Date published: 
15 July 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

GREG HUNT:

Thanks very much to everybody for joining us.

I want to give a brief summary of Australian Government support for the situation in New South Wales, and in particular within Victoria with regards to COVID-19.

Around the world we know that numbers are now heading towards 13.3 million cases and well over 575,000 lives lost very sadly.

This reminds us of the gravity, the scale and the scope of this pandemic.

Within Australia, we have seen new reports from New South Wales, 10 cases associated with the Crossroads Hotel.

But all community cases in New South Wales are associated with the Crossroads Hotel.

Shortly before joining you I spoke with the Acting Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly.

He described this as a stable situation and heartening that New South Wales has been able to confine the spread of cases to only those from the Crossroads.

We are on absolutely vigilant watch, but they are testing, they are tracing, they are tracking, they are isolating.

So, they are taking those strong steps.

One thing which we are doing is we will be providing an additional 500,000 masks to aged care facilities in the western suburbs of Sydney, those that have been identified by the New South Wales Minister for Health and New South Wales Health as needing to have mandatory use of PPE over the course of the coming weeks.

That's an important part of the Commonwealth's contribution to provide that support, to provide that assistance.

New South Wales is stable and whilst the numbers remain a concern, the advice of the Chief Medical Officer is the speed and the focus of the tracing program and the fact that the community cases have been contained to a link to the Crossroads Hotel is heartening.

Turning to Victoria, obviously 238 cases today.

These numbers, as the Victorian Chief Health Officer has said, are stable but they are deeply concerning.

So, it is a very high level, a concerning level but nevertheless there is an element of stability.

It's too early to say whether it will remain stable.

We are in as Victorians, we are in as Melburnians, the great fight of our lives.

But people are rising to the occasion. They are distancing. They are being tested in record numbers. They are cooperating with the tracing program, and I want to thank them and thank our extraordinary medical professionals.

Whether it's the pathologists, the aged care workers, the chemists or of course our nurses and our doctors and our public health officials for all of their work.

Having said that, we are stepping in, having offered and Victoria having requested with additional support.

In particular, there will be additional military support for the additional needs and workload which the public health unit of the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services is facing.

The number one task as a public health unit is to assist with the tracing program to ensure that we are able to track down each case every day and to focus on that contact tracing.

So, we will be providing a team of logisticians and other ADF personnel at the request of the Victorian Government to assist the Chief Health Officer and The Deputy Chief Health Officer because of the growth in case numbers.

That team will be led by a one-star general equivalent, Commodore Mark Hill from the Australian Navy, a specialist in operations, supported by Colonel Bec Taylor from the Australian Defence Force, from the army, a specialist in logistics.

And under Mark Hill and Bec Taylor they will have a team of logisticians and other specialist personnel.

They will be reporting to the Victorian Chief Health Officer and Deputy Chief Health Officer.

So we are very much stepping in underneath at the request of and to support Victoria, but this will increase the capacity for the tasking, the oversight, as well as the virtual national network which has been put in place.

Other states and territories doing remote tracing, the national incident centre doing remote tracing, and I'm advised that that team will start to be in place over the course of the next 24 hours.

All of that support is exceptionally important.

It comes on top of having achieved the milestone of one million Australians who have had infection control training, and I think that's an extraordinary achievement and step forward.

Then the other major area of focus in Victoria is assisting with the residential aged care facilities, and the latest advice that I have just literally prior to joining you from the national incident centre is that there are eight facilities where residents have been diagnosed with infections in Victoria and 24 where there are staff only, 32 all up.

And of those particularly of importance is the Menarock facility where the advice that I have is that all patients who have been diagnosed as positive are either in the process of being moved or have already been moved to hospital.

And I think that's a very important thing.

In addition, the advice I have and the request of the Prime Minister and myself and the Aged Care Minister, we are seeing that there is full cohorting in this and the Estia Ardeer facility.

So in other words, any residents are being separated so as they have unique facilities.

This is something that we've set in place.

We've requested. It's being overseen by the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner Janet Anderson.

So that's a brief summary of what we're doing.

I would also note that we're setting up two private hospital wards, which are being stood up to provide capacity of up to 75 beds for offsite cohorting of residents, not only from these facilities if required, but from any others.

