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Press conference about coronavirus (COVID-19) with the Chief Medical Officer

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt's press conference about coronavirus (COVID-19), with Professor Brendan Murphy, Chief Medical Officer.

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

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Thank you everybody for joining us, I’m joined by Professor Brendan Murphy, the Chief Medical Officer of Australia this afternoon. Under the Prime Minister’s leadership, the National Security Council has met and made decisions to lift the travel advisories for Iran and to impose certain restrictions as a consequence of the spread of coronavirus and the high death rate in Iran.

And in addition we have had a case arrive in Australia from Iran undetected from departure from there. We particularly want to note the following elements of the decision.

First, consistent with the decision that was taken with regards to China, the travel advisory will be lifted to level four. The travel advisory for Iran will be lifted to level four; which is do not travel. Secondly, Australian citizens and permanent residents and their immediate family from 1 March, will be required to self-isolate.

Again consistent with the decision taken in relation to mainland China. And third, non-citizens, permanent residents or their immediate family, will be from 1 March, prevented from coming to Australia until 14 days have passed from the time they have left Iran, so it’s consistent entirely with our position in relation to China.

The Chief Medical Officer has passed the medical advice to the Government and we have worked with that advice. And we appreciate the work of the Chief Health Officers.

And I also had the opportunity to speak with one of the state Chief Health Officers, who reaffirmed that position prior to coming to here today. I would note the following: globally we now have over 85,000 cases, we now have sadly over 2,900 lives lost.

In particular, we have been very strongly informed by the fact that the coronavirus, COVID-19 has now spread to 58 countries. And in the last day and a half, that includes, New Zealand and Iceland at opposite ends of the world. Mexico and Lithuania amongst others, and so the spread continues on a very significant basis.

Although the advice from the Chief Medical Officer and from the AHPPC is that Iran has very specific characteristics unfortunately, given what this has meant for their country. They have the highest death rate, I believe the latest advice we have is 34 deaths, outside of Hubei.

That means that it’s been a very significant rise, outside of mainland China. Secondly, that means that there is likely at this stage a high level off undetected cases and therefore those cases won’t be intercepted or identified on departure from Iran.

And so as a consequence of those elements, the NSC has made the decision to prevent travel to Australia for non-nationals until they have left Iran for a period of 14 days. To require self-isolation for Australians for a period of 14 days from 1 March, from the time they have left Iran.

Thirdly, to lift the travel ban to the level of do not travel. I might ask the Chief Medical Officer to provide any additional advice.


Thanks, as the Minister said, we are particularly concerned about Iran at the moment. It would seem to be the highest risk outside of China and cases from Iran have been exported to a number of countries.

And for that reason our HPPC the chief health officers strongly believe that a strict isolation for 14 days should apply to anybody coming from Iran. And because it's difficult to isolate tourists, Border Force feel that we do need to also therefore prevent entry for the time being to people who aren't residents or permanent residents who are capable of self-isolation.

The important thing though is that we are recommending this strict self-isolation.

The reason for this is because we have seen such a high number of exported cases from Iran. I do want to emphasise though that the major risk for people is developing symptoms. So anyone who's come from any of the countries around the world where this virus is seen, should they develop any respiratory symptoms: cough, fever or the like.

They must seek medical advice and contact them first. But there are- we do know that people can incubate the disease and so because of this particular risk from Iran, at this stage, we want to impose this extra quarantine. We're not surprised we've had another case in Australia.

We have been saying for some time that this virus has spread to a number of countries it's likely we will see more cases. It's very unlikely we can prevent further cases coming into Australia but the case in Queensland has been well followed up by the excellent public health unit in Queensland and made sure that cases will be contacted.

Our aim at the moment is to detect any cases that we see over coming weeks and contain them as much as possible to delay the spread of this virus in Australia. Thank you.


Happy to take any questions.


Greg are you concerned about the Queensland case, given she was a beautician treating clients at the time?


So we had actually spoken with the Queensland Chief Health Officer directly and the advice is that the patient self-isolated rapidly.

I think the Chief Health Officer indicated that the patient was exemplary in in her approach. But what they do is that they follow strict contact tracing protocols.

One of the things we have done since the outset is meet and work with the states on a daily basis through the Chief Health Officers and the Chief Medical Officer to work through the ministers.

And only yesterday we met with all the ministers and I have to say Queensland has immediately and impeccably followed all of the agreed procedures and the advice from the Queensland Chief Health Officer is that the patient to her credit on the first sign of any fever immediately self-isolated.


So do you know how many other cases she may have (inaudible)?


So, the Queensland Health Department is at this moment conducting what's called contact tracing to follow through.

So the advice from the Queensland Chief Health Officer was that the patient had minimised the risk of transmission through her own actions and that in turn the Queensland Health Department had followed immediately and on our judgement impeccably, the protocols that had been agreed on.


Minister, there were obviously outbreaks in Italy, Japan and South Korea. Why are we not imposing travel bans there?


The travel advisories have been lifted in those cases, not to the point of do not travel. What we've done is follow the advice of the AHPPC, very particularly.

