I’m joined by Professor Michael Kidd, the Acting Chief Medical Officer, and we’re here to report on advice from the medical expert panel, or AHPPC, received during the course of the afternoon to the Government and upon which the Government has acted.
In brief, the Australian Government has received advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee of a significant case of concern in New Zealand regarding the South African variant, the possibility that that may lead to a transmission event.
And out of an abundance of caution, the AHPPC has recommended to the Government – and the Government has immediately accepted and implemented the advice – that there should be a suspension of green zone travel arrangements or the green zone travel bubble with New Zealand for a minimum of 72 hours.
This will be done out of an abundance of caution whilst more is learnt about the event and the case.
The changes come into effect, as I say, immediately. The impact of that is it’s recommended that all passengers from New Zealand with a green safe zone flight scheduled in the next 72 hours reconsider their need to travel.
They will, as a consequence, have to go into hotel quarantine, or such other arrangements as individual states may implement, for up to 14 days, but for a minimum of 72 hours and to have a test.
And anyone who has arrived into Australia on a flight from New Zealand on or since January the 14th is asked to isolate and arrange to be tested and to remain in isolation until they have a negative test.
We apologise to those who may be inconvenienced. This has been taken on the basis of strong, clear, immediate medical advice from the AHPPC, immediately considered in the Cabinet arrangements, and accepted by the Prime Minister and the government of Australia.
Professor Kidd was chairing the AHPPC meeting, and will provide detail.
Thank you, Minister. So, yesterday, we were advised about a new case of COVID-19 in New Zealand. It was in a person who had been in hotel quarantine in Auckland.
This person had completed 14 days of quarantine on January 13 and developed symptoms a few days after leaving hotel quarantine.
This person was tested last Friday, January the 22nd, and returned a positive COVID-19 test result late on Saturday, January 23.
The infected person had visited at least 30 locations and these are all detailed on the New Zealand Ministry of Health website.
Today, following rapid gene sequencing in New Zealand, the authorities there have advised, as the Minister has said, that this person is infected with one of the COVID-19 variants of concern, the B1351 variant, which was first detected in South Africa in October.
This new variant is more transmissible and presents a heightened level of risk, and it's been reported so far in at least 13 countries, and this had included among 13 people who have been in hotel quarantine in Australia.
So, we had a meeting of the AHPPC at midday today. At that meeting, the advice, as the Minister has said, was to talk a precautionary approach, and as a consequence, the Prime Minister and the Australian Government have suspended the green zone arrangements with New Zealand for the next 72 hours.
We understand that there are two green zone flights or there were two green zone flights from New Zealand due to travel to Australia later today.
I’ll leave it there, Minister.
Great. Happy to take any questions. Claire?
With these two flights, so there are no flights in the air at the moment, just the two to take off? Will those passengers have an opportunity not to board that flight?
And also, are there any unaccompanied children that now might find themselves stuck in this quarantine situation because they thought they would be safe to travel?
Sure. So, at this stage, we don't have advice on that. New Zealand authorities are working with passengers on the ground.
I should emphasise, we have the highest possible confidence in New Zealand's testing, tracing and other arrangements. They have been one of the global success stories.
So, all thanks to New Zealand for their cooperation. The Prime Minister spoke with the New Zealand Prime Minister, as well as notified all of the state and territory first ministers.
So, Border Force is working with New Zealand authorities to make sure passengers on the background in New Zealand have the maximum information, and where there are any special arrangements that are required, out of compassion, we’ll make sure that they’re put into place.
Can I ask, that requirement that people arriving in the next couple of days go to hotel quarantine, that's a legal requirement, right?
And what about the request from the January 4 onwards to isolate until they are tested? Is that just something you are strongly urging people to do or what's the status of that?
So the states and territories will enforce that under state and territory public health orders.
So, just to repeat, anyone who has arrived into Australia on a flight from New Zealand on or since January 14 is asked to isolate and arranged to be tested and to remain in isolation until such time as they have received a negative test.
You mentioned that the person in New Zealand had been in hotel quarantine for 14 days and tested positive several days after that. Is there a concern that some of the variants have a longer incubation period and the 14 days might not be enough anymore?
So, at the moment, the advice coming from the New Zealand authorities is that this is probably an infection which occurred while this person was in quarantine. So, we're waiting for further advice from the New Zealand authorities on that.
You're quite right – we are concerned about these variants of concern. On Friday, we announced that the period of isolation for people who are diagnosed with one of these variants of concern has been extended from 10 to 14 days as a matter of precaution.
