Media event date: 
29 January 2020
Media type: 
Media release
Audience: 
General public

PETA CREDLIN:

Alright. Well, the death toll for this coronavirus has now risen to 132, and while the deaths are contained currently to mainland China, the virus is spreading worldwide.

At least five cases have been confirmed within Australia as the Government is now taking action to prevent the virus from spreading.

Joining me now to discuss the Government’s response and a range of significant new measures announced today is the Federal Minister for Health Greg Hunt live from Canberra.

Minister, thank you very much for your time today. I know it’s hectic for you, with coronavirus and a number of big announcements from Government tonight.

I’ll get to those in a moment, particularly the quarantining that will now be undertaken at Christmas Island. But let’s start at the back to start a little bit for viewers - coronavirus, what do we know about it and how dangerous is it?

GREG HUNT:

So coronavirus is, by its nature, a common condition and coronavirus is frequently in communities and elsewhere.

It becomes particularly dangerous, however, when it mutates from the animal kingdom, and that’s the expectation and the best scientific and medical as to what’s happened here – that it has come from the animal kingdom, most likely within a Wuhan market, within Hubei province in China.

And at that stage, what can happen is that it can have respiratory impacts. It can have impacts in terms of temperature, and ultimately, it can contribute to pneumonia.

The World Health Organization’s advice is that about 20 per cent of cases are becoming serious and their advice on the death rate is about 4 per cent.

And so, communicable and with 20 per cent becoming serious and four per cent- but it’s not an exact figure and this may change as the disease progresses because there may be many undiagnosed cases which are not resulting in that.

But that’s what the World Health Organization has advised, and that’s why this is such a serious and important issue.

PETA CREDLIN:

I remember back to all the work we did around avian flu or bird flu. Obviously, we’ve had other pandemics like SARS.

I understand there’s no antivirals yet for this disease. So, how serious is it, and would you call it a pandemic? And who’s most at risk?

GREG HUNT:

So, we had actually declared it as a disease with a potential pandemic proportions. That’s the formal Australian Government declaration.

And what we do know is that it’s most likely to have a significant impact on the elderly.

The latest advice we have is that the median age of those that have lost their lives – last advice before coming to air, 132; although, sadly, we expect that that we’ll increase – is 72 years of age.

So, it particularly affects the elderly and it can, of course, strike people of any age and there are examples in China, as well as elsewhere, of people of many different ages.

But it is most damaging, in general, to those with comorbidities or compromised immune systems, which of course comes with age.

PETA CREDLIN:

Alright. Take us through the first announcement today.

There were two significant announcements. This is the first one in relation to the face masks - and also, in particular, the quarantine arrangements that will be put in place in Christmas Island for Australians that you will now airlift out of the Wuhan area.

GREG HUNT:

So, out of caution, we’ll be providing a million face masks, or up to a million face masks, to the general practice community and the reason why- although we think that that’s significantly in advance of what’s required, we want to make sure that practices have the capacity to take care of the medical staff and the administrative staff, all of the practice staff, if the patient were to present with symptoms, as well as to make sure that the patient and anybody with the patient is covered.

And that’s the Chief Medical Officer’s words, an abundance of caution. But we’re making sure that that’s being distributed as we speak.

In terms of the work on an airlift, assisted departure for those Australians who are in Wuhan city, which is in Hubei province in China, we are working with the Chinese authorities.

And the latest advice form the Prime Minister is significant progress and the Foreign Minister is leading those discussions.

But that’s travelling very positively on my last advice just before coming on air.

As part of that, what that means is we would then take the people who are coming back from Hubei province and one of the conditions would be is that they would accept that that would involve an expected 14-day quarantine on Christmas Island.

And I think that’s sensible and prudent. And that was a precursor to what we have announced this afternoon following subsequent medical advice. The critical development-

PETA CREDLIN:

Yeah so take us - sorry Minister - I mean one of the questions has been very quickly, the Government suspended flights from Wuhan.

But obviously there are still flights coming into Australia from other parts of China.

If we are going to take back Australians, we’ll quarantine them on Christmas Island as you said, but what do we do about other Australians already here from Wuhan?

Or indeed other parts of China because you know, call me a sceptic here but I’m not so sure the Chinese are necessarily as up front as we might expect in a more transparent country, in relation to where else this disease is taking hold and what the overall numbers are like.

So what are we doing for those that are already here or coming from other parts of China?

GREG HUNT:

So that relates to the second decision following the medical experts who are communicable disease experts who met under the guidance of the Chief Medical Officer.

They then provided advice to all of the state, territory and Commonwealth chief health and medical officers. That group made a decision to lift the standards for Australia.

It now gives us some of the strongest quarantine standards in the world of any country.

And in particular what that says is if somebody had arrived in Australia from Hubei Province, they should be isolated in home isolation for a period of 14 says.

So if they’ve been here for seven days already, that means they should go for seven days. If they are subsequently arriving they should be isolated for 14 days.

PETA CREDLIN:

And what about flights from China more broadly, has there been any discussion about the cessation of all Chinese original or- originating flights into Australia?

GREG HUNT:

So the medical experts are constantly reviewing. Yesterday they advised that it would be appropriate for us to lift our travel advisory to a higher level which we did, which was reconsider China travel and do not travel to Wuhan, that part had already been in place.

And if they advise then there’s a very clear position of the National Security Committee of Cabinet that we will implement, as we have done this afternoon with the new advice about arrivals from Hubei.

PETA CREDLIN:

Well it’s been a bit of a mixed message. I know you’re not the Education Minister but there’s been a bit of mixed messaging to students and their parents, depending on whether they’re private school or government school, depending if they’re in one state or the other.

What’s the latest advice to parents tonight?

GREG HUNT:

So the message is very, very clear on the basis of the medical advice.

If somebody has been in contact with a person with confirmed coronavirus they should self-isolate and this includes any students and not be attending a school for 14 days.

If they have come from Hubei Province they should not be attending an education facility for 14 days, they should be in self-isolation.

PETA CREDLIN:

How prepared are we, in our hospitals in particular, to cope with a real spike in hospitalisations or needed hospitalisations and indeed fatalities?

GREG HUNT:

Very prepared. I think one of the important facts for the Australian public to know is the World Health Organisation reviewed our epidemic preparedness in 2018 and at that point Australia was ranked at the global forefront.

And so those plans are developed, they’re in place and now they are being implemented. The Prime Minister has chaired two meetings of the National Security Committee to make sure that we are implementing.

And he has been very forward leaning in this, wanting to make sure that there’s an absolute abundance of caution in terms of public health and public safety as the number one priority.

And we are therefore implementing what has been carefully prepared; The National Incidents Centre, the ability to have a national medical stockpile, the National Trauma Centre which provides the Australian medical assistance teams, all of these have been previously prepared.

State hospitals, state pathology services, all in place being brought into action for precisely this sort of event which has been developed over a period of years.

PETA CREDLIN:

And just before we go Minister, I know you’ve got other meetings to get to tonight on the back of all of this, but what would your advice be to Australians who had a trip planned to China in the next few weeks?

GREG HUNT:

Our advice is very, very clear, reconsider that travel. Do not travel to Hubei and reconsider that travel.

And we don’t rule out if medical advice suggests this, if medical advice recommends this, we don’t rule out changing the travel advice still further. But it has gone to level three for all of China and level four for Wuhan which is reconsider for all of China other than Wuhan.

And do not travel to Wuhan City and Hubei Province.

PETA CREDLIN:

Minister Greg Hunt, thank you very much for your time tonight.

GREG HUNT:

Thanks, Peta.

Ministers: