This content relates to a former minister

Doorstop interview on 8 December 2020

Read the transcript of a press conference with Minister Hunt about Biosecurity Act emergency declaration; Cruise ship restrictions; Immunity passports; Domestic cruising; COVID-19 vaccine rollout; COVID-19 restrictions for Christmas and National drinking guidelines.

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

Media event date:
Date published:
Media type:
General public


Zero cases of community transmission, reported by the National Incident Centre shortly before joining you.

And zero cases in ICU, zero cases on ventilation. But these hard-won gains are always subject to external challenges.

At the same time, we’ve seen families being reunited in Western Australia with the borders opening, to Victoria and New South Wales.

And we now have a pathway as well for the borders between Western Australia and South Australia, and South Australia and Queensland to open.

So, we are on track for all state and territory borders to be open for all Australians well before Christmas.

And that’s just a tremendous national achievement and I want to thank and honour all of those that have contributed.

At the same time, we know that internationally the disease is spreading as quickly as ever.

Whilst there’s been some moderation in Europe which is to be welcomed, we also see the numbers increasing in the United States and elsewhere. 600,000 cases a day on most days; 10,000 lives lost a day and sometimes higher.

And so, we’re now in a world which has had over 67.5 million cases and agonisingly over 1.5 million lives lost.

And an indication of that is that just today, whilst there have been zero cases of community transmission, while we bring Australians home, whilst we reunite families from beyond our borders, there have been 15 cases identified in hotel quarantine.

What that says is that the international world remains a challenging and dangerous environment, and Australia won’t be fully safe until the international community is safe, which is why our vaccine program is so important.

On that basis, the medical advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Australia and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee is that the Biosecurity Act emergency declaration should be continued.

The Government has accepted that advice, that’s been accepted by the National Security Committee, and I have issued a determination to that effect which will be subject to consideration and approval potentially by the Governor-General on Thursday of this week.

That would take effect as of next week, which would extend the period of biosecurity emergency declaration until 17 March.

It will principally cover three areas, and it’s our intent to extend the orders under that emergency declaration.

And those three areas would continue to be limitations on the movement of international cruise vessels, limitations on outbound international travel – and we know this is very hard for Australians.

There have been 95,325 exemptions on the latest figures I have from Australian Border Force granted over the course of recent months.

And there are restrictions which will continue on the operation of retail stores at international airports.

All of this has followed the medical advice, and by following the medical advice we’ve kept Australians safe.

And we recognise, incredible national achievement, zero cases again community-wide today.

But what we see in our hotel quarantine reminds us that the risks abroad are enormous, and that if we don’t maintain these important protections, then we won’t be protecting Australians.

And I want to thank all of our medical community for what they have done this year, and particularly want to thank you, Paul.

And I'd be delighted to have you set out the reasoning behind the advice from the AHPPC and yourself on the continuation of the emergency declaration. And we'd be happy to take any questions.


Thank you, Minister. So, we don't take this advice lightly, of course. We weighed up all of the issues, as the Minister has pointed out, particularly the ongoing situation internationally and the sort of risks that could come to Australia if we relaxed at this point.

I think we're on the cusp of seeing vaccines coming to Australia, as the Minister has announced, as early as March next year.

We know that from today, the United Kingdom are actually starting their emergency use of vaccines in that country because, of course, they have a very different situation to us in terms of the pandemic within that country.

But because of those dangers offshore, the Biosecurity Act, which was passed by Parliament in 2015, gives the option for us to give advice to the Health Minister, and through him to the Governor-General to make these extraordinary determinations.

And so, that was our reasoning. Because of the of the situation overseas, the continuation of a restriction on Australians leaving, except for specific exemptions, as well as the issue of cruise ships.

We've seen what has happened in cruise ships early in the pandemic, and every country in the world made similar decisions to us to limit cruise ships because of the large numbers of people mixing and the specific risks of having such large numbers of people in a confined space.

Throughout this whole time, we have kept in close contact with the cruise ship industry. We've had regular meetings with them. We've kept them updated on our thinking around these things.

But for the moment, for the next three months, according to the biosecurity arrangements and on the basis of the Governor-General agreeing on Thursday, that will be- that will remain in place. I'll leave it there. Thanks Minister.


Just on the cruise ship issues, obviously (inaudible) in regards to small spaces. What is your response to domestic cruise ships being (inaudible)? Surely that has far less risk and (inaudible)?


Sure. So, that would be exclusively advice and the decision of the AHPPC. Paul, I don't know if you've considered that.


Yes, so, we've considered this at every time when this three-month period has come close.

We've talked about this in particular and we've worked with the industry. They've got a good plan of a staged resumption of their- of the cruise ship industry, and we've taken that on board.

They've certainly done a lot of work in making cruise ships more safe.

Throughout this period though, cruises that do not require an overnight stay with less than 100 berths have remained possible.

But- so, that can start with that at any time, actually. And with- as the situation goes through the next three months, we can talk about this staged approach.


Professor Kelly, on the longer term issue of cruise ships, unlike international travel on aeroplanes where there's a smaller number of people that you could require, say, an immunity passport for, do you envision there’ll have to be specific requirements around cruising, even as it resumes?

For example, could we have a situation where cruise ships would only be allowed to dock in Australia if every person had an immunity passport, even if they weren’t disembarking in Australia?


So, there's been a discussion and we welcome it about immunity passports as a concept.

I think we should remember that there is still nowhere in the Western world, at least, so in Australia, UK, US or Europe, where there is a vaccine that is available for general use. There are- there’s this emergency determination in the UK.

So, we've got some time to think about that.

But certainly, whatever we can do to protect the passengers on the ship is important.

And as I said, the cruise ship industry have done a lot of work on that about modifying how the ship works, who mixes where, cleaning, hygiene, et cetera, et cetera.

So, factoring in the vaccines is possible, but I think it's too early to really speculate on that.


I might just add something on the future of international travel, because I think this is incredibly important for Australians.

Obviously, there are exemptions at the moment, and our base position remains that everybody coming into Australia has to quarantine.

And going forward, we've set out the position previously that as vaccines are verifiable worldwide and available, we would look at the possibility of modifying it to either quarantine or a verified vaccine.

And I think that's understandable to the Australian population.

And then on domestic cruising activity, now is the moment where the medical expert panel will be able to consider expanding those options.

Because we're doing so well domestically, they'll now start to look at the process of beyond one night, larger capacity, but always to a very COVID-safe plan.

So, we're in that very healthy situation of being able to expand our activity within our borders.

And then as we go through the course of 2021, you'll see two things.

We'll look at more travel bubbles with other safe countries such as New Zealand; the Pacific, we've often said, is the next most likely. We know that some other countries we've looked at, which have been doing extremely well, have some challenges at the moment. And so, we can't take any risks on that.

And then secondly, the vaccines, as they are rolled out, but they will have to be verified. You can understand we have to make sure that it's not just a quality vaccine, but there's proof that we can rely upon the vaccinations occurred. But those things will open it up. And during the course of 2021, there'll be stepped increased exchange between Australia and the rest of the world.


Can I just clarify on the domestic cruise ships, that you wouldn’t allow any of those (inaudible) until this current declaration ends?


No, no, we're not ruling that out. At this stage, we're extending the existing declarations, but they will then be subject to ongoing medical advice.

And I know that some of the states and territories have, in particular, been considering this with their chief health officers and the chief health officers would then take it to the medical expert panel.

So that prospect is actually a live prospect of expanding that both in terms of between states overnight and greater numbers.

So, we're beginning that process of coming back with regards to domestic cruising.

There's still a way to travel, I'm sorry to say, before international but the- now is actually the moment to genuinely consider expanding that domestic cruising option.


And what would that mean for the crews? A number of these large cruise ships have predominantly foreign crews. Would they be allowed to come in (inaudible)?


Again, anybody coming in would be subject to a 14-day quarantine, and that's a blanket rule.

Any additional protections, such as tests for crew or others before departure and commencement of a cruise, would be something that the medical expert panel would determine as part of their COVID-safe plan.

So, the prospects are now opening up, even though this is an extension to protect Australia from the threats that the outside world has faced.

Just today, families reuniting in Western Australia.

The news as well that the last remaining border that hadn't had a time frame, the South Australian-Queensland border, is now on track to be opened well before Christmas.

We know that the WA-South Australian border is on a track subject to review by Western Australia, which we respect, to potentially open quite soon.

All of these things are opening up and then you can see that domestic travel is the next element of it, which is great news.


Minister, cruising is a multi-billion dollar industry. This is a very busy time of year for them. Is there a difficult balancing act given where Australia is now with the virus, on economic issues as opposed to the health advice.


Look, we continue to prioritise the health. That has to be the priority, because when we look around the world, we see that where that hasn't necessarily been the case, it's ended in a health tragedy and an economic consequence.

So, the order of things here is health, which then leads to economic comeback, and that's a very clear set of priorities.

And whether it's been in the public arena or in all of the discussions of Cabinet, National Security Committee, Expenditure Review Committee of Cabinet, the Prime Minister, since the outset, has set that order in that priority that lives and livelihoods together, but above all else, we have to protect the lives.


Considering we are starting to get the early stages of vaccine rollout across the world - you talked about travel bubbles there a second ago.

Would our markers for, I guess, agreeing to a travel bubble with a certain country remain the same and will they sort of slightly alter (inaudible)?


I think for the time being, community transmission will be the marker.

There’s a long way to go on any vaccine rollout for a jurisdiction as a whole.

Paul could give you chapter and verse on herd immunity. But I'd say there's a long way to go on that. Paul, you might want to add something.


Yes. Minister has said really the most important thing is we're at a very early stage in relation to vaccines, and so we need to work through that.

We've got an agreed path that the National Cabinet looked at in their last meeting around country risk assessments, and we've looked at that, particularly for New Zealand.

That's where we've got that green zone, one-way concept at the moment, and I've had discussions with my colleagues in New Zealand about that in recent days from their perspective of Australians going to New Zealand but that's obviously their call in the end.

But many countries, we’ll work through that process. Vaccination rollout would be potentially one of those things as 2021 goes ahead.

But mostly, at the moment, it's about their capacity, their ability to test and most importantly, the community transmission within those countries.


With those (inaudible), have you had discussions with your Kiwi counterpart (inaudible)?


Yes, there always are. We have a very close relationship with our Kiwi cousins.

And so they were very interested to hear about our hotspot definition and the ways that we have been assessing the risk from New Zealand over the past couple of months since people have been coming back.

And we've had, I believe, over 100 planes come in now through that green zone – thousands of people, no cases.

And so that's been very successful in terms of a green zone, one-way travel, and they're looking very closely at us as we continue to have no community transmission here in Australia. That's obviously very positive.


Minister, we’ve seen overseas, as you've mentioned, huge spikes in cases and advice being given to those citizens to limit their activity around Christmas.

Given how well Australia is doing, could you give some advice? What should Australians be doing over that period? They’re going to be travelling domestically and gathering in larger numbers. Is that okay now given how we are with the virus?


So, there are two things. I think that's a really important question, actually.

So, as we look to Christmas, all of the states and territories have their rules on meeting sizes, so obviously, we would strongly encourage everybody to observe those rules.

Those are with the force of law, I think, in pretty much every state and territory.

But the other thing is just to maintain the distancing habits, and that is whether it's the hand hygiene, whether it's the cough, whether it's not handshaking yet, not hugging people from your household.

I know they're slightly counterintuitive and they're contrary to our nature, but these are the things that have kept us safe this year. Australians have been extraordinary.

So, getting together, but being COVID-safe, following that common sense, those rules are still very important for keeping us safe.

We've done an amazing job. What are- you know, the world looks at Australia and says: wow, how did you do it? And we wish we were in your position.

And we've got a little bit more to go. And the vaccination program, I had confirmation this morning that both Pfizer and AstraZeneca are on track for their deliveries.

So subject to approvals, the March vaccination timeframe was reaffirmed again to me this morning by the department.

So, we're doing well, but there's more to go. And I just want to take this opportunity to thank everybody. Thank you- oh, you had one more. Sorry.


Sorry. Just on the national drinking guidelines that were released today. What do you make of the recommendation that Australians should be sticking to no more than (inaudible)?


Well, these are the independent National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines, and so they've been released.

They’re carried out without the interference of government.

Some people would say they don't go far enough. Some would say they go too far.

And I respect that there will be different views, but they are the medical guidelines for Australia.

And frankly, Paul, we've done pretty well as a country by following the medical guidelines this year. Thanks a lot.


Can I just have one more about COVID Christmas? Just how practical is that advice (inaudible). If you’re flying interstate, for example, home for Christmas, haven’t seen your family for a long time. Should you not be hugging them at the airport, not hugging them on Christmas day?


Well, I think the medical advice remains. We know it's difficult, but just being in presence- I'm sorry to have to continue that advice, but that remains the medical advice.

And being in a room together, being opposite each other at the table, maintaining the physical touch for the household, but not for others, that's still the medical advice.

And how is it we've done this? We've taken the best medical advice and then we've followed the two pillars of containment and capacity.

And when you think of that outcome, that is what’s got us to where we are and we'll just continue to work with the Australian public.

They've been amazing. We've got a little bit more work to go, but we'll still continue to keep Australians safe.

There will be outbreaks. We know that. But we can manage this.

But the more we're able to do it- we've seen two risks recently – one in Sydney, one in Adelaide – and the public response has been fantastic. So they've got this.

The Australian public gets it. And the more we can observe, the better we are at being able to protect.

Alright. Thank you very much.


Thank you.

Help us improve

If you would like a response please use the enquiries form instead.