They have said that they did not think that additional elements such as that were in this case likely to be effective. I’ll ask the Chief Medical Officer. It was the very strong view of the medical advisers and we've been fearless in implementing the advice of the Chief Health Officers and will continue to do that but their advice has been categorical on what we should do and what was wasn't likely to be effective. Brendan.


Thank you Minister. So, this particular circumstances with Iran are unusual. It's early in the development of the spread of this virus and we are keen to have this quarantine period for the specific high risk circumstances at the moment.

But as you said we have cases spreading in many countries and it's not possible to further isolate Australia. We can't be putting on travel bans and quarantine requirements from every country that develops this virus.

What we have to do is make sure that every traveller who comes from any country where there's an outbreak. Gets messages at the border so that they know that if they develop any of the right symptoms, they need to get medical advice and get tested.

Because we know that people are most infectious when they're symptomatic. So that's the important message. We can't continue to isolate Australia.

But in this particular case we feel that Iran poses, at the current moment a very high risk and it would help delay progression of this disease into Australia to impose this strict quarantine requirement.


Italy’s not far behind in terms of death. I think 21 was their last reported. Are we close to seeing something for northern Italy or at least quarantine?


As I said I think it is becoming disproportionate and ineffective to keep imposing very rigid quarantine requirements for what could be a large number of countries.

Our focus has to be on identifying people who've come from those countries who've become unwell, testing them and isolating them. I don't think we can go on forever imposing very strict restrictions on an increasing number of contracts.


I mean I might just add something here. So the National Security Committee has requested advice on these questions as a consequence. As a consequence, the Chief Health Officers through what's called the Australian Health Protection Principle Committee or AHPPC has been considered considering these questions on a daily basis.

On their advice, we have lifted the travel advisories for Northern Italy, for Japan and Korea. But very specifically only today they have said that the AHPPC does not currently support, the further application of travel restrictions to an increasing number of countries, that have community transmission for the reasons that the Chief Medical Officer as outlined.


Minister, are you expecting that at any major events like a GP will be affected by this or have to be cancelled?


No, our advice is please proceed with your lives at this stage. We've had 16 cases in the community. This is the first case in the general community in some weeks.

The other 15 have all cleared the virus. They've been isolated, they've been treated and then they've recovered and that's a very important message. And our advice is clear and categorical and medically based.

We met with the state health ministers only yesterday and the unanimous advice of the Chief Health Officers to us is that the community is safe at this stage. We have a highly effective containment in Australia. We're not immune.

That has been the message this week as we have seen the number of countries climb every day and the number of international cases climb every day. We've been very upfront that we're not immune but at this stage the general community is safe.


Are you surprised that a pandemic hasn’t been called by the WHO yet?


Well we have made the call for Australia and will leave the WHO to outline its own standards. But we are treating this as the Prime Minister said two days ago, as the high likelihood of a pandemic. And as if we are in such a situation.


Do you mind if we ask you that, Brendan (inaudible)? What is the threshold that the WHO needs to hit before it’s considered a pandemic.


There's no clear definition of a pandemic, other than sustained community transmission in more than one country. As Minister Hunt said we believe that those criteria could be met but I think these people are placing too much store by what a label is.

We are responding as we have been for weeks on the basis that we're going to see outbreaks in this country. I don't think whether it's declared a pandemic or not by the WHO makes any difference to our response here. We're getting on preparing and responding as we have been.


Could it make a difference to how other countries respond?


I think every country in the world recognises now, that we are likely to see widespread transmission of this virus in many countries as we are already doing. And I think countries are already acting on that basis.


There’s as a cruise ship off the coast of Vanuatu where apparently staff have shown flu like symptoms not coronavirus, well they say it's not coronavirus, but they’re taking every precaution not letting people off. Is that how we should be proceeding, no matter the symptoms or is it (inaudible)?


I'm not I'm not really across the details of that cruise ship sorry.


Professor we've got a lot of people who have started stockpiling in the community. Some scientists have said that it's probably not a bad idea to stock up on various things. What's your advice to the community at this stage?


I don't think that's appropriate at this stage. I think we are very well-prepared country. I think that can cause- we know that people, stockpiling masks has caused an issue with mask supplies around Australia and we don't support that.


Look I might take one more and then finish up.


I was just going to say, Minister will you continue to- It seems as though, we're not putting extra travel bans on because it's almost inevitable that this virus is going to spread. So will you continue to revisit cable bans for countries like.


Look at every day this week the medical experts have considered and they have along the way added travel updates in relation to Italy and Japan. They have added updates in relation to Korea. They've provided advice on going to level four today. Right now we are upgrading travel advisories so we'll continue to follow their advice.

But we're also setting out- up the guidance they've given to us on their future advice. Our guidance to the medical experts is really clear.

Give us your unvarnished advice without fear or favour and to their total credit. And this is one of the blessings and strengths of the Australian system, we have medical experts who aren't just some of the best medical experts in the world but they are fiercely independent and that's what we want.

That's what we've encouraged and that's what they've delivered. And ultimately, right from the very outset what the Prime Minister said and what I've said and what the government has said is that our job above all else is to keep Australians safe.

And so we are making the decisions to keep Australians safe. And whilst we are not immune we are as well-prepared as any country in the world. And ultimately, we will get through this. Thank you very much.

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