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

DAVID SPEERS:

Brendan Murphy, Greg Hunt, thank you both for joining us.

GREG HUNT:

Morning.

DAVID SPEERS:

Let’s start with this. You were both at the meeting on Tuesday with Peter Dutton, this Cabinet meeting. Are you certain you don’t have coronavirus?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

No one can be absolutely certain about everything, but all of our advice internationally is that the peak infectious period is when you have symptoms.

There have been very few cases of people transmitting the virus in the 24 hours beforehand. So all the way through our public health advice in our published series of national guidelines, which is the public health advice that the entire country’s been using, where we define a close contact as someone who’s been in contact with someone who is symptomatic at any stage or up to 24 hours before.

DAVID SPEERS:

Because the confusion is you’ve got the US Center for Disease Control says some spread might be possible before people show symptoms, the World Health Organization says it is possible to catch coronavirus from someone who has just a mild cough and does not feel ill.
So where exactly is this 24 hour window, where’s that from?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

This was our Communicable Diseases Network Australia looking at the international evidence. You have to draw a line. In a public health response you have to set a case definition and that’s what we’ve been using right across the country with every contact of every case.

DAVID SPEERS:

So this is now the advice?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

This has been the advice since January.

DAVID SPEERS:

Okay. So, people watching out there, if they know they’ve come into contact with someone with coronavirus, as long as it was more than 24 hours before they showed symptoms, they’re fine?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, they do not need to self-isolate, they don’t meet our case definition, and we believe they’re very, very unlikely to have been infectious.

DAVID SPEERS:

Were you prepared to self-isolate, Minister?

GREG HUNT:

In fact, the whole Cabinet was, and so I think that’s an important thing. What we’re very focused on is two things here.

One is ensuring that the medical advice is paramount and I understand there are many people with views, but if there was a breakthrough of absolute national importance on Friday it was the agreement that the group of Chief Medical Officers around the country – it’s known as the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee or AHPPC – is the paramount source of medical advice to the nation.

That’s been agreed and we now have a unique wartime Cabinet situation of a National Cabinet, which has been established. They have established, as we sought, the Chief Medical Officers as their principal source of advice, and Medical Officers have set out the conditions…

DAVID SPEERS:

And I want to come back to that. Just, if I can, on this particular case of Peter Dutton. Given you feel comfortable about him not infecting anyone at that Tuesday Cabinet meeting, why then yesterday did we see cleaners in hazmat suits scrubbing the rooms where Peter Dutton had been on the Tuesday?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

I think that was an abundance of caution taken by the people in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices. We don’t…

DAVID SPEERS:

And self-isolation would not be an abundance of caution?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, I think the virus probably doesn’t last for more than a few hours.

DAVID SPEERS:

So why were they scrubbing it down?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

I’d have to check with the people who…

DAVID SPEERS:

You don’t know. Do you know?

GREG HUNT:

That wasn’t a decision I’m aware of either the Chief Medical Officer and I’m not aware of any Cabinet involvement in that. So…

DAVID SPEERS:

Someone’s decided that there’s enough risk to send in fully-clothed cleaners to scrub down the whole area. They didn’t need to do that?

GREG HUNT:

Yeah. Can we step back a moment here. We are now heading into an unprecedented situation, not something that any of us have experienced in our lives, and our job is to ensure that a number of things happen.

One is that there is the preparation which began during January and has contributed to the spread being far slower in Australia, although we acknowledge that it’s accelerating now. We’ve prepared both the system, but we’ve prepared the nation for the fact that we’re not immune, therefore we are going to face…

DAVID SPEERS:

I appreciate that. But I just want to get into the confusion that there is right now. People who were on the Qantas flight with Peter Dutton before your Tuesday Cabinet meeting were also told to either self-isolate or get a test.

GREG HUNT:

Do you mind if I answer this? Queensland Health has done what’s called the case investigation and they established that the relevant time for contact with Peter Dutton was the 11th of March. I would imagine that the airline, following the protocol because it wasn’t known at that time when the relevant case definition started, made their decision.

DAVID SPEERS:

There’s a lot of confusion out there. Qantas is doing one thing, you’ve got cleaners in hazmat gear doing another. You’re saying it’s very clear. It’s not, is it?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

The advice is clear. Sometimes people interpret the advice over-cautiously, but our advice has been absolutely consistent the whole way through.

GREG HUNT:

I do think there’s a very important thing here and I would not want some of the non-medical people who might be sitting on the panel to be giving medical advice to the country, and obviously I’m talking to Peter. I think it’s very important that we listen to the medical experts and why this is important is to make sure that the right people are being tested…

DAVID SPEERS:

I agree, and we’re going to get to the medical questions.

GREG HUNT:

No, I would like to proceed, please, David.

DAVID SPEERS:

Okay, sure.

GREG HUNT:

And the two fundamental conditions are, firstly, that somebody has either been in contact – contact is being defined as symptoms minus 24 hours – or they’ve returned from overseas and then they themselves have symptoms.

Now, many people have understandably where it’s not known at what time the diagnosed person has developed symptoms, taken additional precautions, which is entirely understandable and appropriate.

But once that contact period is known then the greater detail is in place. So the rule for the country is being set out clearly now and it’s important that we follow the medical advice and not the armchair experts…

DAVID SPEERS:

Okay, but you do accept, well, armchair experts perhaps, but there is also conflicting advice from the World Health Organization and, as I say, you’ve got conflicting advice coming from airlines and so on as well, so it is important to clear this up.

GREG HUNT:

They haven’t done the wrong thing, because at that stage the time of symptoms wasn’t known. Queensland Health and the Deputy Chief Medical Officer who also conducted a case investigation established the same thing and provided the same advice for this individual. More broadly…

DAVID SPEERS:

Let me get to a list of…

GREG HUNT:

...we will all be connected in some way over the coming months to people who are in some way either infected or isolated, and it’s very important that our approach is one of national support.

DAVID SPEERS:

Well, let’s get to some basic facts here for people who are confused and wondering what’s okay and what’s not. Should people be shaking hands right now?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

At the moment we are strongly suggesting that returned travellers should practice what we call social distancing, so that’s keeping a distance of one-and-a-half metres if possible from people, not being in close contact, so not shaking hands, avoiding all public gatherings…

DAVID SPEERS:

But as long as you haven’t just stepped off a plane it’s okay?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Yeah, or if you have been in contact with a case.

DAVID SPEERS:

But everyone else can shake hands?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Yeah, that will change if we get more community transmission. We are now in a phase of promoting broader social distancing. So I think…

DAVID SPEERS:

Okay, and just on that, is it okay to go to the movies right now?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, this is an evolving situation, David.

DAVID SPEERS:

What’s the advice right now, though?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

The advice right now is that as a first step we are suggesting that all non-essential gatherings of more than 500 people not proceed.

DAVID SPEERS:

Okay, but a cinema, less than 500 but you’re still sitting in a closed room for a couple of hours with people.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Indeed, and the new Cabinet has asked the health experts, we’re spending two days on Monday and Tuesday working out a more nuanced interpretation.

DAVID SPEERS:

Okay, but today if I’ve got a ticket to the movies, do I go?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

The risk is relatively low at the moment because we’ve only got 250 cases. The move to reduce mass gatherings is a pre-emptive move.

DAVID SPEERS:

Okay, so it’s okay to go to the movies.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

The epidemiology is evolving, but as the case numbers increase we will likely be recommending increasing measures of social distancing.

DAVID SPEERS:

Okay, sorry to press on this but people are wanting some specifics. You’re saying it’s okay to go to the cinema today. What about the gym?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

I think the gym is fine. But everybody at the moment needs to practice very good hygiene, so if you’re going to the gym I would be very focused on hand washing, using hand sanitisers, all of those social distancing, good hygiene measures, we want everybody in the community to start practising those and to start thinking about how we will do social distancing in future.

GREG HUNT:

So, the next phase of our public information campaign begins today, we’ve already had…

DAVID SPEERS:

I’ve seen that, but it doesn’t explain a lot of these basic questions. What about trains and planes? Is it okay to travel?

GREG HUNT:

Well, it’s designed to be, firstly, very simple so as people can understand, helping to stop the spread...

DAVID SPEERS:

It’s general.

GREG HUNT:

Secondly, to be flexible, just as Karen was talking about, the ability to step up both information and measures as we have done, which is what we’ve done…

DAVID SPEERS:

And that’s what I’m trying to get to…

GREG HUNT:

…and then thirdly to direct people to, if they need additional information, to health.gov.au.