So we are preparing in advance for any expansion.

But Victoria is stable but concerning.

Nevertheless, we're stepping in at the request of the Victorians to assist.

The last area where we're focused in Victoria at the moment is to make sure that our regional spread is contained.

It has been promising so far. But one other element that we're working on with Victoria in partnership is to make sure that each case every day in the regional areas, in particular, is identified, contained and contact traced.

I'd start with Zali for any questions in the room and then go to those on the phone. Zali.

JOURNALIST:

So just on the aged care situation, are you concerned in particular about this practice of the workers moving between different facilities?

GREG HUNT:

Yes. So, particularly, where there is a significant degree of community transmission, the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner is examining that, working at the fastest pace and in consultation with the Victorian authorities.

If any actions need to be taken, they will be taken immediately.

And through the Aged Care Minister, I've provided the instruction, do not wait.

Do not ask for permission. You are empowered by the law to issue instructions, and if any are required, they will be done immediately.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think that some homes should be locked down with staff inside until this second wave is over?

GREG HUNT:

Well, I will leave the management of that to, not only the aged care facilities but to the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner.

So I think that's a very important thing that the experts are in charge of: isolation, quality control. Indeed, we have very high lockdown standards.

We have the mandatory wearing of masks, and we have immediate testing of all staff and all residents where there is a single person that's diagnosed.

JOURNALIST:

Do you know that sequencing has been suggested - has suggested that the Sydney outbreak is potentially has originated in Victoria? Do you think that Victorians essentially let down the rest of the country?

GREG HUNT:

What this shows is that the disease is highly contagious; that it can take one single case.

And the Victorian Chief Health Officer has indicated that the breach of hotel quarantine has led to the overwhelming number, if not an even greater percentage of those cases in Victoria, and it shows that one case, anywhere in the country, can be carried anywhere else.

That's why the Prime Minister and the New South Wales and Victorian Premiers agreed together to quarantine Victoria.

It's also why New South Wales Health is tracing and tracking everybody who was at the Crossroads Hotel and following through on those.

So, I think the answer is very simple: that we are dealing with a serious outbreak in the Melbourne area.

We are fighting like never before to prevent that spread to regional Victoria and to other parts in the country.

In terms of the other parts, New South Wales is holding the line. They are doing incredible work.

But we need everybody who was at that Crossroads Hotel to isolate and then to present themselves in a safe way for testing. But that's a very important step.

JOURNALIST:

The Victorian Health Department has told the ABC that authorities have accessed the data of, I think, 307 people using the COVIDSafe app after they tested positive for coronavirus. Do you know how many known contacts this has generated?

GREG HUNT:

So as I understand it, there have been 200 contacts identified.

As to the particular nature of them, we don't get that information as a Commonwealth and 300 downloads.

So, the latest advice that I have, through the medical expert panel, reaffirmed this morning, is 200 cases which have been identified, and then, in addition to that, there have been 300 downloads.

As to the details, one of the important safeguards that was put in the app legislation is that the Commonwealth doesn't actually have access to that.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think it’s important for the public to know these figures, I guess, to understand the efficacy and the efficiency of the app?

GREG HUNT:

Well I think it's important. We've been asking and I'm glad that that material has been provided now. I think it is.

One of the other things is, until very recently, we had zero community transmission, or very, very close to it, in seven out of eight states and territories.

It remains in six. In New South Wales, we now have just over 30 cases associated with the Crossroads Hotel and other than that, it's exclusively Victoria. And what we see here is that already 300 downloads, already 200 known contacts identified.

JOURNALIST:

Can you confirm that some of the areas where there have been these outbreaks, such as public housing towers, there’s quite low uptake of the app because of a cultural, language or just distrust. What is the Government doing to change that dynamic?

GREG HUNT:

No I can’t confirm that.

JOURNALIST:

You can’t confirm that?

GREG HUNT:

No, we don’t have details on the individuals that have downloaded.

JOURNALIST:

A report in the Medical Journal of Australia recommends that healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients should wear respirators rather than surgical masks.

Is this going to happen or will it be considered as a change to the approach?

GREG HUNT:

Well the Communicable Diseases Network of Australia, in conjunction with the society of intensivists, of the specialists, are those that are determining the standards.

