Well, the Omicron strain of COVID-19 has hit Australian shores. So far, there are two confirmed cases linked to the new strain in New South Wales. Now last night, New South Wales Heath confirmed that two passengers who touched down in Sydney from southern Africa on a Qatar Airways flight had tested positive.
Now, our Government and health officials have responded quickly. The passengers from the flight are in hotel quarantine for 14 days. We’ve slammed the borders shut to nine African countries, including South Africa. And Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called for an urgent National Cabinet meeting tomorrow afternoon, in fact at 4.30 to discuss the way forward.
Luckily, we have some of the best vaccine rates in the world. And here in New South Wales alone, 92 per cent of us are fully vaccinated. Now, I want to bring in the Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt. And he joins me live on the line with the very latest. Minister, welcome back to Drive.
And good afternoon, Jim. I apologise for the bells that are ringing in the background. That's the Senate, not the House of Representative, so I'm with you, but apologies for the background noise.
All good. All good. Thank you for your time as always. It's early days, but what do we know so far about this Omicron variant?
So what we know is that it looks as if it's contagious. We're used to variants. By the way, there have been over almost 30,000 variations of sequencing, which are recorded in the Australian Aus Tracker database. And then we've had 13 major variants.
But this one, the transmissibility looks high. The advice of Professor Paul Kelly and Brendan Murphy is, at this stage, there are no signs that the vaccines are ineffective, but we monitor it.
And very interestingly, there are some early, emerging, yet to be confirmed, signs that it might be a mild strain, but it's early days.
So we've taken the action. As you said in your introduction, we've stopped the flights from the nine southern African countries, South Africa, as well as the eight neighbouring countries.
We've sadly had to ban non-citizens arriving for the time being. Required the Australian citizens who've been in those areas, those same nine countries, to undertake quarantine for 14 days, and applied this to people who've already returned, but have been in those southern African countries within the last 14 days.
And then now, PM’s calling National Security Committee together this afternoon, which is the Federal Cabinet body. Tomorrow, convening the National Cabinet, which is the Premiers and the Prime Minister. And then I've asked the Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation to review the current period between second doses and the boosters.
So could that be brought forward from the six-month period from your second vaccination shot to getting your booster? Is that what you're asking for?
I've asked for their advice on precisely that question. And I won't pre-empt it or presume it. It's a genuinely open question, and it's one that they review in light of emerging international evidence in any event, about the efficacy and challenges of the global vaccination program.
But you know, if they recommend a change to bring it forward, then we'll do that. We have the supplies. We have the distribution network. I worked through that just this morning to refresh with Lieutenant General Frewen, JJ Frewen, the Head of Operation COVID Shield.
The supplies, the distribution are all in place. So we're prepared, but we have to put in place the really important calming message that not only are we prepared, with a 92.3 per cent vaccination rate and nationally, a 94.5 percent first doses in New South Wales and as you said, over 92 percent second, the early signs are that the vaccines are holding and there's no evidence that there anything other than that.
But we'll continue to review. And that this may be a mild version of the disease. It’s still COVID, it's still dangerous, but there may be some quiet positive hope in what's emerging, but it’s too early to make a definitive call.
You just mentioned supply of the booster shots, and you're saying that there's- they are definitely readily available, just confirming that because- and is that still the case, even if more Aussies decide to get the job as a result of Omicron?
Yes, absolutely. We have large volumes that are available. In fact, we have spare capacity at the moment, because we've been through that programme where, when you look at it this way, that as a country where at 92.3 per cent first dose, and 86.8 per cent second dose.
We can meet all the demand for boosters that exists at the moment. We can meet that demand, meet it easily. We’re prepared for the ramp up. In any event, as people come to their six months. And if that were brought forward, then we could do that.
But again, we’ll be entirely driven by the medical advice.
So far, We've got two confirmed cases, they arrived from southern Africa. I mean, thank goodness we picked this up. Where are these two people now, and are they in isolation?
So they’re in isolation under the care of the New South Wales public health unit. There's a third case, which sort of late breaking news. The Northern Territory announced that not long ago. That's also in isolation in Howard Springs, that person.
And so all of these have been contained, quarantined, precisely the systems that we put in place are being followed.
So the calls that we made on Saturday morning, there was an early morning conference. The Prime Minister, myself, the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Kelly, Professor Brendan Murphy, which the Prime Minister then confirmed with the National Security Committee to put in place these additional border protections.
And they look as if they've been the right decisions at the right time.
So in terms of our response, we've already closed the borders to flights from southern Africa. How is that decision reached?
And also, can we expect our borders be closed to other countries? And for example, will international students, will that first plane load still arrived here in New South Wales next Monday?
Sure. So firstly, in terms of how the decision was reached, that was off the basis of questions which we commissioned the Chief Medical Officer and the National Incidence Centre to review on Friday. Where was the spread? Where was the risk?
And the advice on Saturday morning, just after the World Health Organization declared this to be what's called a variant of concern, and nine countries where identified.
That remains open to change, if necessary. And so there's a constant watching brief which the National Incident Centre under Paul Kelly is overseeing. And so if more changes are required, they'll be done. But that's about working on a country-by-country basis.
Then in terms of students, there's no change in that position. It's people who have come from southern Africa, from those nine countries, are subject to the 14 days’ quarantine if they're returning Australians or permanent residents, and others are not allowed to come in.
So if anybody, any of these students have been in southern Africa, they would not be allowed in.
Okay. So New South Wales, the ACT and Victoria have imposed a 72-hour home quarantine for all international arrivals. How long is that going to stay in place for it? Could it go beyond that 72-hour period?
So, they're reviewing that, and they're working with us. We certainly wouldn't rule out the fact that that period may be rolled over. And I think it's important to provide that guidance.
My understanding is that they're certainly considering that. They're doing it in conjunction with Commonwealth officials.
And so, you know, what's our task here? I think it's really two important things. One is to make sure that we keep Australians safe. The best protection is vaccination. And you know, you look at those figures where New South Wales is on the cusp of 95 percent. You know, it’s incredible. On the cusp of 95 percent, but it doesn't matter where you are in Australia, please keep being vaccinated.
And then the second thing, though, is to provide the reassurance that we're in a vastly different position from 1 February 2020, when we had to close the border with China.
We know what this disease is. We have one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, one of the most recently vaccinated populations. And after Israel, we're one of the first nations in the world to commence a whole of country booster program.
We're already at 415,000 boosters delivered, and that's increasing. That's way ahead of expectations and schedule.
So we're really just, you know, so impressed with and thankful for the work of Australians in coming forward. But if it is your turn, please come forward.
And if you're in that small group of people that haven't felt confident to be vaccinated yet, this is your time, and this is your moment. It can help protect you, and it can protect others.
And you know, often we know that the rates are slightly lower in some communities of Indigenous background or non-English-speaking background. And if it's your friends or family that haven't come forward, please give them the confidence that vaccines, whether it's against Omicron or Delta or any of the variants or variations, vaccines are your best single protection.
Can people have a preference? I'm getting my booster on Friday. I've had two AstraZeneca. I'm expecting to get Pfizer on Friday. I don't care if it's AstraZeneca, Moderna, Pfizer, whatever. I'll just be guided by my GP.
But we're getting a few listeners asking the question can you have AstraZeneca as your booster shot? But I think you've said to us before on the program, just to clarify, that Pfizer is the preferred vaccine as far as the booster shot goes, is that correct?
Yeah, so Pfizer is the only vaccine which has been through the Therapeutic Goods Administration, our medical regulator’s processes for the booster. Moderna, we're expecting, I hope, within the next week, and that would then be available.
At this stage, we know that Moderna’s available right across our pharmacies, and AstraZeneca and Pfizer are available across our GPs and our pharmacies. Increasingly pharmacies are stocking Pfizer, and increasingly GPs are stocking Moderna.
And so importantly, right now, Pfizer is the preferred booster because it's been assessed by the TGA. Moderna is expected within the next week, and I'm hopeful that it will be a positive recommendation.
There are no red flags on the advice I had from the TGA today. And what that means is we've got very significant quantities of supply, and I'm likely to get, I'm due for my booster to come up next week, and I'm preparing to head off to get my booster next week.
Well, I think you hit the nail on the head. We just need calm. We need a measured approach, and we certainly don't need states going off willy-nilly and going back into lockdowns and border restrictions. And hopefully we get that- hopefully that's the message tomorrow at National Cabinet.
We've got this. We know how to do this as a country. And, you know, think of the- I know the stress that New South Wales faced in July and August and people in Victoria have faced.
But you know, we've been through last year, we've been through this year, and when you look at the fact that here we are with one of the three lowest rates of loss of life across the entire OECD – not just this year, but over the whole pandemic, on both fronts.
Now one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, as well as one of the most freshly and recently vaccinated populations. These are strong protections. Australians are- you know, I'm so proud of them, and we'll just keep going forwards and continuing to vaccinate Australians and encouraging them to continue to be safe. And we'll do this.
Minister, thank you for your time this afternoon.
Thanks, Jim. Take care, everyone.
Good on you. That’s Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt.