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Doorstop interview about novel coronavirus in Darwin on 18 February

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 18 February 2020.

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

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So we presently have AUSMAT staff who are on the ground in Japan and we also have other members of the AUSMAT team that are in the air and will be in Japan later today, preparing to bring these Australian evacuees home, to here in the Northern Territory.

The Northern Territory Government is making sure that the health and safety of Territorians comes first but that we also step when the rest of Australia needs us to.

These are grandparents. These are pops and grans who are on the trip of a lifetime, who have been caught up in a medical disaster.

So we are working with the Federal Government to get these people home, but also to make sure that our community is safe and informed. Thank you.


Okay. Look, thanks very much to Natasha, to the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, Professor Brendan Murphy, to his counterpart Di Stevens here in the Territory, and to Len Notaras and the extraordinary AUSMAT team and everybody at the National Critical Care and Trauma Centre, where we are now.

Yesterday, after consultation with both Japanese authorities and the Northern Territory Chief Minister and Natasha, the National Security Committee considered and supported a humanitarian flight for those passengers who were on the Diamond Princess.

The number of infections on that ship has now grown to over 450.

And so, we realised that there has been an ongoing case and that means that we cannot allow people to return without quarantine. So, it's our task to bring them home.

And so there will be a humanitarian airlift which will help bring home these passengers, who, through no fault of their own, have done everything right, but there's been an ongoing infection on the ship.

The situation is that within the first 24 hours, both prior to uplift, and through the flight home, and then on arrival here, there will be five screenings.

One on the ship, carried out in conjunction between AUSMAT and Japanese authorities, two on the flight, one at RAAF base, and one after they arrive here – at Howard Springs.

And at the moment, the flight is scheduled for Wednesday.

The precise time is being determined with the Japanese authorities, which will mean they should arrive here either Wednesday night or Thursday morning, depending on when the departure is being completed from the ship.

The point of us being here is two-fold. One is to thank the Northern Territory.

I have to say that Natasha and the Acting Chief Minister have been fantastic in their support, and before that, the Chief Minister.

The Territory community, in particular, has embraced those who came on the second flight from Wuhan.

The kids have sent letters.

There have been no infections recorded to date in terms of coronavirus. Lots of testing, and Di will know the status of that.

But a very good response from the community, very good response from AUSMAT, the Defence Force, and the whole of the Northern Territory.

And what we see here is that we're protecting Australians, we're protecting Territorians, but we're also reaching out and protecting those who need that support from being overseas, through no fault of their own, being caught up in what is an international epidemic.

So, I might just invite Professor Brendan Murphy briefly.


Thanks, Minister. So, just to follow on from the Minister, can I also thank, from the bottom of my heart, the Territorians for helping with the quarantining of these people, both the first lot and the next lot that are coming.

The first lot, it's been a magnificent operation. It's gone very well.

And as you've heard from the Minister, there's been no positive detections so far and they've settled in very well.

For the second lot, we are going to quarantine them in a completely separate part of the facility, separated by a fence from the first lot, but again, well away from anyone in the community. Some hundreds of metres away.

And we'll have the same security, the same precautions, as we've had with the first lot.

We will ensure that every precaution is taken to make sure there is no risk to the community around this facility. We are very confident.

We are so excited that the AUSMAT team, our internationally famous medical assistance team, has stepped up, run not only the Christmas Island facility but now this facility, and now preparing for the second group.

They've gone over to Japan to bring them home and they will look after them here.

And I can be absolutely confident that they will be very well looked after here, in much better facilities, than being in a tiny cabin on a cruise ship, and will be well looked after by the 24-hour medical assistance, and the community will be completely protected.

So, once again, the Territory people have stepped up and shown their national leadership, and we are incredibly grateful. Thank you.


I'd just like to echo the Chief Medical Officer's thanks to the community.

We have had overwhelming support for this endeavour. And like true Territorians, we've stepped up, above and beyond our weight and provided this measure of safety for the Australian community and for the Australians who’ve been trapped overseas.

I am so proud today to be a Territorian, today and every day, and I thank everybody for their support.

For those in the community that remain anxious, be reassured that you are safe. We are keeping the community safe.

There have been no cases of coronavirus in the group that went to Christmas Island, who have now gone home. There have been no cases of coronavirus identified in this group.

And should we identify a case of coronavirus, we are prepared to deal with that through the Royal

Darwin Hospital and our interstate retrieval mechanisms.

So, the community can be reassured. We are doing the right thing and we are keeping everyone safe.


And Len, just a tiny bit on the operation?


Thank you. Yes. Look, the operation is going extremely well up to this particular point and will continue to go well. AUSMAT, the Australian Medical Assistance Teams, are well-trained.

They're drawn from right around Australia. So that's not just from here in the Territory, but right around Australia.

I'm very thankful to our Minister Hunt and our Minister Fyles for their support. So far, we've had a splendid response.

In Christmas Island, the individuals who have been leaving Christmas Island, have thanked us. Similarly, with the group that are currently at Howard Springs.

We have every confidence in the clinical acumen of the individuals and the support staff that are a part of this whole operation. Thank you.


We are happy to take any questions.


Do you have the finalised numbers at this stage on how many Australians will be on that flight?


So, DFAT is talking to all of the Australian passengers on the Diamond Princess today.

We’ll have a final list later this evening. We’re expecting in the order of 200; it could be less, it could be a few more.

But at this stage, Foreign Affairs is going through the process of contacting everybody, and once we have final numbers we’ll provide them immediately.


Have you had any people who’ve declined your offer to bring them home?


I haven’t had advice on individual cases yet from DFAT.


If people do choose not to take this option for the repatriation flight home, how long will it be before they are permitted to re-enter Australia?


14 days from disembarking the ship.


Do you have any concerns about the situation in Indonesia? We have a lot of people from Darwin who travel to Bali, and there are no recorded cases at the moment in Indonesia.

Are you concerned that perhaps the testing regime there is not-


I might ask Professor Murphy, because the CMO and the Deputy Chief Medical Officer have been leading our engagement with Indonesia.

But we’re monitoring this on a daily basis.

It’s a question that we have been focusing on, and at this stage there are no recorded cases, exactly as you say, but we have been providing assistance.



Thanks Minister.

So, the Indonesians have established testing and they have tested a significant number of people, and fortunately so far they haven't found any positives.

You're right that we are obviously concerned because there's a high amount of traffic between China and Indonesia, and it's a situation we and the Indonesian authorities are watching closely, but there haven't been any cases yet.


Just one more questions about maybe a centre in Queensland. Have we got any confirmation on whether we'll be sending any evacuees there?


No. At this stage, they are coming to Howard Springs and there's no question about that. And our priority for any future mission which might arise would be Christmas Island.


Is everything on track for the departure from Christmas Island tomorrow? And is it likely that they will be the last evacuees who are sent there?


Well, they are the last ones on the island at the moment. I believe there are 36.

We've had 242 who were repatriated yesterday, and they were overwhelmingly thankful. It was a really great example of the Australian spirit.

Those who were quarantined, those who were taking care of them.

And I understand there was a very emotional time at the departure, and they bonded and went very well.

The remaining 36 are due to leave tomorrow, then it takes some time to prepare the facility in case more- there are more people required to fill the spaces.


If more evacuees are needed to come back to Australia, there wouldn't be space in the Howard Springs facility; they'd have to go to Christmas Island?


Look, our position from the outset is that our priority has been Christmas Island. That's our first point of quarantine.

Howard Springs, because of the turnaround of Christmas Island, but also because of the specialised need of obviously a much older demographic.

There are a number of people over the age of 80, there are many over the age of 70, some have particular health needs, and I have to say, the AUSMAT team has put in place very strong protections and support at Howard Springs for them, including an on-site occupational therapist who will be in the facility over the course of the two weeks.


So, more than it's been for this past week with the first group at Howard Springs?


So AUSMAT is – should have – I think there's a team of 16 that's travelling back with them on the plane.

And the – I think 15 will be going directly into quarantine with them, and Len may have others.

But that includes an occupational therapist, and so there's additional support being provided over and above, simply because it's an older demographic.

As Natasha said, these are our mums and our dads, our grandparents, as well as others. And it's our job to bring them home and to care for them, whilst also protecting the Australian and the Territorian communities.


Is there anger and frustration from those – from any of those people – I don't know whether Len or yourself can answer – because they've already been locked up for a couple of weeks, and they have to again?


Well, I can absolutely understand. I have to say that the group we have been most concerned about has been those on ship, simply because of the close confinement.

We’ve set up a mental health hotline and counselling line for them, precisely because of the conditions.

And why this is happening is because what had been a quarantine arrangement in Japan, on the ship, clearly has meant that it's had ongoing infections.

And with ongoing infections, therefore there was no choice.

The medical advice from the Australian Health Protection Principals Committee was clear and categorical that an additional period of 14 days would be required.

So they have our deep sympathy. It must have been a very, very difficult time, and for many it would be frustrating.

But we need to protect and support those Australians who have been on the ship, whilst protecting and supporting the entire containment arrangement in Australia.

And what we see, whilst it's now grown to over 73,000 cases worldwide, and 1800 lives lost, sadly, in Australia the number of infections remains at 15, which is just a testimony to the work of the Territory, of Di and Brendan Murphy, and all of those involved in containing this condition.


A question for Brendan Murphy, but given that we had 99 more confirmed cases aboard the ship overnight, I believe, are these people who are coming here more likely to potentially have contracted the coronavirus and not be showing symptoms yet than the people who came from Wuhan?


That's possible, but the Japanese have been testing very, very actively, including people who are asymptomatic. And so, they've found some cases who are quite well.

The people who are coming on this flight, though, will have been tested negative by the Japanese.

So, they will all have had a proper throat swab sent to the lab and they'll all have a health screen.

And in fact, as the Minister said, they have actually been abiding by this quarantine for two weeks, so we suspect that the risk for most of them is very low.

But because some of them may have been exposed, we're doing this quarantine.

So, potentially there might be a slightly higher risk, but if that's the case, we're absolutely well-prepared for it.


What's the process if someone is found to?


If someone is found to be positive, they will be taken in a contained ambulance, with proper infection control, to the Royal Darwin Hospital.

And if they are from interstate and they want to go home, we can medivac them back to their home state if necessary.

So, they will not stay at the facility at all if they're suspected or proven to have the virus.


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