So these are Australia’s finest experts and specialists and we’ll be guided by the medical advice.

Okay. So I might turn to Jonathan.

JOURNALIST:

Minister, thank you very much for your time this morning. Can I ask you, in June 2018, the AFP –the Australian Federal Police – wrote to Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton about its assessment of George Christensen and his frequent travels to the Philippines.

Do you think the public has a right to know what the AFP was assessing and what was in that letter?

GREG HUNT:

Look, I apologise. I don't have any details about it, knowledge, so it wouldn't be appropriate for me to speculate on something in which I have no knowledge or details.

JOURNALIST:

But you have knowledge of the investigation.

Do you think Australians have a right to know what the AFP was looking into about George Christensen?

GREG HUNT:

Look, I'll respectfully leave that to the AFP and to Home Affairs.

Again, if I don't have any detail or information, I don't think that's an appropriate base for me to make comments from.

Okay, Tessa.

JOURNALIST:

Yeah. There were a lot of rumours flying around social media from some reputable sources last night that Victoria was going to go into a Stage 4 lockdown and what that would mean.

The Chief Health Officer today said, we’ll just see what happens as to when we step up or step down. 

What do you think would be the benefit or risk of going to a Stage 4 lockdown and the impact on business and the economy?

GREG HUNT:

Oh look, the first thing is, I'd always be very cautious about rumours on social media.

Whether they are reputable sources or not, I think if it's a rumour on social media, then we should treat it with great caution.

More generally though, our goal as a country, and whether it’s as a Victorian or a Melburnian, is to avoid having to go to higher levels of lockdown.

We know this level has enormous human and economic consequences, whether it's a single parent in a small flat with young kids, whether it's a worker who's been stood down from a particular form of hospitality, a cafe, or a restaurant, whether it's the owner of a beautician salon.

All of these people are doing it tough as it is already.

So higher levels of lockdown would mean even greater hardship for individuals, mental health, social isolation, the elderly who'll be isolated.

So that is an immensely difficult thing. So our goal is to avoid that.

The structure of National Cabinet has been to establish the capacity for each state and territory to respond to needs.

We've seen that, and we've seen how difficult that was when Victoria, with our agreement, took such a hard step as the lockdown of the Housing Commission Towers.

We've seen what it means in terms of postcodes. All of these tools are available to states and territories responding to the cases.

So at this point, we've seen stability in Victoria's numbers, but at a critical level.

Right now, our task is to bring them down, and that's what we're going to fight to do because of the consequences.

The health consequences, the human consequences, the societal consequences, of anything less than bringing those cases back down again and flattening that curve.

JOURNALIST:

But when you have cases of four people, saying oh yeah, we’re just charging our phones 55 kilometres away from where they live or two people in a car saying they’re playing Pokémon, if the message isn’t getting through now, what will it take?

GREG HUNT:

Well I think there are outliers.

Australians as a whole, Victorians and Melburnians as a whole, have been extraordinary.

This is why Australia has achieved things that very few other countries have.

In one city of one state, we now have to do it again, and we have to do it again in large part because there was a significant breach of behaviours within the hotel quarantine system.

That means that everybody is having to pay the price for those breaches.

But our goal is to make sure that the restrictions are no higher than they need to be.

So keeping the distance, wearing the mask when you can't be distanced from other people, when you can't socially distance, the cough etiquette, the staying at home.

All of these things are critical to avoiding further spread of the disease. That's our goal.

Dana?

JOURNALIST:

Thanks Minister. Just two questions. So the New South Wales Health Minister has just said that people should wear masks if they can’t socially distance in public. Should that have been the advice all along? Could it have slowed the spread of this outbreak?

And also, just on genomic testing. It seems that New South Wales have been very forthcoming with information on the links between cases and tracing the sources of clusters. Why is Victoria so far behind on this? Why aren’t they sharing their genomic findings with us?

GREG HUNT:

Sure. Look, with regards to masks, I think the point that has been made in relation to the medical expert panel's advice, for a significant period of time now that has included the wearing of masks if you cannot socially distance.

What has changed in Victoria is that the level of cases has gone up, and in New South Wales, in parts of Sydney, there is the risk of an outbreak.

We have a controlled, contained outbreak, but there is always the risk. And so these are appropriate levels of advice to the situation, and I think one of the important things is why has Australia been successful.

Because we've acted early.

Why is there an outbreak in Victoria? Because there was a breach in the hotel quarantine.

And so, we need to look at those two things.

And so acting early has been one of the fundamentals of the Australian response.

If New South Wales is getting ahead of it, then I commend them for that activity.

Now in regards to genomic testing, this is one of the great breakthroughs where all of the investment over the last decade in Australia in genomic capacity is allowing a level of testing and identification which was never before possible.

I welcome what New South Wales has done. I understand Victoria has released information.

I think it's incumbent on all of us to provide as much information as possible.

And I'm not saying that with any criticism at all.

Victoria has been quite upfront about the linkage between the hotel quarantine breach and the broad spread of that disease right across Melbourne.

Okay, Tom.

JOURNALIST:

Thanks for taking our questions, Minister.

GREG HUNT:

Pleasure.

JOURNALIST:

Can you tell me the total number of cases in aged care? I think you said 32 facilities.

And secondly, would you support a wider lockdown in Melbourne, and what about regional Victoria?

GREG HUNT:

Sure. So the latest advice that I have is 108 active cases in 32 residential aged care facilities; 24 of those are staff only, and eight involve residents.

More generally, we will be guided by the facts and the cases as to the restrictions that are in place.

Our goal is to fundamentally avoid having to impose more restrictions.

And one of the things that I think is a very important message – and this also goes back to Dana's question – is to continually reaffirm that this disease is part of a global pandemic.

It's a silent disease it travels. It can be asymptomatic. It can be spread.

And therefore, all of these new unnatural behaviours which we are learning are just as important.

I have my arms out at the moment, and if you can reach somebody with your arms out and they're not part of your family, then sadly they're too close.

That distance, that physical distance, the hand hygiene, the cough etiquette, all of these things are so important.

And I would encourage people to continue downloading the app.

We've had now well over 6.6 million people; but the more, the better.

What it does is it simply links people who have been in contact with others.

That remains a fundamentally important part of our national defence.

All of these things come together.

Tamsin.

JOURNALIST:

Thanks, Minister. Just following on from Tom’s question, of those 108 cases, do you happen to have the breakdown of the patients and staff?

And just further from what Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said in his press conference earlier – he said elimination was worthy of consideration.

Is this a strategy that a state could go alone, or would this need be a national effort, and would you support that?  

GREG HUNT:

Sure. Look, in relation to the first, we'll ask the Department of Health once they have that final breakdown to provide that to you directly.

But more generally, the Australian goal is very clear. We've been trying to drive towards zero cases.

In Victoria we had zero cases until the hotel quarantine breach on one day in early June.

We were at a very low numbers, often below 10, so in single digits on any one day. And so we made that progress.

Six out of eight states currently have close to zero cases, if not continuously zero.

And the seventh, New South Wales, until this latest outbreak, have had very close to zero cases.

So we've actually achieved extremely close to that.

The other debate I think is very much a construct, because it's not actually about whether or not we aim to get to zero cases or as close to that as possible.

It's whether or not we are making promises which can't be kept in a world where you need to have access to trade, to medical supplies coming in, humanitarian arrivals, family reunions, all of these critical things.

And we've been very careful to not make false promises.

I think that's really important that we are honest, that with 13.3 million cases around the world, clearly trending towards 20 million cases, that this disease will be with the world for a long while.

And whilst that's the case, there's always the risk.

And in that situation, it's very important to be honest with the Australian people, as we've done right from the outset.

Setting out the risk, setting out the challenges, aiming to get down to that zero transmission through the actions that we’re collectively taking.

Alright. I want to thank everybody and I will make this last statement.

It is difficult. This disease has been with us already for the best part of six months.

We have, however, to realise that it will be with us for a long while to come.

We're fortunate as a country. Around the world, people are living in conditions which are beyond imagination.

And Australians have helped get us here. Right now, there is a new challenge and a fresh challenge. But my belief is that not only will we get through this, but we will be a beacon to the world for the way in which we manage it.

I want to thank Australians and reaffirm that we will get through this. Thank you.

Ministers: