This content relates to a former minister

Doorstop interview about novel coronavirus in Darwin

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt, Northern Territory Health Minister, Natasha Fyles and Professor Brendan Murphy, Australian Government Chief Medical Officer speaking about novel coronavirus in Darwin on 8 February 2020.

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

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Greg Hunt, the Federal Health Minister, of course; Brendan Murphy, our Chief Medical Officer, and Di Stevens who is the Acting Chief Health Officer (inaudible).

I’ll hand to Minister Hunt to make (inaudible) comments and then to Brendan, and then also to myself and Di. We’ll all be available for comment. Thank you.


Look, thanks very much to Natasha and to the Northern Territory Government for having us here.

To Di Stevens as the Acting Chief Health Officer, and obviously Professor Brendan Murphy, the Chief Medical Officer of Australia.

Three months ago I had the privilege of coming here, actually with Natasha, to the National Critical Care and Trauma Centre to see the work of AUSMAT, to look at their capacity.

In that time, since then, we have now deployed AUSMAT on Australian soil, not just once, but twice.

The first two times that that has ever happened, once through the bushfires where they have provided extraordinary support to the people of Victoria and New South Wales – and we thank and honour all of those who've been involved.

In addition, of course, they have assisted with the coronavirus, the repatriation of Australians from Wuhan on the first flight, and they are now supporting those Australians on Christmas Island.

And the latest advice that we have from AUSMAT is that all Australians on Christmas Island remain symptom free.

There have been no positive tests, and that's a tremendous sign that the first assisted departure, the first humanitarian mission guaranteed that they would implement the strongest safety procedures, and that has occurred.

And so far, we’ve had a very positive result

Around the world, we know that the coronavirus continues to expand. The latest figures I have are that there are 31,428 confirmed cases. There are now 638 confirmed lives lost, sadly.

We are in a position in Australia where 15 cases have been confirmed. - no additional cases today. All are well and three have cleared the virus, which means that there remain 12 active cases.

In addition, I can also confirm that there are seven Australians from the cruise ship currently in Yokohama who have been tested and diagnosed as having coronavirus, and they are in the very, very good care of the Japanese health and medical authorities.

However, there are more Australians in need of support in Wuhan, and we are now currently undertaking an operation to secure those Australians.

We have made sure that arrangements are in place to put the highest possible health security actions into operation.

Our first priority as a government is to protect the health and security of Australians. Alongside that, we also have a duty to protect and support those Australians who are overseas.

As a consequence, we will be proceeding with a second mission and assisted departure for humanitarian purposes to Wuhan.

We are expecting that that will be completed over the course of the weekend subject to all of the appropriate clearances and we've had very good support from China, and subject to Wuhan Airport being available. But at this stage, all of the signs are good.

As part of that, an AUSMAT team has been dispatched, and we expect that that plane, as I say, will arrive over the course of the weekend.

The National Security Committee, as I have indicated, has met repeatedly. They have considered contingency options, Christmas Island has reached-temporarily reached its quarantine capacity and that should clear within 10 days.

In the interim, as a temporary measure, we have also sought out the best contingency options for quarantine and Howard Springs was identified.

The consultation was had with the Northern Territory Government. The Prime Minister has spoken to the Northern Territory Chief Minister, and the Home Affairs Minister has spoken to both community leaders, to the Chief Minister. Border Force has been in constant contact.

And I can confirm that Howard Springs will be operating as a temporary quarantine facility.

I can confirm that Howard Springs will be operating as a temporary quarantine facility, to house the second evacuation flight, once it arrives in Darwin.

I want to thank the Northern Territory Government and I want to say this: that this operation is predicated on the safety, the security and the appropriateness of this facility.

The Chief Medical Officer, who will speak shortly, and AUSMAT, have certified that it is not just safe but it is an outstandingly clean, isolation facility.

It protects those who will be arriving, all of whom are expected to be in very good health and it protects the community around it. Safe, secure and appropriate.

I would finally say this – that each person coming will have been screened not just once or twice but on five occasions. Firstly, under the supervision of the Chinese authorities in Wuhan, twice on the plane by AUSMAT personnel, and then once on reception at the RAAF base, and once on arrival at Howard Springs.

And with all of these actions in place, it's about care support for Australians in need. It's about the safety, the security and the appropriateness for the community.

We couldn't have done this without the cooperation of the Northern Territory Government. We couldn’t have done this without the amazing support of AUSMAT. This is a truly national facility based here in Darwin that is protecting Australians and supporting Australians.

Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy.


Thank you Minister. So my task today is to reassure the community of Darwin in particular the community around Howard Springs, that there is no risk whatsoever in having this quarantine facility here.

There is no way that I, or any of my medical colleagues in Territory Health or nationally would even pose the slightest potential risk to anyone in the community.

We are talking about people, who as the Minister said, have been well screened.

They are well and we don't believe people are very infectious at all- if at all when they are well.

But nevertheless, we are practicing the highest possible standards of separation and quarantine under intense public health supervision by the AUSMAT team who will be present 24 hours a day at this facility.

You cannot- even someone who is unwell, cannot pass on this infection unless you're in close contact less than a metre with droplets spread.

This virus doesn't spread over- through the air for many metres; it cannot do that.

We are having people located hundreds of metres away from any near community or other residents in the community.

So this is completely safe. Anyone who became unwell would be immediately quarantined and taken to Darwin Hospital, but the experience, as Minister Hunt has said on Christmas Island, is these people have been remaining well so far, and it's quite likely that no one will become unwell.

But if they do, all of the appropriate quarantining facilities and transport facilities will be there to take them to Darwin hospital.

I repeat: there is no way that we would put anyone in the community at even the slightest risk. And I personally will guarantee the safety of the community around Howard Springs.

I would also, with the Minister, thank the Northern Territory Government, the AUSMAT team, Territory Health for allowing us to use this absolutely outstanding facility which will be a wonderful place for these people to be quarantined without any risk whatsoever to the community. Thank you.


The Northern Territory Government, the Prime Minister reached out to our Chief Minister and requested the use of this facility.

Territorians, I think more than any other Australians, understand that in a time of need it’s our job to step up.

These are Australians. They’re fit, they’re healthy. They’re caught up in what is a global medical emergency and it is our duty to provide assistance to help get them right.

But I can absolutely assure the Northern Territory community that their safety comes first.

You have just heard from the Chief Medical Officer of Australia. Behind me, I have our acting Chief Health Officer. I have sought, the advice this morning to make sure that the Northern Territory community’s health is an absolute priority.

So of course we are doing this because it is the right thing to do. But Territorians need to understand that their health has come first in this decision.

And I will now hand to any other members here for questions from the media. Thank you.


Thank you. Happy to take any questions.


Do we know when the flight is leaving China and arriving in Darwin?


So, we are expecting arrival over the course of the weekend. It's always subject to customs and clearance and immigration, and in particular the screening process.

And the Chinese authorities are being absolutely thorough, so we are looking at it arriving over the course of the weekend.

The other thing I would say is that we've had confirmation- I had a briefing not just from AUSMAT here today, but also from the Border Force, Defence, and logistical personnel at the airport, Howard Springs will be ready to receive as of tomorrow.


And Howard Springs has capacity of 3500 people, it's going to get 280 in first. Can individual tranches of people be separated so that the clock doesn't restart if more people arrive?


Yes, it can. And that is exactly the AUSMAT proposal.

So whilst Border Force is the lead for the facility, AUSMAT is the lead for medical operations and AUSMAT has actually put in place a small group strategy.

That small group strategy’s aim to make sure that in the unlikely event there were any contagious cases, which of course we cannot rule out, that they would be confined to the small group.

So they are global leaders and global experts in disease control. They have just come back from Samoa where they were taking a lead on helping to contain measles, a more infectious condition.

And we really have the best in world leaders on this operation.


How many people are you expecting? Are you expecting all the beds to fill up? And how long do you expect that they will need to be at the camp for?


So 14 days is the quarantine period as recommended by the Chief Medical Officer.

On this flight at this stage, we're expecting over 200. The final number will be confirmed once all of the boarding processes have been completed.

And at this stage, we are planning for contingencies in case the other elements are required. But the Prime Minister's position, the Federal Government's position is Christmas Island is the first port of call, the first priority.

At the moment, for quarantine purposes, it's full. But that of course will clear once the first Wuhan flight has completed their period of quarantine.

This facility, we’re advised, has quarantine capacity of over a thousand (inaudible) exactly for the small group separation which was talked. 

Has any consideration been given to moving the people from Christmas Island here?



Which part of China will these evacuees be coming from? Just Hubei province?


This is a flight exclusively from Wuhan and Hubei province.


Will they be allowed to use all of the facilities like what Inpex workers could?


I might turn over to the Chief Medical Officer. 


So the AUSMAT team will ensure that people are kept (inaudible) and safe.

All of the workers on the site will be protected and avoid during contact, so there's no risk of exposure to them.

And the small groups of people- if the public health authorities and AUSMAT team feel it’s appropriate, should be able to use facilities, but in their small groups, appropriately cohorted and appropriate protective (inaudible).

We have to make sure that there isn’t mingling of the whole group in case somebody does become unwell.


So in a case like that, where- what sort of facilities would they be able to use?


I think we will respect of the AUSMAT team. They’re still assessing what's appropriate to be used at the moment, but they should be able to use a number of the recreational facilities in small groups under supervision with protective gear to make sure that no staff or any workers in the facility have any risk of exposure.


One of the things that has been very focused on first and foremost is quarantine control. That is the purpose, the reason for this operation.

But as part of that, they want to make sure that families in particular, but everybody who is there, is given the best environment that they can. So recreation in small groups is an important part of their planning as they’ve just set out.


And what's your response to, not just the Howard Springs residents, but the business owners as well who are sort of fearing that, you know, tourism and their business is just going to go down because of this?


To the residents, what we are giving is absolute certainty that this is the highest standard of care.

What it does do as well is that it shows that this facility can be used very constructively- and this is about Australia as a country, Australia as a people coming together to support each other in a time of need.

And it says that the Howard Springs people are incredibly generous, and so we want to say not just- there’s reassurance, but we also want to thank them.

And the Chief Medical Officer and I are about to meet with senior representatives of the community - not only to reassure, but also to thank them on behalf of Australia.

So Australia says thank you to Howard Springs, to Darwin, to the Northern Territory, and to the Northern Territory Government.


Is there any reason why there wasn't any community consultation?


This decision was made yesterday on the basis of contingencies.

The consultation began immediately with the Northern Territory Government.

I know Minister Dutton has spoken with a number of community leaders, both parliamentary representatives, council and also school.

And we’re about to do that as well.

So that's the reality of a fast moving operation.

It's been part of the national plan to have a principal facility in Christmas Island and the contingency.

We are facing a global challenge, but here in Australia we're fortunate because we are at the global forefront of preparedness, in large part because of the incredible capacity of AUSMAT.

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