


The cruise industry, the message is: think again before you make a booking. I mean, that's a pretty drastic (inaudible).


Look, this is an example again of the medical experts providing the advice, and the Government accepting and upgrading the travel advisory.

And so, one of the things that people ask: will you be fearless? The answer is yes.

We were one of the first countries in the world to take the very difficult decision to close the borders to non-Australians coming from China, and we did that because it was a combination of medical advice.

I remember getting the call from Brendan one Saturday morning, and by Saturday afternoon, we had convened NSC.

The Prime Minister had taken the chair. He said: let us follow the medical advice; and we did that.

All the other decisions have followed that pattern of fearless decision-making by the medical community and fearless implementation by the Government.

Thank you very much.


Sorry. Can we just have one more question?

Would you consider launching a government app with all the necessary information that people need for COVID-19 updates, and when will that be ready?


So, we’ve already started public information. For example, if people are in hotels in Sydney, you’ll find that there is a very well put together information sheet.

Information sheets through (inaudible) community on the website.

There are differing forms of that, which will evolve in coming days.

Online, we're very open to developing an app, and indeed we will be developing an app as part of this.

And then there are the formal public advice sessions through television and radio and all of the different channels that are available.

Thank you.


Thank you.

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