DAVID SPEERS:

But does health.gov.au have these answers? What about riding on a train? If you have to catch the train to work, takes you an hour, is it okay to be on that train?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

At the moment we are not suggesting that people should stop taking public transport. As the situation evolves, every day we meet as the experts for two or three hours and we’re looking at the case numbers, the evidence of community transmission…

DAVID SPEERS:

So this might change?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

This will change. Our social distancing measures may well change over time. At the moment we are ahead of the curve. We’re moving earlier than most countries have on public gatherings.

DAVID SPEERS:

If you’re over 70, should you stay at home?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

If you’re over 70 you should be more careful. Particularly if you’ve got chronic disease. More careful about social distancing measures.

DAVID SPEERS:

So things like trains and cinemas and so on?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

I think you would be more careful about those things at the moment.

DAVID SPEERS:

What does more careful mean?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Avoiding things that aren’t essential.

DAVID SPEERS:

So if you’re over 70, don’t go to the cinema?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, I think if you’re over 70 and you’ve got chronic disease, at the moment the risk is very low but you might want to start thinking about taking more social distancing measures in the future.

GREG HUNT:

Can I talk a little bit about the course of the next six months because I think what everybody is looking for is the course and the perspective…

DAVID SPEERS:

Well, I think they’re looking for some details, with respect Minister, what they should do today. I get your point that it’s important to look at the long term. But right now people don’t know whether to go to the restaurant or the supermarket…

GREG HUNT:

Can I put all of this in context, and I will address that. So, the advice which was given by the medical experts and accepted by the National Cabinet which was formed on Friday is that mass gatherings being defined as 500 would become the threshold.

They’ve actually brought that forward. Some have asked, have they pushed that back? It was the opposite. They’ve brought that forward far earlier than might have been necessary if you were doing a stepped approach, but out of the abundance of caution.

So whereas other countries with far higher caseloads have brought those in, but they have brought those in when the caseloads have been much, much greater than Australia.

So in terms of where we’re at in our national caseload, this is coming in dramatically earlier than in many other countries.

DAVID SPEERS:

Well, can I ask you about that, Professor Murphy. Was this based on medical advice, the Monday advice?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Absolutely. We made the decision to recommend to Government on Friday.

We thought that the decision should have been made then earlier than we might otherwise have done.

We were initially talking about expecting greater emergency transmission before we introduced these measures but we felt that it was time to make the decision to give a bit of time for adjustment…

DAVID SPEERS:

But not this weekend. So it’s okay to go to the footy today, but not tomorrow?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well these things, they’re not black and white. As the caseload grows you start introducing measures, but our decision on Friday was that Monday was an appropriate time on the predicted rise in cases to introduce it.

GREG HUNT:

And that is bringing it forward. The other thing is we view this as a six-month window for Australia. Now, that time might be shorter, it might be longer, but that’s our best estimate on the arc and course of the virus…

DAVID SPEERS:

And where is this heading in terms of, I see the Victorian Chief Health Officer saying you should go out and buy enough food to last two weeks. Is that your advice as well?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

I think that’s a little bit premature at the moment, but I think…

DAVID SPEERS:

So who do we believe, you or your Victorian counterpart?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, I think that we’re generally at one on all of our advice.

DAVID SPEERS:

Well, not on this…

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

I think that for most people we don’t want to encourage major panic buying at the moment. We’ve seen that with the supermarket chains. But I think it’s probably sensible to have a few days of supplies.

DAVID SPEERS:

A few days?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Yeah.

DAVID SPEERS:
 

Can you see, I mean, you’re talking about, we’re all unified now, we’ve got this National Cabinet. But we’ve got the state saying go and buy two weeks’ worth of food, you’re saying don’t worry about that.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

No, I’m not saying don’t worry about it. I’m just saying that we will get proportionate, collective advice. There are sometimes people in one jurisdiction who are a bit more forward-leaning because of the circumstances in that jurisdiction.
But our advice to governments has always been unanimous. So our advice on the social distancing was unanimous, our advice on border measures…

DAVID SPEERS:

What’s the thinking on schools at the moment? A lot of people are asking about this. It is a difficult one.

Some schools are taking it upon themselves to close down. Do you think we’re going to see – Minister I’ll let you first – more school closures?

GREG HUNT:

Let me look at the broad question here. There is the potential, and when we’re looking forward over this course of the next six months, we are rightly keeping all options on the table, whether it’s in relation to travel, whether it’s in relation to schools.

The schools question will be very much guided by the medical advice. One of the things that they have talked about is not moving too early on something like that because of the balance that many children – and I understand that one of the leading state education authorities in New South Wales pointed out the risk of children being with grandparents, of taking parents out of the workforce who might be in the health and medical sector, disrupting supply chains. So maintaining the structure of society to maintain the support…

DAVID SPEERS:

It’s complicated.

GREG HUNT:

…and also, Brendan can address this, the question of infectivity and impact on children of the disease.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

So, one of the interesting and positive aspects of this virus is that there have been very few reports of symptomatic infection in children. What we don’t know is whether children are getting infected but just don’t get symptoms.

DAVID SPEERS:

They can still spread it.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

They can still spread it. Or whether they’re not getting infected. The former is probably more likely. But, in a way, if they are getting infected and they’re perfectly well, whilst they might spread it, it also creates a herd immunity. So there is lots of complex questions about schools.

DAVID SPEERS:

So we’re not there yet, but this might be something coming?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

There’s no question that we have a range of social distancing measures that we will not hesitate to recommend to government. But they’ve got to be proportional and they might last for a long time. So you don’t want to move too early.

DAVID SPEERS:

And we know politicians can be infected. Do you think Parliament should sit next week?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Parliament is planning to sit next week, they are taking measures…

DAVID SPEERS:

Do you think they should?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

I think if they can take measures to reduce public traffic, and I know they’re going to do that.

DAVID SPEERS:

Reduce the number of people in the building?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Correct.

DAVID SPEERS:

MPs as well as staff?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

They are, I had a meeting with the Presiding Officers yesterday and they are looking at a range of measures to reduce the number of people in the building including staff and visitors.
School groups have nearly all cancelled now. So I think it is important that Parliament sits because it’s the last time before- the Minister can obviously speak to that more than me. But I think they’re very focused on making sure…

DAVID SPEERS:

Can you have a limited number of MPs, a quorum basically, rather than everyone being there?

GREG HUNT:

Look, the Presiding Officers have been taking the medical advice and they are working to make sure that we operate within exactly the same parameters as the nation.

So, when you think of what our responsibility is here, starting in January, to make sure that we did all the steps to contain and slow the spread of the virus in Australia, and that has so far put us at a far lower rate of infection than many other comparable countries that received their initial cases at the same time.

We were able to contain the 15 cases from Wuhan, to carry out three successful quarantines, to slow that, but we’ve been very upfront that we’re not immune.

These are unprecedented measures, as I say, a wartime like National Cabinet created for the next phase.

And the way we view this is always trying to do things ahead, the mass gatherings situation has been brought forward and then the next stage of the information campaign is bringing people in so as they can help stop the spread but they also have the specific information that if they meet that definition then it’s appropriate to be tested but if they don’t meet that definition…

DAVID SPEERS:

They don’t need to.

GREG HUNT:

…then there’s no need to.

DAVID SPEERS:

Let me ask you finally, then, this staged process, could we reach the point that we’ve seen now in Italy, France and Spain, where we have the complete lockdown in Australia?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

It is potential that could be the case, but that may be focal. One of the things we know about outbreaks of infections is that they can affect one part of a country, not another…

DAVID SPEERS:

So you could lockdown part of Sydney, but not the whole country.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

You can. Potentially you could. I mean look, the Koreans did that for two provinces very successfully, locked them down. So everything is up for consideration. The Premiers and the Prime Minister said to us, the health advisers, give us your fearless advice and we will take it.

DAVID SPEERS:

Okay, we are going to have to leave it there.

GREG HUNT:

I will just add something.

DAVID SPEERS:

Just quickly.

GREG HUNT:

There are no options that are off the table. The paramount goal, and the Prime Minister said this to me at the outset, and that’s why to make a decision to close the border with China on the first of February was extraordinary and unprecedented.

It was in a global context where it probably was going to hurt Australia more than almost any other country, and yet we did that. And so our task is to not only prepare but to say to Australians: these will be challenging times, but if we all work together and have that wartime spirit, then we will get through this.

DAVID SPEERS:

All right, Minister Hunt, Professor Murphy, thank you both very much for joining us today.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Pleasure, David.

GREG HUNT:

Thanks, David.
 

Ministers: