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Minister Hunt's Press Conference about additional border security measures to protect Australians from the new ‘Omicron’ COVID-19 variant

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt's Press Conference in Canberra on 27 November 2021 on additional border security measures to protect Australians from the new ‘Omicron’ COVID-19 variant

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

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GREG HUNT:         

Well, welcome everybody. I’m joined by the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, Professor Paul Kelly. We're here to give an update both on the latest international evidence and developments with regards to the new Omicron COVID-19 variant of concern, as it's been declared by the World Health Organization. And to give an explanation to Australia of the precautionary measures that we'll be taking.

I would start by emphasising that we are well-placed and in a vastly different position to previously. As of today, we now have a vaccination rate which has seen 39 million vaccinations delivered in Australia.

We are at 92.2 per cent first vaccination and 86.6 per cent second vaccination. We've now passed 400,000 boosters. So, we are one of the most highly vaccinated societies in the world. One of the most recently vaccinated societies in the world. And one of the best-prepared in terms of our hospital system and our public health measures.

Nevertheless, on the basis of medical advice provided by the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, Professor Paul Kelly, the Australian Government will be implementing additional precautionary border security measures in order to protect Australians whilst more is learnt about the nature and impact of the Omicron variant of concern. So, these actions are taken on the basis of cautious prevention.

We're in a strong position, but we know that acting early is what has protected Australia throughout the pandemic. And so we'll be taking the following five actions immediately and will reserve the right to either strengthen or reduce or remove them as is required.

First, effective immediately, anyone who is not a citizen of Australia or their dependents, and who has been in African countries where the Omicron variant has been detected and spread within the past 14 days will not be able to enter Australia. These countries are South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Ozwatini, the Seychelles, Malawi, and Mozambique.

Second, Australian citizens and residents and their dependents arriving from these countries will need to go into immediate supervised quarantine for 14 days, as subject to the jurisdictional requirements of the relevant states or territories.

Third, these restrictions also apply to people, for instance, such as international students and skilled migrants arriving from our travel bubbles who have been in any of the nine countries within the past 14 days.

Fourth, anyone who has already arrived in Australia and who has been in any of the nine countries within the past 14 days must immediately isolate themselves and be tested for COVID-19. And follow jurisdictional quarantine requirements which will require quarantine for 14 days from the time of their departure from the relevant African countries.

And fifth, the Australian Government will suspend all flights from the nine southern African countries for a period of 14 days as a matter of precaution.

There are currently no known cases of the Omicron variant in Australia. And I would just note that there are 20 people in quarantine in Howard Springs in the Northern Territory who've arrived from South Africa in the last week.

I've consulted with Natasha Fyles, the Health Minister of the NT, this morning. They have all been tested. 19 negative, one positive. The nature of that positive will be considered, and I understand the Northern Territory's saying more today. But at this stage, there are no known cases of the Omicron variant in Australia.

We've taken precautious action in the past. We've taken early action in the past. We are doing that again. And the difference is that we now have strong vaccines, we have one of the highest levels of coverage in the world, we have one of the most recently vaccinated populations in the world, and we have strong public health and social measures. And we also have, most significantly, a well-prepared hospital system.

I'll invite Professor Kelly to speak.


Thank you, Minister. Just to talk through what's happened in the last 24 hours.

So, the Minister spoke yesterday about the variant of concern. There were many questions about that raised by the media. At that point, we were certainly gathering information, and we've gathered a lot more information over the last 24 hours. Including, as the Minister has mentioned, the declaration overnight by the Technical Advisory Group in the World Health Organization that this is, indeed, a variant of concern.

This will be the 13th variant of concern that's been declared under this mechanism. But underpinning that, many more variants that have been under monitoring, and thousands of variations, tens of thousands of variations, of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that have come in the last two years.

So, of those 13 there have been concerns raised, they are variants of concern for a reason, either in relation to the severity of illness from that variant, issues in relation to vaccine effectiveness or treatment effectiveness, issues of transmission. They are the reasons, and the things that are still being monitored in relation to this particular variant.

We do know that it does contain a large number of mutations. It is quite different to previous variants that we have been watching. But at this point, other than understanding that it is transmissible between humans and is transmitting particularly in South Africa but also in those surrounding countries. We do not, at this point, have any clear indication that it is more severe, or any definite indication of issues in relation to the vaccine.

I think they're crucial points. It's the reason why we're taking this precautionary approach, which is proportionate to that risk, and putting in place the measures that the Minister has outlined in relation to that.

And we'll continue to be looking very closely at the international advice. Last night myself and Professor Brendan Murphy spoke to one of our key experts in Australia here in virology, Professor Eddie Holmes. We know that he's been working very closely with colleagues in the UK and elsewhere in relation to this.

But there is a lot of unknowns still, and those information will come to us very rapidly, as it has in the last 24, and particularly 12, hours. So, I think that's the key issues to say. We know that there have been people that have come from South Africa in the last 14 days into the quarantine-free states in New South Wales, ACT and Victoria. We're following up with those jurisdictions about those travellers.

At this point, we know there's a small number and that they are being followed up. In fact, in all three of those jurisdictions, it is a requirement under the public health orders in those jurisdictions, for people to come forward for testing during that first week of arrival, even if they are not in quarantine.

So, I'll continue to work closely with colleagues across the Australian Government and the AHPPC. We met in the last hour again, and we will meet again tomorrow to work through that with jurisdictions. And including New Zealand, importantly, as our close partner, and follow what we need to do and to give information in regards to that.

A couple of things we will be strengthening at the border, one of those, at the moment, it is a requirement for people arriving in Australia to provide evidence of their vaccination, as well as evidence of a negative test in the three days prior to arriving in Australia.

So we will be adding something which is currently not required, but it is collected and asked to be given, which is about 14-day travel history, and particularly where that involves places of concern currently in southern Africa. But that will be strengthened, and that information, as it has been, will be provided very rapidly, usually prior to arrival to the jurisdictions so that they can take appropriate public health action.

So, I'll leave it there, Minister, and we'll go to questions.


Great. I'll start with James, please, then onto Steph.


A question for you on borders. Does this measure go far enough? Do these measures, sort of targeting these nine countries, if you like, go far enough, given we've seen a case in Belgium that has apparently come in from Egypt, given that we've seen reporting in the last few hours that a planeload of people from South Africa with dozens of cases has arrived in Holland?

I mean, it’s already in Europe, the UK is saying they anticipate it will be there in a matter of days. Are you, as a government, going far enough with these measures?


Sure. So, look, thanks, James. These are strong, swift, decisive, and immediate actions.

They're taken on the best medical advice. And they include the suspension of all flights from the nine southern African countries. They include the prevention of entry into Australia of non-Australian citizens, residents, or their dependents who have been in the nine countries in the last 14 days, and they include the 14 days quarantine for anybody who arrives from those countries if they are Australian citizens, irrespective of their vaccination status.

So, they're strong, swift, decisive, immediate, but precautionary. The other thing is, we can move at any time to strengthen or to reduce these requirements based on the medical evidence. They are consistent with what we're seeing from other countries and, therefore, they represent strong and immediate action.

But Paul, anything you may wish to add?


Only to say that yes, we're aware of both of those issues, and we're watching closely. Other countries, many countries in the world, have similar strong genomic resources like we do here in Australia. Some don't, of course. And that's certainly something that's on our radar.

The case in Belgium, I'm aware of. The report from Holland, yes, there are direct flights from Johannesburg into the Netherlands. They are testing everyone on arrival. We don't know how many or if any of those 15 are actually this Omicron variant, only that they have a positive test. But, look, we will get a lot more information in coming days.

And as the Minister said, we remain, as we've always done, looking at the best medical evidence. And I will give the advice based on that.


Just to clarify if it is possible the government could go further than this initial list of nine countries?


Let me be absolutely clear. I said yesterday, if more actions are required, we will not hesitate. Today, we have taken those actions. Today, I'm saying, if the medical evidence shows that further actions are required, we will not hesitate to take them. And that may involve strengthening or expanding the restrictions. It may involve reducing the restrictions and the temporary measures which we've put in place.

The world will learn a lot over the coming weeks. And what we've done is make sure that no person who has been in the nine southern African countries can enter Australia unless they're Australian citizens, residents or dependents. And if they fall into that category, they must have 14 days supervised quarantine.


Minister, on vaccines on the variant, we're seeing conflicting reports online. Some saying that the variant is evading to vaccine immunities, some saying that the hospitalisations are those that are unvaccinated. Can you clarify what the position is on that?

And also just on what James was saying, if there is a need to reimpose nationwide restrictions, because it is likely we're going to get this variant in Australia soon, will you rule out now reimposing or recommending that there be nationwide restrictions, domestic restrictions, and also potential lockdowns?


So, there’s a lot of crystal ball involved with what you’ve said. I’ll just go back to what I said before. What do we know about this virus? We don't know a lot about it, to be honest. We know- we have the genomic sequence. We know that there are mutations within that genomic sequence.

What those mutations lead to in terms of clinical efficacy, vaccine efficacy, the ability of the public health social measures and so forth to keep control, we don't know that yet. The only place that we know where there is significant transmission and a number of this new variant cases is South Africa.

South Africa has less than 30 per cent whole vaccine coverage. It’s a very different situation to here. South Africa, unfortunately, has a very high rate of HIV and, in fact, AIDS. So people who are immunocompromised. South Africa has a very different population mix in terms of the age range of the population. And it doesn't, unfortunately, have the high level of surveillance and, in some areas, clinical care that we have here in Australia.

So, we’re working with those international partners, the World Health Organisation Technical Advisory Group had a meeting with South Africa particularly, and will continue to work and gather information and offer support where that’s possible, in terms of us discussing with them.

But some of those things you mentioned, they remain unknowns. And we will find out much more in the coming days, and we’ll work from there.

In terms of ruling in or out, what else we might do, as their Minister has clearly said, we will do what we need to do. But, I think at this stage, to move toward speculation about where we might end up within Australia, even if it came here, and we don't have it here yet, it is premature.


First, I’ll just add two things, if I may, thanks Steph.

Firstly, we have seen a statement from the South African Government. It is early days and they indicated that the vast majority of people who have been diagnosed so far within the hospital setting are those that are unvaccinated.

Unfortunately, their vaccination rate in South Africa is not as high as some other countries, exactly as Professor Kelly has set out.

Secondly, in terms of actions, we have a very highly vaccinated society. 92.2 per cent. But this does emphasise: If you haven't been vaccinated, please come forward it to be vaccinated. If you haven't had your second dose and you are due, please come forward for your second dose. And if you are due for your booster, please join the now over 400,000 Australians that have had their boosters.

So, one of the most recently vaccinated societies, one of the most highly vaccinated societies, but we’ll continue to take the actions that are necessary. But the direction has been as a country, to progressively opening up, progressively providing those freedoms, but always opening safely and remaining safely open.

In the red, I apologise, I just can't see from here.


That was Jen before. I’ll go now, Steph, if that’s okay?


Oh, okay.


Thanks Minister. Just some clarification on those five points. So, you said supervised quarantine. Does that mean that people are going into hotels, or can they do it from home?


So, that’ll be a matter for the jurisdictions themselves. They will set out their own rules. But that was the direction that was indicated by AHPPC. Paul, you’ve been a part of those meetings.


Yes. So, I think the crucial thing is supervised 14 days quarantine. Where that actually occurs will be a matter for the states to determine.

Just recognising that it really is New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT, there’s no change to anything in relation to international arrivals in any of the other jurisdictions right now. So, that was indication and we were discussing just before I came to this press conference about what they’ll do. And they’ll be working on that today, and we’ll meet again tomorrow to get clarification.


Okay. And with the international students and skilled migrants, they’re obviously not Australian citizens, but you’re saying they still can come in from December 1 but just have to quarantine, or they’re out for now?




At this stage, if somebody has been in southern Africa in those nine countries, and they are not an Australian citizen, they will not be entering Australia.


And there is the bubbles element.


Yeah, I was confused, because action one was saying if you're not an Aussie citizen, don't come in, but then there was talk of international students and skilled migrants still coming.


Yes. So they will. And so, as long as they haven’t been in southern Africa at this stage. So, that’s our current arrangement.

Just in reference specifically to New Zealand, it’s almost impossible to get from South Africa to New Zealand right now. And in any case, anyone who comes into New Zealand will have been in New Zealand in supervised quarantine prior to being able to come here. So, for New Zealand, it’s not an issue.

Singapore has had, until today, direct flights from Johannesburg. They have been stopped, and they have put in similar arrangements to us. And then other places are also putting in similar arrangements in terms of restrictions. So, I think it’s highly unlikely that that will be an issue for those particular cohorts.

But, as I said, we will be moving to make it compulsory for people to tell us whether they have been in southern Africa for the last 14 days, and that will assist us. And they will be treated accordingly, according to that information.


And Professor Kelly, do you have an idea on how many people will now have to go into quarantine, that are in Australia the moment?


Yeah, so we’re working through that, of people that have arrived, we’ve gone back to November 1, when those changes in quarantine occurred in those three jurisdictions. It’s less than 100. And I can't give an accurate figure right now, but we're working with jurisdictions and with the ABF to make sure that's the case. That's based on information given.

But our call out today to anyone in Australia, even if you haven't declared that previously, please take note. And if you're in New South Wales, Victoria or ACT in particular, if you could get in touch with the local public health unit and they'll be telling you what you need to do next.

Very clearly, if you've arrived within the last two weeks, you should stay at home, get tested and go through that process, as we've outlined. For those prior to that, we would still also like to hear from you to make sure that you haven't had an illness during that period, just to double check


Two things there. I just note that by definition, anybody who has come to Australia has had to have a negative PCR test.

Secondly, Border Force is working with all of the states and territories on identifying and assisting them with locating anybody. But is a very small number of people, and then those that have come direct from South Africa, the 20 are currently in Howard Springs. And as I say, the advice from the NT is 19 negative, one positive and no known cases of Omicron within Australia at this point in time.

With that, I will thank everybody. Our job here is to make rapid decisions to keep Australia safe, which is what we've done since the start of the pandemic, going back to the decisions of February 1 2020.

And these decisions are made, it’s a broad range of countries nine countries and it will be difficult for some families. And I respect and apologise for those difficulties for any families that are affected. But this is about keeping Australia safe, and we'll continue to do that as necessary.

But as I said at the outset, one of the most highly vaccinated societies in the world, one of the most recently vaccinated societies in the world and with one of the strongest public health and hospital systems in terms of preparedness.

So thank you, and take care. And as ever, another day, another challenge. We'll get through this.

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