Do we need to consider extending hotel quarantine beyond 14 days?
I think we need to see what comes forward from the investigation that the New Zealand authorities are carrying out.
Minister, is this an indication that going forward, with any green zone that we might establish with other nations, simply one case in that country is enough for us to suspend to travel between the two nations?
Look, as a general rule, no. It was simply because of the length of period between the infection and the confirmation, that this was one of the potentially far more transmissible variants.
In this case, the South African variant, and the number of places which the individual in question is understood to have visited. That- no criticism of the individual, we understand they behaved in a model way.
They used QR codes, they checked in. And it’s precisely because they left a digital footprint in many places, that there’s a period of concern.
So, we’ve been very happily working with New Zealand, we’ve kept that green zone open. There’ve been challenges.
They are one of the world’s best contact tracing systems. They are doing outstandingly well.
But because of the time, and because of the transmissibility, the AHPPC unanimously recommended, with a real time response from the Government, to implement the 72-hour pause.
So, just a follow-up on that, this is a 72-hour pause. Is there are threshold at which we would make this a more permanent change to the tribal arrangement?
Would it be that the cluster, for instance, grows to five, or 10, or 20, or is it some sort of less or more sort of nebulous sort of threshold that we have to hit to make a stronger arrangement?
So 72 hours will allow us to find out what has actually happened in New Zealand.
So this case, of course, has only been detected over the last two days. People who have been to all those venue, those 30-odd venues in New Zealand are doing as we would be doing in Australia.
They’re isolating at home; they’re arranging to get tested. We’re waiting for the test results to come back.
Similarly, as the minister has emphasised, it is really important that anyone who has travelled to Australia from New Zealand since 14 January remain at home in isolation and arrange to get tested and stay in isolation till they get a negative result back.
If there are individuals that choose to come from New Zealand and enter into hotel quarantine but within that 72 hours we decide that there’s no need for them to do so, would they be able to leave early, or once they’re in would they be in for 14 days?
No, we’ve left open the possibility that it could be up to 14 days, because we want full transparency and nobody to be surprised.
At the moment, it's 72 hours with the need for a negative test.
But the possibility remains – and that's why we're giving the guidance and asking people to reconsider travel - there could be up to 14 days.
For those who are already in Australia that you are advising to self-isolate, would authorities be proactively contacting them individually to make sure that they have heard this advice?
As well, this has happened at a time when, for example, New South Wales, which is where a lot of these New Zealand flights are coming into, has record low testing rates. Is that a concern for you, that we’re at a time where only 8000 people test in the last 24 hours, and now there is this renewed risk.
Is it a timely reminder for people to seek more tests? What would be a preferred number perhaps?
I think it’s a reminder to all of us that COVID-19 is still with us. And it's really important, as it has been throughout the pandemic, that anyone who symptoms of cold, flu or fever, arrange to get tested.
And it's just as important now as it was throughout last year. So, that message is there for everybody.
Look, we do know that on weekends there tends to be a reduction in the testing numbers. We would encourage people to continue to be tested.
Precisely as Michael says, if you do have symptoms, please be tested. If you have doubts, please be tested.
And these tests might be an inconvenience, but they will help save lives and protect lives. We were at over 12. 5 million tests in Australia. The testing protects everybody.
Sorry, thank you. Do you know how many people have come from New Zealand since that January 14 date?
Look, we’re seeking that information, we’re providing advice in real time.
We had a response mid-afternoon from AHPPC. Michael called Brendan Murphy and myself and we advised the Prime Minister immediately, and a decision was made.
So, some of that information will be provided over the course of the coming day. But the critical factor was the decision, the action, to make sure that we're taking steps to protect Australians.
I apologise that we won't be able to stay for much longer. I will take one more and then we will have to leave.
Could you just tell me about whether the New Zealand Government accepted this move? Or asked you not to do it?
Look, I understand the Prime Minister had a very productive and convivial conversation with his New Zealand counterpart.
One of the things that the Prime Minister has been clear on - and that we have been clear on – is we have top absolute highest belief in the quality and the ability of New Zealand to contact trace.
They have been a global success story. And it's just the combination of the transmissibility of the variant, and the circumstances of the particular case, the time between exiting hotel quarantine and the confirmation of the South African variant and the number of places that were visited, which led the AHPPC to give us categorical strong, clear, unanimous advice.
In the face of that, we've acted. Thanks very much, everybody. Take care.