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Doorstop interview about novel coronavirus in Canberra

Doorstop with Senator the Hon Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Professor Paul Kelly, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, about novel coronavirus.

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

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To give a brief overview at the global level, as expected, the number of confirmed cases globally has increased.

The figure is now 44,754 cases. And sadly, the number of those who have lost their lives has increased by almost 100 to 1112 reported deaths in relation to coronavirus.

Australia remains at 15 confirmed cases.

There have been no new cases reported and, obviously, we are meeting daily through the Australian Health Protection Principle Committee, of which both the Chief Medical Officer and the Deputy Chief Medical Officer are members.

In relation to Howard Springs, the Northern Territory Minister Natasha Fyles has confirmed that they are holding daily screenings.

And wherever there is even the mildest of symptoms, they are then leading to tests.

I can confirm that 13 passengers from the second Wuhan flight have been tested for coronavirus and all have been found to be negative.

All were minor symptoms; none were seen as probable, all were seen as unlikely.

But out of an abundance of caution for protection of the passengers and ensuring that there was public confidence, they've been tested and found to be negative.

Shortly before coming here, I also had an update from the team leader on Christmas Island for AUSMAT, the Australian Medical Assistance Team.

I can confirm that three patients have been tested for coronavirus, all-up. One had previously been reported as negative.

All three are negative; two are confirmed negative, one is a provisional negative, with a final to come through.

But there is no expectation that that provisional negative would change.

There was a high-profile case in Victoria, and that case involved a crew member from a ship which arrived at the Port of Hastings, and I'm very aware of it as it's in my own electorate.

That crew member was taken to isolation and tested, and the report from the Victorian authorities was that that member was negative.

All of this means that the containment processes and the quarantine and border protection processes, which the National Security Committee on the advice of our medical experts put in place, is working.

So that's a very important thing.

In addition, though, to bolster that, we will be providing an additional 300,000 surgical masks to the primary health networks for supporting doctors, health workers and also pharmacists, not as a sale item for pharmacists but in case there is a potential patient who reports, for the patient, for anybody associated with them and for pharmacy staff.

So we’re responding to the requests. They'll be provided through the primary health network.

I might turn to Minister Payne for an update on international matters.


Thank you very much, Greg and Professor Kelly, thank you for being here with us as well, and for all the support that you and Professor Murphy and the Australian Health Protection Principle Committee has been providing to Government, which has helped us in our assistance with Australians overseas, in particular their safety, along with the safety of Australians at home, of course remains our highest priority.

And we've consistently followed in the implementation of our decisions the best medical advice provided through that process.

We are aware today of reports that there are 40 new cases of coronavirus identified on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama.

Our embassy in Tokyo is once again seeking urgent advice from Japanese authorities as to whether there are any Australians amongst those new cases.

We have 11 Australians confirmed as testing positive for coronavirus from the Diamond Princess.

They have been taken off the ship and to Japanese medical facilities where, of course, they are being cared for and supported.

In total, the Australian Government has assisted in the safe departure of 538 Australians and permanent residents.

Those Australians and their families are being well looked after in both Darwin and on Christmas Island, as the Health Minister has said, and all that healthcare for them there is being provided by Australian Medical Assistance Teams.

We know that this is a very stressful time. It's stressful for the people affected by the virus.

It's stressful for those who are experiencing disruption to their families and in their activities.

But I do urge Australians who are overseas, who are in impacted areas, to continue to follow all health precautions that we are updating regularly on the Smart Traveller website.

And I do remind Australians that our travel advice for travel to China remains at level 4, which is do not travel. Thanks very much, Greg.




Just to add to what the two ministers have said, we continue to meet on a daily basis with the Australian Health Protection Principle Committee – that's myself, the Chief Health Officer Murphy and the Chief Health Officers from all of the states, and external experts – to consider all of the issues that have been raised by the two ministers and many others in relation to the health and protection of the Australian people here in Australia.

We're very closely connected, internationally.

In fact, I had a conversation just a few hours ago of a representative from the research community here in Australia who works in the WHO Collaborating Centre on Influenza Viruses in Melbourne.

She’s at an international meeting in the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, looking through what are the things that we need to find out about this virus, how it’s spread, how to contain the spread, what are the clinical aspects, the public health aspects, the laboratory aspects, vaccines, clinical trials, et cetera.

There are nine major topics. So experts have been gathered around the world to look at those matters and we're very much connected with that.


Minister Payne, will you be extending the ban on foreign nationals coming, leaving from, or transiting through mainland China?


Well, these are matters for the health advice that we will receive from the Chief Medical Officer and members of the committee, as the Deputy Chief Medical Officer has just said.

And Minister Hunt and I will, of course, consider those with the National Security Committee in due course.


Why are you not able to make that decision now though? Because there’s a lot of businesses who are struggling.


Well, the Australian Government has put in place a very clear process for the way in which we are considering these issues.

They are entirely (inaudible) in the health advice that we receive, particularly for movements internationally. And we indicated that we would review that in due course and that will happen.


Minister Payne, what material assistance is Australia providing to Indonesia to deal with this? Are we sending them testing kits, chemical (inaudible) to enable them to test for this specific coronavirus?


Well, we obviously work very closely with Indonesian health authorities on their requirements.

We have been able to provide support of that nature in our immediate Pacific region. And if that is the support that’s necessary, that’s what we’ll provide.


(Inaudible) asked for those.


Paul, I think, has some additional.


Yes. So, with your Department and Minister, we worked with Indonesian authorities yesterday; confirmed that they do have testing available, both in their reference laboratory in Jakarta and also in regional laboratories including Surabaya.

And so, that's available. So far, the official stance from Jakarta and from Indonesia is they have no cases, and we’re monitoring that on a daily basis.


And as I said, if further support is required, then we'll discuss that with Indonesian authorities.


Minister Payne, there was report in The Guardian today about an Australian toddler who is trapped over in China without her parents. Can anything be done for her and other unaccompanied minors?


I think it is important to remember that our focus on the assisted departures that we have carried out so far has been on isolated and vulnerable Australians – those who have been usually in the area for a short period of time, perhaps taking a vacation or so on – and we have worked very hard, including taking over 10,000 calls, to deal with these issues, to support those families.

Our effort has been to try to keep families together where possible.

And so, what we've been able to do is to assist those Australians to leave Wuhan who are cleared for departure by Chinese travel authorities.

Now, that does not include the family members of Australian children who are Chinese nationals and who are not Australian permanent residents.

In that case, it makes it very complex, where a child is unaccompanied for an entire journey to Australia, potentially for a period of quarantine, and our strong advice is that children in this situation are best to remain in the care of their families, in Wuhan or in Hubei province, while China's travel restrictions are in place.


Will you consider a third evacuation flight?


We are not considering a third flight at this time.

We have consistently indicated, as I said, that we would prioritise those very vulnerable and isolated Australians, and we've assisted those people and family groups who meet those definitions for whom we are able to achieve travel clearance from Chinese authorities.

With Qantas' help, of course, that numbered 538 people. Qantas has now ceased flights into and out of China.

That also has an impact on our ability.

And of course, people's personal circumstances have changed. Some people did not make flights - in fact, 70 in total. And that has been part of our consideration.

But in this case, we are not considering further assisted departure flights.


Sorry, Minister Payne. Australians in Wuhan have told the ABC that they registered their details with DFAT but were not actually notified of those two departing flights. What do you say to them?


I would say that DFAT took, as I’ve just said to your colleague, over 10,000 calls to our consular emergency team in relation to these assisted departures; that we've also processed 2000 calls into the Australian Embassy in China and our consulates.

There has been an extraordinary effort on the part of consular staff to contact all of those who had sought assistance, and I am confident that they made every possible effort to do that.


Minister Payne, those Australians that are in- they’re off that ship in Japan, they are in hospital, what consular assistance is being provided to them over there? And is there any scope of a plan to evacuate them if necessary?


Well, they are in the very good healthcare of the Japanese Government and the Japanese authorities. We are working closely with Japan in relation to that.

And consular assistance that we are able to be provided will be given by officials in Tokyo – well, in Japan more broadly – and we have sought any requests from those individuals and their families.


And what about those still on the ship? A lot of people are saying they're quite frustrated. As you can imagine, it would be quite a difficult situation to be in. What's the feedback you’ve been receiving from them?


Well, there's no question, it is a difficult situation.

No question at all. But the quarantine process to help stop the spread of the coronavirus on the vessel is being managed by the Japanese authorities.

So, we are working cooperatively with them.

No country has indicated it intends to carry out an assisted departure of citizens from Japan, and Australia most certainly does not intend to do that.


I might just add something there.

We realise that the situation on the ship is very stressful for those who are there.

The Japanese authorities are doing an extraordinary job, both with the patients, but also those who are in quarantine on the ship.

And it is a difficult situation. One of the things –although I'm not aware of any specific calls in relation to this – but one of the things we are aware of is that it could create anxiety, could trigger pre-existing mental health conditions.

So, we're working with and seeking to provide a dedicated mental health line for those that are on the ship.

And I just repeat, we are working with and seeking to provide a dedicated mental health line.

We look to have that done within the course of the next 24 hours, and once that's established, both the counselling and the line in Foreign Affairs and Trade will seek to contact all Australians who are on the ship.

We're getting ahead of issues, but we recognise that the stress is real and we really feel for those people who are in that situation.


(Inaudible) that there might be a possibility of a safe passage for students. Is there anything more in that? Is that likely to happen? Or are students in the same situation as all other travellers?


No change.


(Inaudible) But no change or no.


No change at this point. What.


Is that still a possibility or (inaudible)?


So, as the Foreign Minister set out, in due course, exactly as the Prime Minister and yourself actually announced when this situation was put in place, we’d review at the end of the 14 weeks (correction – 14 days), the travel ban.

Our guidance has been very cautious to indicate that the medical circumstances haven't changed and we've had no advice to that.

We’re being forward-leaning in the general.

However, different proposals are being put, which the AHPPC, the medical professionals, are assessing, and if they believe that anything is appropriate, then they will put that to us.


So, you could have a situation where some travellers from China (inaudible)?


Well, I don't want to- I don't want to change expectations.

At the moment, the position is very clear: there's a travel ban.

There's no change in that travel ban, and it's the medical advice which will guide what we do.


How much weight are you putting on the economic impact, though? I mean, is the medical advice gospel, and if the doctors say no travel-


There is a very clear national strategic set of priorities here.

Priority one, which was established without question, was containment and protection of the virus so to protect Australian citizens at home.

The second and related priority, which the Foreign Minister has overseen – and to have achieved these two flights has been extraordinary – is the protection and support for Australians abroad.

And the third is public confidence. Against that background, we are very aware, like, deeply aware, of the economic consequences.

But the consequences of contagion within Australia at an economic - let alone more significantly, a human level - would be extraordinary.

And so that's why we have that clear set of strategic priorities that guide the NSC.


Did you say that all of the cases on Christmas Island are being cleared?


Yeah. So there have been.


And was there four in all?


Three. Three tests. Two- all three have provisional clearance, and two have a secondary test which has been cleared. The expectation is that the third case will match the provisional test.

There is an almost perfect match between the two.


Does that mean the first people will be leaving next week?


17th for the first group, and the 19th for the second.


Professor, can we just- on the quarantine period, 14 days obviously at the moment, has there been discussion about that being longer? I know there are reports suggesting that it should be more than 14 days.


There are also suggestions than it should be shorter than 14 days.

So, we’ve discovered a lot about this virus very quickly.

When you think two months ago, we didn’t know it even existed.

Just over a month ago was the first time we heard about cases in China.

So things have gone very rapidly.

So there are still some things, many things, we don’t know about this virus.

One of those is that incubation period.

We’re using 14 days as a precautionary approach.

It’s most likely less than that.

I know there was reports overnight of it possibly being longer but that was just a single report and I wouldn’t take too much into that.


So, as we finish, I do want to say one thing and I want to thank Australians and the media, who’ve responded very positively to the messages from the Government, the medical community and the Opposition in relation to support for Australians of Australian-Chinese background.

As the Chief Medical officer said yesterday, this is about where people have travelled, not about who they are.

And supporting Australians of Australian-Chinese background is an immensely important thing to do but there has been up- swell of positive support, and we thank you for that.

Thank you very much.


Thanks everyone.

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